published Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Hard work, stellar reputation not enough to keep Crystal Springs Print Works textile finishing plant open

The Crystal Springs Print Works textile plant in Chickamauga is closing.
The Crystal Springs Print Works textile plant in Chickamauga is closing.
Photo by John Rawlston.
  • photo
    Crystal Springs Print Works in Chickamauga, Ga., pictured in 1914 Photo: Chickamauga Public Library

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    Steve Tarvin is interviewed Wednesday at the Crystal Springs Print Works textile plant in Chickamauga. Co-owner Tarvin is closing the plant, one of five remaining in the United States that Sanforizes and applies print to fabric.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

106 years of history

1907 - The Bowen-Jewell Bag Company purchases land in Chickamauga to build a mill.

1909 - The bleachery is completed.

1914 - A cotton mill is added and the plants are incorporated as the Crystal Springs Bleachery Company.

1923 - The main bleachery is constructed and dyeing and mercerizing are added to production.

1969 - Dan River Mills buys Crystal Springs Textiles for $11 million.

1976 - Crystal Springs hits its peak employment with 1,200 workers.

1977 - Dan River closes the cloth-manufacturing part of the plant with 450 employees. The plant’s printing and finishing operations, with 400 employees, continues.

1982 - Dan River announces plans to permanently close Crystal Springs and lay off all 300 employees in December.

1983 - Former Chickamauga Mayor Frank Pierce, Steve Tarvin and Stanley Cunningham purchase Crystal Springs in February and keep the plant running, saving about 200 jobs.

2006-2008 - Crystal Springs downsizes to about 90 employees.

2012 - Crystal Springs drops to about 70 employees in September.

2013 - The company shuts down all operations.

Source: Chickamauga Library, Steve Tarvin, Times Free Press archives

The lights were still on when Steve Tarvin walked through Crystal Springs Print Works in Chickamauga last week. Roll after roll of printed cloth — completed orders — sat on the warehouse's shelves, ready to ship out. The factory's equipment was silent and still, but operable. The whole factory could roar to life again. But it won't. After 106 years, Chickamauga's oldest textile mill has permanently closed.

"Part of being in business is knowing when to say when," said Tarvin, president and CEO. "And it was time to say when."

The finishing and printing plant ran its final orders June 28 and officially announced its closing July 16.

"I just wasn't good enough to make it in this economy," Taravin said. "It's my fault. I don't have anyone to blame it on. We've been successful, but the good times continue to get lower and lower, and the bad times continue to get lower and lower. So it became impossible to consistently turn a profit."

For more than a century, the textile mill has been a cornerstone of Chickamauga, employing 1,200 people in the mid 1970s. But those numbers dwindled to 400, then 200, then 90 and finally to fewer than 70 late last year.

Last week, there were 11 people left at the plant, tying up loose ends. In another month, that'll drop to three.

"It's the end of an era in the city of Chickamauga," City Manager John Culpepper said. "A lot of people's heritage goes back to that mill. It's just a sad day in the history of Chickamauga."

The plant prepared fabric for a wide variety of products during its reign -- hospital gowns, military uniforms, prisoner uniforms, pocket liners, sheets, blouses, bandannas, boxers. Fabrics printed at Crystal Springs have gone on to Abercrombie & Fitch, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom. The plant printed more than 2,000 Mickey Mouse patterns, Tarvin said.

Now that production has stopped, he's looking forward. He might sell the plant; he might demolish it. Or he could demolish part of it and restart some sort of downsized operation in one of the newer buildings. But nothing is set in stone, he said, and this should be considered the permanent closing of the plant.

Over the years, the company established a reputation for quality, said Tim Harris, operations manager at Yates Bleachery in Flintstone, Ga.

"They were one of the world's best printers," he said. "Steve worked really hard to keep that thing afloat. They literally fought till the end. They did nothing wrong to deserve this. This is economy-driven, and this is China-driven."

The domestic textile industry steadily has been losing ground to foreign competition during the last 30 years. The number of people employed in the domestic textile industry dropped from almost 1.5 million workers 40 years ago to about 600,000 by 1996, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"A number of these plants were built to operate on very large volumes of fabrics, and as orders declined, their ability to achieve the volumes they need in order to stay profitable has become harder," said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. "That being said, the industry is now in a place where it's actually growing again and is projected to show growth over the next five years."

Last year, 23 new textile plants were built in the United States, he said. But those plants are newer, leaner and smaller than the old-school behemoths like Crystal Springs.

"That they've been able to remain in business this long is a testament to their management," he said about Crystal Springs. "The facilities being built now are on a much smaller scale."

Kevin Sheehan, a sales executive at Santee Print Works -- a commission dyer and printer out of South Carolina -- said his company has stayed alive because it's diversified and can handle a wide range of processes. He added that Crystal Springs had a good reputation.

"In our business, we always knew them as somebody that had very, very low prices," he said. "That was their reputation."

Just over 33,000 people worked at textile fabric finishing and fabric coating mills in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tarvin estimated there are only four or five factories in the United States still doing what Crystal Springs did.

"If my competitors were busy, I'd be concerned," he said. "But that is not the case. We were working more than our competitors were, up until the end. You just reach a point where the rewards are not greater than the risk, and you just can't do it."

Still, there's more money in Crystal Springs' receivables than payables, Tarvin said. The company is not filing for bankruptcy.

"It's not always about money," he said. "It's about where you see it going. Rather than leave here owing anybody anything, we're going to leave in an orderly fashion and pay everyone what we owe."

The company pumped millions of dollars into the North Georgia economy, and its closing will be felt throughout the city, Culpepper said. Most concretely, the plant is the city's largest utility customer, spending about $52,000 each month on electric and sewer service.

"Hopefully we can survive," Culpepper said. "I can't tell you right now if it will bring a rate increase or not. It's going to take a while to absorb this."

Culpepper moved to Chickamauga in 1958 because his dad was a textile worker, and he himself worked at the plant -- for $1.60 an hour -- years ago. He said he has fond memories of the factory.

"I know [Steve] gave it his best shot and hung on longer than he should have," he said. "It wasn't his fault. When your business goes away, it goes away."

At Crossroads Barber Shop in Chickamauga, 66-year-old Larry Griffin remembered the year he spent working at Crystal Springs -- back when he was in his 20s. He ran the rolls through the heater, he said, for about $1.62 an hour. He remembered when Crystal Springs ran seven days a week and the barber shop was full of Crystal Springs workers.

"I'd hate to see it demolished," he said. "It's such a landmark. I'd like to see something go back in there, rather than for it to just sit empty."

Tarvin said he's at peace with his decision to close.

"There's not anything we would have done differently," he said. "When you've done the best you can do and know you've done the best you can do, it's not as painful."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at sbradbury@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6525.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury joined the Times Free Press as a business reporter in January 2013, after starting with the paper as a general assignment intern in July 2012. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint Hill Times. Outside the newsroom, Shelly enjoys ...

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