Image: Larry Ralph, Debbie Ralph
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
Larry and Debbie Ralph look over unemployment papers at their homestead on nine acres near Crystal Lake in Crystal, Mich. Just before the companyin Greenville announced it was closing, the couple took out a $70,000 home improvement loan to add a family room, garage and dining room to their home.
updated 9/3/2006 4:02:24 PM ET 2006-09-03T20:02:24

Close to the end, when there was only a little bit of light and movement left in the town factory, the small herd of cattle at the Becks' farm grew by a few head — a winter surprise. The novice farmers had failed to notice the pregnancy and could not account for the calves' conception.

The bull, left unroped the past spring, must have wandered. A rookie mistake.

The Becks, who between them put in about 70 years at the Electrolux refrigerator factory in Greenville before it closed, had prepared for its closure over the past several months — fishing for odd jobs, adding the animals, cutting down trees by the hilly lakeshore where they live, installing an outdoor, wood-burning furnace so they could more fully live off their land.

For decades, the Becks and families like them lived off Electrolux, one of the world's largest makers of home appliances, with a large, yellow plant by the Flat River in central Michigan. The jobs built homes, made marriages, fed children, kept all their lives in motion.

That responsibility now rested in their own hands.

Shutting down the Greenville plant and building a new one from scratch in Juarez, Mexico, made corporate sense. The infrastructure would be state of the art, labor costs slashed tenfold, the room for physical growth nearly unlimited.

Image: Keitha Harris, Jessie Harris
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
Keitha Harris, 49, left, sits in her living room with daughter, Jessie, in Greenville, Mich. Born and raised in Greenville, Keitha was among three generations of her family to work at Electrolux. Keitha receives $632 every two weeks in unemployment. Jessie, 29, was born with cerebral palsy and receives about the same every month from the government because of her disability.

So despite generous financial incentives by the county and state to stay in Greenville, Electrolux —  like so many other companies retooling themselves in the global economy — looked southwards. The Swedish conglomerate set up a new center of manufacturing for North America, just across the border, minutes from El Paso, Texas.

The Greenville plant made side-by-side and top-mount Frigidaire models, more than a million a year. It was once the biggest refrigerator plant in North America.

200,000 manufacturing jobs are gone
Even in a state that has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 1999 — 78,000 last year — the loss of the Electrolux plant was like a nuclear explosion, said Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Last September, the plant began to shed workers. In March, the plant closed for good, giving about 2,700 employees their freedom, for which some had plans and some did not.

Months after she lost her job, Keitha Harris, 49, still had very few answers. Born and raised in Greenville, she was among three generations of her family to work at Electrolux.

But her relative few years of service did not give her much at the end, just severance pay of $1,500, most of which she used to buy a laptop computer. She receives $632 every two weeks in unemployment compensation. Her daughter Jessie, 29, born with cerebral palsy, receives about the same every month from the government because of her disability.

Diagnosed herself with fibromyalgia, which causes chronic muscle pain, Keitha Harris has had a tough life —  a home in constant disrepair, destructive relationships, overwhelming debt, a daughter in need of constant care.

'I really loved going to work'
The job, she said, "was my escape. I felt like I knew what was going on in the world. I loved it. I really loved going to work. It pretty much destroyed me to quit."

Harris is not alone — many among her former co-workers are still suffering in the wake of the plant's shutdown. But others have turned the page. Mostly, people who were struggling before the closure, like Harris, continue to struggle; those who had planned well, those with resources, talents and interests outside the factory, seemed to land comfortably.

Like Jim Hoisington, who had held just about every job at Electrolux in his 27 years there, starting as a janitor, moving on to repair, foam operator and finally union representative. His last post represented his toughest years, constantly negotiating and renegotiating and always finishing with disappointment. "Nightmare," was the word he kept using to describe it.

Today he runs the club house at Glenkerry golf course in Greenville. He tends the bar, dispenses soda, serves sandwiches and hot dogs, takes money for greens fees and carts. He makes much less money but feels like he has been given back his life.

"There's 110,000 times less stress working here," he said.

Hoisington took up golf several years ago. After a divorce, he looked for a way to pick up extra money and got a job working weekends at Glenkerry for minimum wage. He had no idea it would someday become his full-time job.

