The Labor Force

Stories and photos by Rachel Mummey

Dubois County and its residents have deeply rooted ties to the woodworking industry. There is a heritage of rising early and getting to the job and a sense of pride in a hard day’s work. On the eve of Labor Day, this is a tribute to the local laborers who keep this tradition going.

Mother Hen

Virginia Barnett - OFS Brands

Virginia Barnett of Arthur, 65, is the mother hen of OFS Brands Plant 9.

The matriarchal figure has been working with the Huntingburg company for 40 years.

The Huntingburg native never married or had any children, and she considers her co-workers her family.

“Relationships develop over time and we take care of each other,” Virginia said about the camaraderie she feels with the people she works with.

Virginia works in subassembly, preparing furniture parts so they are ready to be assembled by builders farther down the line.

She is also known as the First Aid Lady, an unofficial title that she takes pride in. She keeps Band-Aids at her work station for anyone who needs one. She also provides emotional first aid to co-workers by providing support and advice to those who need it.

“They come to me and I try to help them out,” she said.

Mr. Dependable

Perry Uebelhor - UB Klem Furniture Co.

Dependable. Trustworthy. Hardworking.

These are the words that precede UB Klem Furniture Co.’s Perry Uebelhor, 52, of Jasper. The thirty-five-year employee started working part time doing a variety of jobs at the Schnellville company in 1978 while still in high school.

“Back then, after your first semester as a senior, as long as you had the credits, you could go get a job,” he said.

And that’s exactly what Perry did.
Having been raised on a farm in Schnellville, he described the decision as one made out of convenience because he wanted to work close to home. After a while, he was promoted to a supervisor and began trucking Klem’s furniture to clients. He oversaw the installation of furniture in chain restaurants — including Long John Silver’s, TGI Friday and Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches — across the country.

But once he married and had children, he wanted to be closer to home. So he went back to working on the floor of the plant, often operating a machine that puts together finger joints, and has been content there since.

Perry is happiest when supervisors come to him with a “Perry Project,” usually something that requires him to use his brain to figure things out. He finds these particular jobs both challenging and fulfilling.

A Wise Old Tree

Kenny Jochem - Indiana Furniture

Kenny Jochem, 75, is the longest-serving employee of Indiana Furniture in Jasper. He is in his 54th year.

When he got the job at what was then Indiana Desk in 1959, at age 19, he didn’t even fill out an application. “I just had some buddies I bowled with who called me up on a Saturday to ask me if I wanted the job,” he recalled. “I started the following Monday.”

Born and raised on a farm in the Dale and St. Henry area, Kenny always thought he’d become a farmer. But when he realized the farm was too small to share among his siblings, he went to factory work.

Kenny worked at the factory with his wife, Josephine, who was a receptionist with the company for 20 years. Now, she resides at Northwood Retirement Community and Kenny continues to work part time at Indiana Furniture’s plywood factory in Jasper to keep himself busy. During his four-hour shift each week, he walks around to answer questions and help people in various departments.

“When you’re with something that long, it’s hard to cut it off all at once,” he said about his job.

Even in 1996, when he became ill with Guillain”“Barré syndrome, the company held his job for him while he spent eight weeks in the hospital. He had to relearn how to walk during that period.
Despite being old enough to retire then, he returned to keep working for another 17 years — and is still going.

Kenny likes to pass on a piece of wisdom to younger employees that he heard from his superiors when he first started: “There is an old saying that no two trees are alike. Just like human beings, no two look alike or act alike or even talk alike. Timber is the same way.”

The Recycle Guy

Jason Keith - Dubois Wood Products

Dock 3 at Dubois Wood Products belongs to Jason Keith.

Just ask him; it is his area. The 35-year-old Taswell resident is the recycling guy at the Huntingburg factory, and couldn’t be happier. “The guys joke that I keep bankers’ hours,” said Jason, who arrives at work every day at 4 a.m.

Jason transferred to Dubois Wood Products two years ago after the wood factory where he worked in Salem closed. He went to work on the glue wheel, a machine that glues wood furniture parts together, but because he has a learning disability that makes counting difficult, his supervisors decided to put him in charge of the plant’s recycling.

“I love this job, it’s easier for me and I don’t have to count wood pieces anymore,” Jason said. He went on to say that he was fast enough to work the glue wheel and did a good job at it, but he is much happier being known as The Recycle Guy.

His disability may have limited his reading level to that of a first-grader, but it hasn’t stopped him from putting out a good day’s work. Working at the factory has helped Jason gain independence.
He has been able to buy his own trailer and plot of land down the road from his mother and legal guardian, Cathy Comstock. Even at home, he says, recycling is important to him.

The Energizer

Terry Hotz - Jasper Desk Co.

Terry Hotz of Jasper, 55, never quits moving.

At 5-foot-4 and 118 pounds, the Jasper Desk Co.employee is packed full of energy just like the Energizer Bunny.

