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Fire burns connection to Evansville’s industrial past

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WEHT) – If the walls of the former Hercules and Servel factory that caught fire early Monday morning could talk – oh the stories they would share of Evansville’s industrial past, of being the center of the buggy – to becoming an early center for automobiles, plastics and refrigeration, to Evansville’s role on the home front during World War II.

Even now, after a fire engulfed the facility built just after the turn of the 20th century, local historians say the Tri-Staters shouldn’t soon forget what the warehouses meant to Evansville’s past.

During World War II, the factory was one of many scattered around Evansville, producing everything from refrigeration units to shell casings to thousands upon thousands of aircraft wings. war. In fact, Dona Bone of the Evansville Wartime Museum claims that the factory has won an E-Award, given to the best defense factories in the country.

After the war, the plant returned to domestic production, helping to establish Evansville as a national center for refrigerators—a distinction that included a short-lived college football game played at the Reitz Bowl on the west side of town.

Over time, however, local historian Stan Schmitt says the heavy industry that had fueled began to leave Evansville in the late 1960s and 1970s, and businesses began to contract. Just as Bucyrus-Erie closed on the Westside, records from the University of Southern Indiana indicate that Servel finally closed in the late 1950s.

Schmitt says these once-great factories have once again made the transition to small business and warehousing, or simply stood vacant for years. Schmitt notes that the buildings themselves were largely too large and expensive to demolish, so they were as much a part of the city as anything else.

While Dona Bone is quick to point out that Evansville still has several war effort factories, including the former Whirlpool and Republic Aviation factory near the Evansville Regional Airport, Schmitt says the fire is, in a way, symbolic of Evansville’s industrial decline – saying “those businesses are gone now, you don’t see those big industrial plants here anymore.