Slump in construction industry creates a Sheetrock ghost town
The Sheetrock producing Empire, Nev., will become a ghost town June 20. The isolated company town quit mining gypsum and dry wall production this year as a result of the construction industry slump.
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The plant's maintenance foreman, Aaron Constable, watched Ryle administer those last rites. "He actually stood there and cried," Mr. Constable recalled. "He's up there at the main start-stop station. When they said, 'You go ahead and shut her down,' it took him some while before he actually pushed the button."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The last company town: Empire, NV
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At its height, EmpirE WAS HOME to more than 750 people, as noted in the July 1961 issue of USG's in-house magazine, Gypsum News. "The folks who make their homes in Empire are one big happy family," the magazine reported.
By many residents' accounts, that was still true until the end. Empire was an extended family, with the kind of intimacy and security – not to mention the gossip and lack of privacy – that comes with close quarters.
"We've got the neighborhood watch program," Constable explained in the January interview. "Your neighbors watch you whether you want them to or not."
For decades, Empire was largely insulated from the troubles of the outside world. Here, you could rent a company-owned home for $250 a month, or an apartment for as little as $110. Water, cable TV, sewer, trash, and Internet service were all provided on the company dime. Workers were awarded gold-colored construction helmets when they reached 25 years of service and wore them with pride. No one bothered to lock cars or homes. Kids had the run of the neighborhood, but were still in hollering distance come dinnertime.
There were some rough patches. In 1993 and 2001, USG filed for bankruptcy. The second episode followed personal injury claims related to asbestos exposure, totaling millions of dollars. Both times, the company emerged and regained profitability, leaving Empire unscathed.
During the 1970s, the plant at Empire went through layoffs and shortened shifts. Some apartments were boarded up, but the town survived. "We just tightened up our belts," says Sunny DeForest, the plant's former human resources supervisor.
Ms. DeForest retired in 2007 after more than 42 years at the plant and now lives with her husband, another former USG worker, in a home across the highway from Empire. Their house is not on company property, but it relies on USG's infrastructure for electricity. They plan to stick around. "We've got a brick house, and you don't move brick houses so easily," DeForest says wryly. She's not sure what they'll do, however, if the power gets cut.
Her daughter, Tammy Sparkes, is also in a hard place. In October, after returning from a tour of duty as a military ordnance officer in Kuwait, Ms. Sparkes used her savings to buy the Empire Store, the only place to get groceries for miles, sprucing it up with new flooring, a fresh coat of paint, and a couple of cafe tables. Sparkes owns the building but leases the land from USG, which also supplies the power and water. With most of her customers gone, she's struggling to make it to August, when the annual Burning Man festival, held in the nearby desert, brings a wave of thousands of colorful, albeit temporary, patrons.