Welcome to my first love. Well, actually, that was a girl named Lindsey who lived down the street from me when I was a kid. The Wilson Shirt Factory, however, is the first date in what became an academic marriage between historical archaeology, bricks, and my curious mind.
On a cool Fall weekend in 2016 I snuck into the ruins of the Wilson Shirt Factory on Sample Street in South Bend, Indiana. I was finishing the last semester of my undergraduate degree at Indiana University South Bend at the time and struggling to focus on possible graduate projects.
Cultural Resource Management?
It was a difficult decision. It had to be something I enjoyed, since I was going to read about nothing but that topic for a long time. It had to be interesting enough that graduate school programs will want to invest in me. And, it had to be accessible enough for me to get experience despite being dead broke.
South Bend has a number of abandoned industrial buildings from the late 19th century, and oftentimes when I needed to escape and think, I would roam about them. Mostly taking aesthetic ruin-porn-type pictures and enjoying spray-painted commentary, I also admired the craftspersonship that went into building these places, and daydreamed about what it would have been like to be a worker there.
Did the windows open all the way?
Could a breeze come through?
Was it cold?
What did the machines sound like?
Were they loud?
Could people talk to one another?
I gushed over woodwork, over iron railings. The Studebaker building, for example, had beautiful solid wood restroom stall doors and painted murals encircling the typing pool ceiling. Who made these places? What was that like?
I had no idea I was developing a research question.
The built environment of South Bend and the Rust Belt area reminded me of myself. It worked hard. It persisted despite weathering. The buildings stood, like typical working-class laborers, abandoned by the economy, looking perennially across forgotten neighborhoods with broken-window smiles and rust-stained tears. They were somehow human.
Modern factories and commercial buildings are different. They focus on return-on-investment and consider ornamentation to be a controllable expense that should be minimized. Made for people who live and make decisions far away, those sites lack the imbued mana that infuses the built environment of the 19th century and early 20th. They lack personality, and once the workers or owners are gone, they are turned into Best Buys or Dollar Trees.
Modern buildings are as disposable and interchangeable as their employees, reflecting Fordist concepts of generic optimization that minimizes and constrains humanity, or mana. Entire neighborhoods don’t form identities around Best Buys. But they did around manufacturing sites, and those identities are often still seen in the demographic topography of Rust Belt cities today.
In South Bend there was a Polish section and an Irish section of town, both of which worked at Studebaker. Black folks weren’t allowed to work for Oliver, but they did work for Studebaker, while the German immigrants were largely farmers on the south side. The University of Notre Dame was known for hiring Irish immigrants as laborers then paying them in land just south of campus, or in material; usually bricks.
Identities formed around these neighborhoods, intimately connected to the structures of their built environment. The buildings not only formed the skyline or visual backdrop, but were often built by workers from the same neighborhoods, the mana contained and concentrated in this one area. The buildings were one of us. Workers.
The first of the Wilson Shirt buildings on that site was built in 1883, and quickly established an identity within the neighborhood. Wilson Shirt was located on Sample Street, just west of Main Street, on the south side of the road. The entire north side of Sample was the Studebaker campus, which contained hundreds of buildings and was at one point the largest wagon manufacturer in the country. The Wilson brothers recognized that the neighborhoods around Studebaker contained an enormous pool of available labor in the form of the wives of Studebaker factory workers. Within ten years, Wilson Shirt employed more than one thousand people, mostly women.
Wilson Shirt’s roster doubled by 1930, and what was once one building had become a campus of seven. Employing nearly all women, the manufactory concentrated on textiles instead of wagons and farm implements, producing not only shirts, but underwear, pajamas, and socks. Wilson Shirt survived the Great Depression, and during the second world war, a new generation of women at Wilson Shirt produced over three million articles of clothing.
It was now a part of life on the south side. Husbands and wives walked together to work, separated for the shift by the south or north side of a road. People had been born and raised in the shadow of its pale-yellow brick walls knowing that they would likely work there one day, the building being a part of their past and future. Blood was spilled on the old-growth timber floors, logged and cut in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gossip was exchanged. Social relations between seamstresses and foremen were formalized; its walls never able to contain those divisions. What happened at work spilled over into the neighborhood, and Wilson Shirt became another actor in the mediation of lives.
After the war, the Wilson Shirt Factory merged with Enro Shirt Company, and production diminished. In 1975, after nearly one hundred years working in the neighborhood, Wilson Shirt ceased production. The buildings were used for storage and warehousing until 2015, when a North Carolina company aptly named Southend Reclaimed began deconstructing and demolishing them.
The buildings were from and of the neighborhood. Workers. Like one of us. And like the rest of us, had to find a purpose in a changing socioeconomic world. When Studebaker closed in 1963, we were all demolished, deconstructed, having lost more than just an income. We had lost an identity.
Like the men working at Studebaker who lost their pensions and had no recourse for their years of labor, Wilson Shirt lacked architectural significance or a protective historic status, and was left to find a new use-life.
Walking through the piles of precarious debris and ruins of the Wilson Shirt complex of buildings, I saw the parallels between the workers of South Bend and the buildings. Each were abandoned. Each were rich with personality and mana that could continue if only someone would invest in them. I was navigating this industrial landscape wondering who would invest in me. Would a graduate school invest in an older student from a working-class background? Who would see me the way I saw these buildings-as a worker, strong, indomitable, imbued with memories that could speak volumes if only given a voice?
On the way out, I noticed a portable generator with a tall pole coming from the top. There were actually a few of them, between pallets of old bricks stacked up neatly. They didn’t have lights, but instead black globes. I went closer to have a look and discovered that inside the globes were security cameras, hawking over the brick pallets and broadcasting a signal to who-knows-where. I had never seen portable video surveillance like this before and wondered who in the hell would invest in these things for a pile of debris and some palletized bricks.
The bricks were clearly old, and were unusually soft. They were all a pale yellow, almost entirely. It was clear that they were being packaged for reclamation, picked out for another use life. I knew that old bricks were often used to line gardens or to create yard pathways, but do those clients pay so much as to warrant security cameras? Like, who steals a brick? And there were millions of them; how many could they get away with?
I left with two questions ringing in my mind. Who would invest so much in old bricks, and who would eventually invest in me? Would I even go to graduate school, or would I end up like the rusty pipes at Wilson Shirt that didn’t end up on pallets, destined for obsolescence?
I soon got my answers. A couple of months later I learned that the University of Notre Dame was purchasing the bricks at Wilson Shirt because they were the exact same bricks used in the construction of the campus’ earliest buildings. They were buying them en masse to use for repairs. The bricks would betray their age and now become part of that historic institution, with a new identity. A new life.
And me? I was accepted into graduate school and joined the bricks at the University of Notre Dame. With a new identity. And a new life.