Promised land lost

Only ghosts and shadows haunt the empty halls of Sheaffer Pens, the onetime giant pen manufacturer on H Street.

Its locked doors and worn brick stand like weary sentinels along the banks of the Mississippi in this struggling southeast Iowa river-and-railroad town.

Rust weeps through the paint on the window frames; the once magnificent illuminated-letters sign with the trademark white dot that faced Illinois is gone, no longer serving as a gatekeeper for its fortress of employees.

At its peak, it employed more than 2,500 people in a town of 14,000; nearly everyone here had someone in their family who worked there — sometimes, two or three or more.

By the time they were bought out by French-owned BIC in 2003, the 40 employees left in the iconic company’s pen-point assembly department were told it was only a matter of time before the operation would be moved to a third-party manufacturer in Asia; Slovakia would become the home for customer service, purchasing, warehousing and distribution work, as well as packaging and quality control.

What made Sheaffer special?

Ingenuity: Walter A. Sheaffer invented the fountain pen in a back room of his Fort Madison jewelry store in 1912. Risk: He used all of his life savings to invest in the business, not knowing what the impact would be on his family’s fortunes. And charity: Ask anyone left in town who worked for the Sheaffer family (they sold the company in 1967) how they treated employees, and the stories are all the same — treated them like they mattered.

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