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Zipper firm transformed White County

POSTED: June 5, 2011 1:00 a.m.

When zipper inventor and manufacturer Talon Inc., announced it would locate in Cleveland in the summer of 1952, the normally reserved weekly Cleveland Courier shouted the news in 2-inch headlines.

Appropriately enough because it was the first industry of any size to come to White County. "The progressive, fighting and determined spirit of the Cleveland citizens has finally paid off," the Courier enthused.

Indeed it was a community effort as residents pooled money to buy the site, the county graded it and with the state helped build streets to it.

Talon executives from Meadville, Pa., attended the historic announcement ceremonies with officials from local and state government, the state Chamber of Commerce and Georgia Power Co., which had honored Cleveland with its Better Hometowns award.

Key executives from other Talon locations moved to Cleveland to manage the plant, and they were quick to blend in with White County's longtime residents. Among them were Frank Kinnear, assistant plant manager; Phil Lindsey, maintenance supervisor; and Herb Rommerdale. All became involved in the community, and the plant manager, L.R. Cooper, became Cleveland's mayor and a respected regional civic leader.

Talon didn't waste any time. Construction started in August 1952, the plant opened the first of the next year, and its first shipment of zippers left the plant March 17, 1953.

The company hired local people hungry for "public jobs." They came off chicken farms, from over kitchen stoves and surrounding towns. Carey Highsmith from nearby Clermont worked there 30 years in charge of quality control. He inspected zippers that were made primarily for work clothing for such companies as Levi Strauss and Lee.

"It was a very good place to work," he said, "and it filled a big need in White County. People were really proud to have a job."

La Venier Mize Hicks worked at Talon 34 years, starting at age 17 at 30 cents an hour. She ended up as the manager and last employee, closing the plant down Feb. 24, 1999. Company officials meeting in Charlotte, N.C., had summoned Hicks there to tell her the news. They asked if law enforcement would be needed when the announcement was made back in Cleveland. She told them no because the workers were sensible, kind, hard-working people.

Hicks cried on the drive back home. "There was a lot of heartbreak (when workers were told), but nothing disorderly," she said.

The Cleveland plant had to help train Mexican workers because Talon was moving its zipper operation to Mexico, where it later failed.

Talon truly was family, Hicks said. "Whenever somebody's house burned, or somebody died, we were the first ones to take up a collection." The company meant so much to one worker that she asked her casket be adorned with zipper tape when she died.

Talon helped workers advance in life, Hicks said. Some used their jobs to work their way through college; others went on to succeed in other fields because of their experience.

Zippers made in Cleveland went all over the world. One on America's first space suit is in the Smithsonian Institution.

Zipper-making was a precise engineering process that workers took pride in. One little thing just a hair off, and the zipper wouldn't work.

The fate of Talon probably was sealed when YKK, now the largest zipper manufacturer in the world, moved its major operations from Japan to Macon.

The Talon buildings remain zipped up and empty, but White County is not without major industry, including Freudenberg-NOK, a vehicle parts manufacturer, and tourism, which flourishes especially in the Bavarian-themed village of Helen.

White County Historical Society leaders Judy Lovell and Shirley McDonald agree Talon's arrival was one of the more transformational events in the county's history. They are helping keep memories of Talon alive and reminding residents and visitors what the company meant to the community.

In the historic courthouse on Cleveland's downtown square, the historical society is displaying an exhibit with memorabilia from the plant through August. It includes the Talon logo, the first dollar the company paid to White County, time cards, a notebook kept by Cooper, zippers, photographs and newspaper clippings. Also on display are crafts local residents made from zipper tape, including hook rugs and pot holders.

Hours of the Old White County Courthouse are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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