The ‘Other’ South Bend Foundry
“I seriously rec’mend you don’ come ‘round here after dark,” he said. I would take the advice.
Ad hoc trails with fresh tracks wound behind The Adult Emporium and the old bulk yard. If it were not for the crane, I never would have known it was there, next to the crusty siding.
Even then, when I saw the old plant, it was obvious it was going to come down. With big industrial hulks like this, all that takes is for the power to be cut—then the scrappers go to work until there’s no more to steal.
Scrapping is illegal, usually carrying a felony theft charge, but it feeds lots of families on the Rust Belt.
When I first walked into the foundry, straight into the furnace hall, I knew there was virtually nothing left. To find out the story, I had to look to the past.
With my boots sinking into inch-deep ash-infused mud, and the smell of more than a century of melting metal burrowing into my pores, I left some of the last tracks the building would ever know.
The South Bend Touch…
…is one way to describe the effect of this city on small industry. With the explosive growth of Studebaker, all other South Bend industries got a terrific boost. Specifically in the case of Selby Machine’s start, Studebaker needed a lot of equipment repaired.
Three machinists started a shop near the South Bend industrial district in 1874: George O. Ware, John R. Wells, and A. P. Sibley. It was called Wells & Ware, and they specialized in repairing drill presses for Studebaker and lathe parts for South Bend Lathe.
A fire destroyed their shop in 1883, forcing them to buy the property on which the modern foundry was built, probably between 1900 and 1910.
The move was a good one, leaving them lots of room to expand. Upon the death of Mr. Ware and departure of Mr. Wells, Sibley took over the operation, renaming it the Sibley Machine Tool Company.
Instead of repairing other manufacturer’s power drills, they would make their own.
Sibley sold its top-quality drills to the shops of Studebaker, Oliver Plow, and even the University of Notre Dame. Business was good, until the 1950s…
As a foundry, this plant always had to create castings—the shell which molten metal is poured into to make the rough shape of a part. By the 1950s the castings business was much more lucrative than the drill business, due to an overall drop in manufacturing nationwide after WWII. The factory became a dedicated castings shop.
Casting Lots—Bad Luck
The 1980s were hard on many industries nationwide, especially manufacturing support companies like Selby. As factories closed, there was less demand for castings. In 1987, a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy was filed, and the owners paid only a fraction of their taxes.
Because of the tax issues, St. Joseph County attempted to auction the property and its buildings twice, first in 1994 and again in 1995, but there were no bidders, so the owners retained the property, which simply accrued more debt. At that time, the foundry was operational, but was being leased from the county at a rate of $10,000 per month.
In 1998 Sibley was finally sold to a new firm, General Castings, which allowed the management to retain control of the plant and its 130 employees. In 2002, though, that company folded as well, as it shuttered more than half its plants because of foreign competition. The county once again foreclosed on the property, claiming it owed more than $2 million in back taxes.
Another entrepreneur bought Sibley in 2004, temporarily saving the 60 jobs that were still in the plant—40 in the foundry and 20 in the machine shop. As the investment soured, though, the hot potato was passed again.
Not to an investor this time, but instead a real estate group.
With that, the future was clear, and a couple of years later the power was cut to Sibley due to unpaid bills. I do not know what was left inside at that point, but I would guess much of the equipment was disassembled and auctioned to clear past debts.
The foundry and machine shop were demolished in 2012.