The day the zinc ran dry

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:50

    FRANKLIN-In early autumn of 1954, Billy Glynn, then a resident of Buckwheat Road, was playing first base for the Cleveland Indians, who lost four straight to the New York Giants in that year's World Series. In early autumn of 1954, you could buy a brand new Buick for just $2,291.88, and a home from the New Jersey Zinc Company for about $4,000. But on Thursday, Sept. 30, 1954, the zinc company closed the mines that had been in operation for more than a century and had given Franklin the title of "The Model Mining Town of the East." Of the 800 people working for the mines, 140 lost their jobs that day, when the ore finally ran out. The rest would lose theirs in the coming months. Yes, it's exactly 50 years to the day that the last load of zinc ore was hauled out of the mines that not only had given Franklin its fame, but had been the immediate area's biggest economic booster. At that time, land now occupied by the Shop Rite on Route 23 was farmland owned by Russell Katzenstein, as was the land where Walmart now stands. In 1954, the borough council was controlled by Democrats, with Councilman Donald McKechnie and Mayor Daniel Stevens Sr. the only GOP members. And at that time, the business climate in town was very much different than it is now. "In 1954, the majority of the businesses were on Main Street," explained Joseph Bene, a current board of trustee member with the Franklin Historical Society who was then working for the B.D. Simmons Lumber Co., which did business at 52 Main Street. "There weren't any businesses on Route 23 with the exception of gas stations and Morley Shirt. In Franklin at that time, there were a lot of mom-and-pop stores." Some of the more prominent of those mom-and-pop places included DeMario's, situated very close to where Rutherford Avenue and Main Street meet; Riggio's Produce Store and Koller's Meat Market, which were side-by-side on Main Street; and Staniski's, another grocery store that was located at the corner of Rutherford and Cummins Streets. Fifty years later, those businesses are long gone. Staniski's was converted into a small apartment dwelling, a fate many similar business buildings, particularly on Main Street, were to share. Today, Franklinites who were alive back in the town's glory days speak wistfully of the town's past. But even they aren't convinced that the closing of the mine led directly to the death of so many old businesses. "Even though the mines closed, they (stores) were still around," said former mayor Ed Allen, who had then just recently completed his airborne course as a 21-year-old private at Fort Campbell, Kentucky's infantry school. "I think as the store owners got older, nobody came in and kept their businesses going." Some lasted longer than others. Riggio's, then run by its founder, Tony Riggio, stayed around until 1985, when his family closed it. DeMario's was around for many years afterward as well. But others feel strongly that even if the mine closings didn't have an immediate effect on the Main Street corridor, they did seal the area's fate. "I think that, definitely," said Betty Allen, the historical society president and a former borough councilwoman. "Otherwise, why would they not still be there? Because the people were still here. I mean, the mines paid well." The New Jersey Zinc Co. had a reputation as a firm that treated its employees and the surrounding community well. Local historians agree that Robert Catlin in particular, the zinc company's mining superintendent from 1906-1930, was responsible for helping to implement water and electricity service, among other things. He was also the moving force behind the construction of the Franklin Hospital in 1908 in order to get better and quicker medical attention to badly-injured miners, who would otherwise likely have died during the then-lengthy train ride to the nearest hospitals in Paterson and Morristown. And to its credit, the zinc company had let it be known — at least one year in advance — that the mines wouldn't be in operation that much longer. The company even tried to find other firms that could come in and occupy at least some of the company's plant buildings, almost all of which have long since been razed. Two companies that tried to take over met with disaster. In 1977, an aspirin-producing firm had a bad accident when a blast ejected various kinds of chemical residues nearby. Prior to that, a building occupied by an aluminum firm making lawn chairs caught fire. But as prepared as the town tried to be for the mine closings, the memory of that final Thursday of operation still lingers strongly. "I tell you, when that whistle blew, it seemed like an hour," recalls Bob Allen, another historical society board member. "They really let loose on that thing, and everybody knew that was the end." Something less known but equally as striking was the prediction made in mid-August 1954 by Emanuel Honig, chairman of the Franklin Industrial Commission, who warned that it would be difficult to find another tenant willing to occupy the zinc company's plants. At the same time, however, he also resisted any notion that Franklin would become a "ghost town." "In my opinion, we can be better off once we obtain diversified industry," Honig said six weeks prior to the mine closings. "The New Jersey Zinc Co. is not Franklin, and Franklin is not for sale. Franklin will survive, and eventually it will prosper and grow." At least part of that prophecy came to be, as Franklin has grown commercially, particularly along Route 23. But will the rest of Honig's prediction also ring true? "At this juncture, there's a very keen opportunity for that to become robustly prophetic," replied Bill Truran, a well-known historian who recently authored a book detailing the history of "Franklin, Hamburg, Ogdensburg and Hardyston." "I think we've grown; all the activity on Route 23 attests to that," answered Betty Allen. "But I think it depends on what kind of growth you want. I think we're losing our small-town character by not developing our town center."