Ann G. Bordwine

Interviewed by: Taylor Holmes
Date of Interview: September 30, 2010

Taylor Holmes reports:

"Born at TK McKee Hospital Saltville, June 5, 1953 to Ralph and Doris Griffitts, Ralph grew up in Broadford, Virginia and went to work for Olin in 1952. He was one of the last employees of Olin. Doris taught elementary school for 17 years and then became youth counselor for the Neighborhood Youth Corps of Smyth, Wythe and Bland Counties. Ann Bordwine, graduated from R.B. Worthy in 1971 and Radford University in 1975. She taught Biology and Earth Science at RB Worthy HS and Northwood HS for 18 years. She has been the Library Media Specialist at NHS for the last 16 years. She has one daughter who will graduate from Northwood in 2012."

Question: What were the benefits of living in a company town?

Bordwine: I did live in company housing or any of that. I remember about my high school years in the 1970s, near the end of the Olin years. Most of what I remember deals with the school. Olin subsidized the education system by forming it’s own school board and hiring special teachers in certain areas such as math and science. All Saltville teachers were paid slightly more than other Smyth County teachers. The Science dept. at R.B. Worthy High School was equipped with things that rivaled local college labs. When I graduation from R.B. Worthy and entered Radford, my college advisor took one look at where I went to High School and I was immediately placed in a  advanced level chemistry and biology classes. I was a chemistry major and I had completed most of what was studied in freshman chemistry in High School Special Chemistry [2 hours] at R. B. Worthy. Olin also put lots of money into the athletics of the school. The “Shakers” football team traveled with a team doctor and they received many “perks” such as free letterman jackets. It wasn’t unheard of for the father of a talented football player in another town to be offered a job at “the plant” if he would move his family to Saltville.  My class ring and my senior trip to Washington was almost totally paid for by Olin. Any young man of the 60’s and 70’s who wanted to go to college was hired at “the plant” for the summer. It was often hard work but they found themselves with enough money to enter college the next fall.

Question: What were the draw backs?

Bordwine: The one negative thing I remember about “the plant” was the labor strike in the late 1960. I was 14 or so and it was a scary time. There was some violence and I was staying with my aunt because my father was working out of the Chattanooga Olin plant and my mother was in Charlottesville having treatment for cancer. It was not a pleasant time in Saltville. “The company” had always called the shots and labor didn’t like that. In my opinion, it was the beginning of the end of a relationship between Olin and the town of Saltville.

Question: How much of the town did the company own?

Bordwine: Olin owned most of the land in the town. If you bought land in the area, Olin probably owned the mineral rights to it. They owned and operated the hospital [editor's note: TK McKee], the company store [editor's note: the store sold grocery, shoes, clothes, drugs, dry goods, furniture, and hardware], filling station, etc.

Question: How many businesses or organizations existed independently of the company?

Bordwine: Most businesses had accounts with “the plant” or benefited from being in the area where workers were paid a “decent wage.” There were many social organizations in the town, such as the Lions, UDC, DAR, Eastern Star, Pythian Sisters, Kiwanis, Rotary, Masonic lodge, etc. Most of these civic minded members were employees of Olin or their families.

Question: What company infrastructure did you take advantage of?

Bordwine: I got one of the finest educations available in Southwest Virginia.

Question: Was the company involved in non-business related activities or events?

Bordwine: Of course, they sponsored the semi-pro baseball team “The Alkalis” of the Burley league. I have already discussed their contribution to education. They supported the town in every way.

Question: Was he company the most influential predominant figure in the town?

Bordwine: Yes!

Question: What buildings, recreational centers, or places of entertainment did the company build?

Bordwine: R.B. Worthy High School, architects from Olin designed and crews from “the plant” built it. TK McKee Hospital, Football stadium, Saltville golf course, Saltville Baseball stadium (also known as Big Green). ”The plant” maintained a Swimming Pool filled with salt water, play ground, and tennis courts.

Question: Did the company attract other businesses in to the town or was it so big that there was no room for other businesses?

Bordwine: Most of the businesses were directly or indirectly dependent on “the plant.” US Gypsum was a large company which operated alongside Olin. They remained open for years after Olin ceased operation.

Question: After the company moved in how quickly did you start to notice positive or negative benefits?

Bordwine: Olin began as Matheison Alkali in the late 1800s. I don’t know.

Question: What kind of atmosphere did the company create?

Bordwine: The Company was the “big brother” to most of its employees. It often gave them company housing, or allowed them to purchase land to build. The company controlled the social and educational life of the community.

Question: Did it attract people from outside of Saltville?

Bordwine: Yes.

Question: Did they come primarily for work or luxury?

Bordwine: Work.

Question: Why did Olin choose Saltville?

Bordwine: Natural resources [editor's note: salt].

Question: How many jobs do you think it brought to the community?

Bordwine: At one time over 1600

Question: How were the workers treated?

Bordwine: For the most part with respect and well.

Question: How much were the workers paid?

Bordwine: Various levels from minimum wage to top salaries. According to experience, job and education.

Question: Did they have benefits?

Bordwine: “The plant” took care of medical expenses, housing, almost everything for its employees.

Question: Did the company neglect the effects of the great depression?

Bordwine: I’m sure there was some effect, but I have no idea of what.

Question: When did the company leave?

Bordwine: Olin eased formal operation in Saltville in 1972. But, they have maintained an office hear ever since.

Question: Why and where did it go?

Bordwine: EPA standards caused the closing of the Olin operation due to environment concerns and contamination. Olin has plants in many areas of the world. Many former Saltville employees transferred to the Cleveland, Tennessee or the Lake Charles, Louisiana plants.

Question: How did life change after the company left?

Bordwine: Many people had to leave the area or drive excessive miles to find employment.

Question: How quickly did it change?

Bordwine: Immediately.

Question: Did it leave behind anything? Positive/negative?

Bordwine: Olin has deeded the land to the town of Saltville. Many of the other assets were given to the town. Some have been used or sold effectively some have not. Regardless, the people of the town of Saltville have benefited from the assets Olin left, but they have never recovered from the economic devastation of “the plant” closing.

Question: Do those effects still exist?

Bordwine: Yes, the town has come to the end of the Olin gifts and is in financial trouble. Of course, most small towns are having financial problems.

Question: How different is the town now from the days of Olin?

Bordwine: Everything has changed.

Taylor Holmes adds:

Education: In my opinion, the school is on the wrong side of Walker Mountain as far as the Smyth County School System is concerned. We are the last to receive technology, equipment or opportunities for our students. When the schools systems scream disparity between Northern Virginia and far Southwest, we in the Northern part of Smyth County know what they are talking about!

Employment: To find employment most Saltville residents have to drive outside the community.

Social structure: Saltville, once home too many engineers, doctors, lawyers, and company executives, does not have a social elite. That could be a good thing, but sometimes it means that ambition, drive, determination, and a healthy respect for education is lacking. Does that sound elitist (snobby)? I hope not –it’s just my opinion.