His second wife, another Electrolux refugee, was old enough and worked there long enough to retain health benefits for both of them.

"That's huge," Jim said. "You don't realize how much it's worth until you lose them."

For some families, things are OK
Larry and Debbie Ralph are doing OK, too. Their homestead on nine acres near Crystal Lake is the product of two lives spent at Electrolux. Just before the company announced the plant was closing, the couple took out a $70,000 home improvement loan to add a family room, garage and dining room. The new house has cathedral ceilings, a grand fireplace and an updated kitchen.

Debbie and Larry, 52 and 46, still need to find work. But they're in good shape. The couple has no children to support (Debbie has two grown daughters from a previous marriage). They have retirement funds, own their trucks free and clear and their mortgage is nearly paid off.

They have most of the next two years to figure out the rest of their lives. Larry recently passed his GED exam. Debbie bought her first computer and discovered the Internet. For now they live comfortably off the two unemployment checks they receive.

They have talents beyond the assembly line. Both are good bakers. Debbie is an expert cake decorator. They can install siding, butcher meat. Debbie's brothers own a local chain of grocery stores called the Village Market. "If worst comes to worst," Debbie said, "we can work for them. We'll be OK. I'm not too worried."

Like the Ralphs, many of their fellow townspeople are handy with most things, sqeamish about few, able to fix their own cars, grow and hunt some of their own food. One neighbor performed a home autopsy on his dog.

Their town began in the mid 1800s with a sawmill. Trees covered the gentle hillsides; once cleared, the land was farmed by Danish immigrants.

Fridges kept Greenville on the map
But for the last 100 years, refrigerators kept Greenville on the map.

After Electrolux ... what?

"We're not dying," said Kathy Jo VanderLaan, head of the chamber of commerce. "Electrolux doesn't define Greenville. The sidewalks are not rolling up. We are going to be fine."

Greenville will likely become a bedroom community for Grand Rapids, about 30 miles away. An aging population means growth for the regional hospital. Wal-Mart recently constructed a store west of the town. A company that makes solar panels is plotting to set up operations nearby.

Sandy Beck once considered leaving, following the plant and her job to Juarez. Management offered her the chance to work there for two years as a supervisor during the transition.

She wondered how she might thrive in the strange climate and strange surroundings. She pictured brown, arid land and garbage floating in the Rio Grande — a vision not so distant from reality.

"The more I heard, the more I wanted to stay here," she said. "The longer you're out, the less interested you are in that world."

When the factory closed she quickly found work. She had been working for a local restaurant on weekends while a supervisor at Electrolux. About the time she lost her job, the restaurant owners opened a small deli next to a gas station and motel they also owned. They wanted her to manage the deli.

The work is more relaxed and pleasant. The smells are not of plastic fumes but of pizza, fried perch, and brownies made from scratch.

From $22 an hour to $7
She went from earning $22 an hour to $7 an hour, although her pay has gone up a bit over the last several months. Under a federal program, the government will cover half the difference in her pay for two years, or until she has receives $10,000, whichever comes first.

Her husband, Bruce, has a pension and is only seven years from collecting Social Security. And they have the farm, part of the 60 acres her grandfather first purchased in 1917 with money he made running a street car in Detroit.

Before the plant closed, Sandy Beck had started to lose interest in the life she had built around it. She had received, as a gift, a one-year subscription to a magazine called Country Woman. She began to view the land she had grown up on differently.

Overtime pay went toward the purchase of animals and farm equipment like the stock trailer. She began to grow vegetables for the kitchen at Maxfield's restaurant. She began foraging for mushrooms in the forest of maples, oak and cherry behind her home. Every spring she made gifts of them to her friends.

"I never thought of selling them for money," she said. "It just made people so happy."

The Becks have 15 head of Belted Gallway cattle, or Belties, a number they hope to double within a few years. Every head represents about $1,000 in yearly income. They plan to slaughter and sell the beef locally, branding it as grass-fed, drug-free beef.

The arrival of the unexpected calves was the first trial of their new jobs as ranchers. To keep the newborns alive, the Becks surrounded them with space heaters and set upon them with hairdryers, one in each hand.

By dint of ingenuity and electricity, the Beck herd welcomed its first new members _ evidence that though Electrolux is gone, there are signs of renewal in the vacuum it left behind.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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