A Look Into Ellenville's Industrial Past... & Changing Future
ELLENVILLE – They've been standing silent for years, the factories at the north end of Ellenville. Originally there was the Channel Master plant, then the homes for Schrade Imperial Knife and a Hydro Aluminum plant. But Schrade Imperial shut down in 2004 and Hydro a couple years later, leaving Ellenville stranded, a small outlier of the Rust Belt... Youngstown, Ohio on a miniature scale.
The factories are still there, still silent, and still casting a shadow over Wawarsing and Ellenville. The people who worked there have either left the region in search of jobs, found work of another kind, or retired.
Can these factories come back to life?
Elsewhere in the Rust Belt there are promising signs. In Youngstown, once a byword for industrial death, there are new factories being built, taking advantage of the shale gas boom along the Marcellus and Utica shale belts. A French firm, Vallourec, has built a new $650 million steel plant, making 350,000 tons of oil field pipe and related products a year.
But there's a catch there for Ellenville and Wawarsing, because the lack of natural gas supply is one of the persistent negatives that comes up whenever the silent factories are examined by a possible buyer.
"We occasionally hear of some interest in them and usually it comes via the county," says Scott Carlsen, Wawarsing town supervisor. "But the problem is the negatives, which are the lack of natural gas and the distance down 209 to reach 17."
So why are these old, rusting plants still standing if nobody wants them?
That story begins at the end of World War II. As the television era began, there was a need for better antennas to pick up broadcast signals. Cable and satellite TV were a long way in the future then. Enter Joseph Resnick, a merchant marine radio operator in the war who, with his brothers Louis and Harry, came up with $7,000 to start making sophisticated TV antennas. Soon business was booming and they opened the Channel Master factory in December 1953.
Channel Master had both an assembly plant, a structure of about 550,000 square feet, and a separate aluminum smelting plant. But eventually the Resnicks got out of the business, sold Channel Master to Avnet Corporation in 1967, and went into philanthropy and politics. Joe Resnick became a popular congressman until his untimely death in 1969. Louis became a fixture on the Ulster County Legislature. Channel Master continued to do well with its core business, but Avnet eventually moved production to South Carolina in search of lower costs and shuttered the Ellenville plant in 1984.
Avnet sold the main building to Imperial Schrade in December 1984. Imperial Schrade made knives, and there is a long, complex history to both the knife industry in Wawarsing and to the Schrade company.
The knife industry had flourished in the Hudson Valley since the 1850s, with centers in both Ellenville and Walden. Relying on water power, the firms employed master cutlers, who endured 20-year apprenticeships before achieving master status, and who had the skill to make between six and eight different patterns of knife. But then George Schrade changed all that.
Richard Langston, a well-known knife collector, author and expert in the field, notes how, "Schrade did to the knife companies what Henry Ford did to the car companies... He invented the machinery needed to mimic the work of a master cutler. He came up with die-plates so a young piece worker could make hundreds of knife patterns without undergoing the long apprenticeship to become a master."
Schrade not only broke the power of the cutlers, but he also patented the push button automatic knife that became known as the "switchblade." His company's knives dominated that market for fifty years until, in the 1950s, there arose one of those all-American storms of panic.
Switchblades had been commonplace in gangster movies for decades. The "snap" of the opening blade caught the audience's attention. In the 1950s, though, hit movies involving young stars like James Dean, coupled with some teenage gang violence and lurid headlines, drove a panic over the knives. And it was a time for such panic, and big reactions — think nuclear fears, flying saucers, rock and roll music, and the Red Menace. While politicians couldn't do much about the Russians, or rock and roll for that matter, they could ban switchblades. And they did.
"Switchblades were just useful working knives, tools with a high degree of utility," points out Dr. Richard Craft, the local chiropractor, lifelong resident and former Wawarsing supervisor who's been working on the establishment of a local knife museum for years. "They had been around for fifty years. Schrade's loss was a big thing for Ellenville, of course."
Meanwhile, the old Ulster Knife company had been merged with the Imperial Knife company and bought up the Schrade Cutlery company in 1946. They moved it all to Ellenville, which had its own knife making history, in 1958 after a fire in their factory in Walden. In 1983 Albert Baer took the company private by purchasing all outstanding stock and, in 1985, changed the name to Imperial Schrade, consolidating operations in the newly acquired Channel Master building in Ellenville.
Eventually, the old separate aluminum smelter facility sharing a wall with Imperial Schrade was picked up by Norsk Hydro North America, the American arm of a Norwegian corporation, who massively increased the plant's smelting capacity as they went on to produce millions of the connectors used to join power cables together.
Twenty years later it all came to an end. Blame globalization, blame the principals at the companies, blame the tenor of our times, but first Imperial Schrade went out of business in 2004 and a couple of years later, Hydro North America pulled out of their Ellenville operation. And today the factories are empty, other than for security guards.
The aluminum facility is still owned by Hydro North America, which is headquartered in Linthicum Heights, MD, just outside Baltimore. Their site is a 9.7 acre parcel, valued at $3,238,636 in 2013, according to Ulster County. The Schrade plant sits on a 71 acre parcel of property that skirts Route 209's eastern side, behind the Dunkin' Donuts, Marv's Auto, and the bowling lanes all the way across to Shoprite Plaza. The property was bought at auction in 2005 and is now registered to Ellenville Development Partnership, headquartered at 250 Broadway in lower Manhattan. The value given in 2013 is $3,480,114.
Next week: The future for our factories — zombie assets or cornfields? And what it will take to be rid of the factories? If no one wants them, can they be torn down?