To the outside observer, it may seem that there is no rhyme or reason to the order of his day, but his list of tasks exists completely in his head. He has worked a table saw for 35 years and can pretty much perform any task on any machine. He is the guy everyone goes to to get something, even if it is just one piece Terry needs to make, such as a drawer bar or a base to a desk. He’ll make it and hand-deliver it with speed.

His day, which begins at 6:30 every morning, seems like a long, drawn-out sprint. He never ran in high school, but looking back he says he probably should have. At age 30 he began running 5K races. A co-worker even suggested he wear a pedometer to see how far he actually walks in a day, but then recanted the suggestion, joking that the pedometer would probably just blow up because Terry walks so much.

But speed is nothing without accuracy. “This is the life line of any good woodworker,” Terry said as he held up a small steel ruler. “Everything is about accurate measurements.”

More than 200 years

First row, from left, Lauren Schwartz, Nancy Schwartz, Frank Schwartz, Amy Persohn. Second row, from left: Leroy Schwartz, Phyllis Ramsey, Kim Crockett, Richard Schwartz and Pamela Kippenbrock - Best Home Furnishings

The nine members of the Schwartz family employed at Best Home Furnishings work in various departments and keep so busy it’s hard for them to see each other on a regular basis.

But they do all touch or come into contact with the raw materials at various  stages as they progress down the line. They all have an influence on how the finished product comes out.

Frank Schwartz of Ferdinand, 57, has been at it for 40 years, working in the chair mechanisms department, which installs gadgets like swivels and power lifts. Frank’s wife, Nancy, 55, works in recliner sewing and has worked at the company for 19 years.

Frank’s brothers Leroy, 55, and Richard, 48, both work in upholstery and have worked for the company 35 and 21 years, respectively. Their sister Phyllis Ramsey, 52, of Huntingburg works in the fabric warehouse and has 34 years in. Sister Pamela Kippenbrock, 46, of Ferdinand works as a sewing organizer and sister Kim Crockett, 50, of Bristow works in recliner sewing; each has 19 years of experience.

Frank’s daughter Amy Persohn, 34, of Schnellville is assistant manager in customer service and has been with the company for 16 years. Leroy’s daughter Lauren Schwartz of Ferdinand joined the company five weeks ago and inspects recliners.

As they can, they try to pair off to spend a bit of quality time together in the midst of a hectic workday.

Pamela sees Phyllis several times a day when she brings her fabric from the warehouse. For the past three years, Nancy and Kim have been spending some time before the workday starts walking around the factory floor.

Leroy and Richard, who work on different lines making different kinds of chairs, share the ride to and from work; they’ve been carpooling for the last five years.

Lauren treks over to upholstery to eat dinner with her dad as often as she can.


The Provider

Bill Wolf - Jasper Desk Co.

Bill Wolf of Dubois, 62, has worked for Jasper Desk Co. for 44 years. He started working before he turned 18 in May of 1969. As a minor, he wasn’t allowed to work any overtime. The company was offering a lot of overtime during that time, Bill recalls, but he couldn’t take advantage of the extra hours and extra pay until he turned 18 in June.

He learned all of his skills on the job, and he does a little bit of everything. This month he helps build bases for desks. Next month or even as soon as tomorrow he might be doing something else. He likes that his job is never redundant.

Bill became a supervisor in the early 1990s. Last October, he stepped back down to working on the floor of the factory because he planned to retire in October 2014. He thought he would spend his retirement caring for a handful of cattle on a small farm.

Unexpectedly, his wife of 40 years, Brenda, was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis this past April. He plans to continue working so that he can get the health insurance coverage required to take care of her. The illness requires her to be on oxygen 24/7.

He described his wife’s diagnosis as a real shock. “She’d never been sick a day in her life,” he said.
He continues to work because he knows he has to.

“I couldn’t go without her,” he said.

Three Sisters, One Daughter

Amanda Ferguson, Judy Ferguson, Linda Bath and Michelle Miller - OFS Brands

Michelle Miller, 45, started it all.

Just ask her sisters Judy Ferguson. 48, and Linda Bath, 46.

The Huntingburg native began working for Styline, now OFS Brands, in 1993. Then two years later, Linda joined the company. Four years after that, Judy joined.

The three Harrison sisters were close growing up and working together has kept them close over the years. “It’s nice because we get to talk to each other about our day,” Linda said.

“We probably would have quit a long time ago had we not had each other to talk to,” one of them joked.

They all worked together for a number of years, but when Plant 7 in Huntingburg, which specialized in making conference table tops and bases, shut down, the sisters were separated for about two years.

“That’s when things got sad,” Judy said with a faux frown, explaining that each woman oftentimes sat by herself during her break time.

Eventually the three all found their way back to each other. Now they get to convene every day in the break room at Plant 21 in Huntingburg, which specializes in assembling melamine, another name for laminated coatings.

Each sister has a different area she works in. Judy installs drawer tracking. Michelle gives furniture a final wipe-down before it is shipped. And Linda works in the warehouse.

Two months ago they welcomed a member of the younger generation. Judy’s daughter Amanda Ferguson of Huntingburg, 19, works the night shift doing inspection.

“We’ve always been close, but it just made us closer working together,” Michelle said.

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