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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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"I always liked that store. It's neat, because it's a community thing. You know everybody within a day. I had all the employees I needed," Sparkes says. In December, one of those employees called her tearfully to tell her the town was going away. "I was devastated," she recalls.

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Empire's troubles have also rippled out to Gerlach, where the regional school system that served 73 students this year anticipates just a dozen next fall. Twenty staffers are losing their jobs. One teacher and two aides will remain in a three-room schoolhouse. "We are blessed to have this much, by the sounds of things," Judy Conley, the school secretary, wrote in an e-mail.

IN THE MIDST OF THE CRISIS, there's an upside: Many of Empire's displaced workers have landed safely. The same economy that was flattened by the housing crash has seen gold prices skyrocket, and Nevada's mines are hiring. Barrick Gold Corporation owns several Nevada sites and hired more than a dozen Empire employees, including Constable.

"Sad to say, the best thing that could have happened to us was the gypsum plant shutting down," he said in a May e-mail. Constable has already been promoted to supervisor. He was able to use his USG severance pay, one month for each of his 28 years, to buy a house with his wife in Spring Creek, Nev. "Some of us live within eyesight of each other," he wrote of Empire's resettled refugees.

Others haven't had it so easy. "I threw out a few résumés, haven't gotten any bites," former supply chain manager Dan Moran said in January between bites of chicken-fried steak at Bruno's Country Club, the only restaurant in Gerlach. "I might just end up cutting firewood for a living." As of last month, he was still planning to start a firewood business near Reno, Nev.

Ryle, who pushed the button to shut down the factory in January, said at the time that he planned to stay as long as he could: "I'm a company person.... I've always worked here." But what is a company man when his company doesn't want him anymore? At 62, Ryle isn't sure if he'll work again: "You feel like you gave them a lot and, when it came down to the end, they didn't give you nothing."

There's talk that, if the economy recovers, USG could reopen the idled plant, but Ryle doesn't think that will happen. He plans to leave his gold hard hat, once a badge of honor, in the house where he spent the past four decades when he goes.

But he's not leaving everything behind. He says he'll transplant the rosebushes and a tree from his front yard when he moves to Fernley, Nev., where he just bought his first home.

"I planted that tree, so I'll dig that one up. They don't care," Ryle says. "And it's my tree. I'll fill in the hole, anyway."

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