In 2007, the largest manufacturer in Lamar, Mo., shut its doors. 700 employees were laid off. Local officials worried about what the future held for this small Missouri town, which had been home to a big factory since the 1950s. But then a strange thing happened: The people of Lamar didn’t leave.
story by Greg Grisolano / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 20, 2012
For more than 40 years, the community of Lamar, Mo., was rooted in the three F’s — faith, farming and furniture-in-a-box.
It’s the kind of community where it’s not uncommon to see folks praying softly before eating a meal in a restaurant. Where cowboy hats and boots are worn for utility, rather than as an ironic sentiment. The living embodiment of a Norman Rockwell painting of Midwestern Americana.
Much like Detroit’s identity was synonymous with the American automobile industry — and the headquarters for major manufacturers like General Motors and Ford — at one time, Lamar was the headquarters for the country’s third-largest furniture manufacturer: O’Sullivan Industries.
Its product line included desks, bookcases, computer desks, entertainment centers, kitchen accessories and other home and office furnishings. The products were sold through department stores, office superstores and home centers in North America and the United Kingdom. The company operated manufacturing facilities in South Boston, Va., and Cedar City, Utah, in addition to its Lamar, Mo., corporate headquarters, 90 minutes northwest of Springfield.
In 1999, O’Sullivan reported $379.6 million in sales and employed 2,350 people between its three operations. By the year 2000, O’Sullivan Industries was the third-largest maker of ready-to-assemble furniture in the United States and the tenth-largest manufacturer of furniture overall.
In its heyday, O’Sullivan employed about 1,800 people at its corporate office and manufacturing headquarters. That’s about 40 percent of Lamar’s total population, which has been just shy of 4,500 since 2000.
Just five years later, it would be filing for bankruptcy reorganization. In 2007, the business closed its doors for good, and laid off more than 700 of its remaining workers in Lamar.
This story isn’t uncommon for the Ozarks. Springfield’s Solo Cup factory shuttered last year, putting about 340 people out of work. At one time during its nearly 60-year run, the plant employed more than 1,200 people. In addition, Bay Valley Foods closed its Springfield pickle plant last year, laying off 46 employees.
But in Lamar, something unusual happened after the plant left. The jobs were gone, but the people stayed. Although the county population declined slightly in the 2010 U.S. Census, Lamar’s population actually increased by 49 people, from 4,425 to 4,474.
Some former O’Sullivan employees have found jobs elsewhere in southwest Missouri but continue to reside in Lamar. Some have created their own employment right here in town. And five years after the plant’s departure, the people of this primarily agrarian community aren’t going anywhere.
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A real sense of community
Mike Orahood, 56, is a lifelong resident of Lamar. He worked at O’Sullivan for more than 22 years before leaving in August of 2005.
“When you think of places you work, you think of the people you work with,” he says. “The work is the work. It was a good place to work. I loved it.”
Orahood says O’Sullivan was “really good about giving stuff back to the community.” Volunteers from the company helped build the local football stadium , and there was always a collection going around to help someone who was sick or who needed help with home repairs.
Orahood says he misses his co-workers most. After second shift ended, they’d often head across the street to the city park for a midnight softball game.
It was at O’Sullivan that Mike met Pauletta, his wife. She, too, grew up in Lamar, and she spent five years working on the O’Sullivan pack line, putting parts on the assembly line for book shelves and entertainment centers. “When I first started in 1983, the department I was in was like a small family,” she says. “You knew everybody, people were close. It was fun. It was a good place to work. The benefits were great.”
Still, Mike says of most of his years at the plant, “we worked all the time” — even Saturdays. His wife would be there too, and the Orahoods say that it was not uncommon for married couples to work at the plant. Some would work the same shift, in order to spend time together, while others would work alternate shifts, in order to stay home with the children.
“We used to live four blocks from work, and he’d drive home for supper, even though it was only a 30-minute break,” Pauletta says. “We were really spoiled and we just didn’t know it.”
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“It went from feast to famine around here”
Lamar is about 35 miles north of Joplin, the nearest “major city” of any size. It is, quite literally, a one stoplight town. The single traffic signal marks the intersection of 12th Street, the road that funnels traffic from Highway 160 into town, and Gulf Street. Like many small towns in southwest Missouri, the original community was built around a town square. At the heart of the square is the Barton County Courthouse. Beneath the courthouse is the Barton County Historical Society. On the west side of the courthouse is a plaque with a bust of President Harry S. Truman, whose birthplace in Lamar is on the National Historic Register.
Walking the square in Lamar, a newcomer may be surprised to see such a high occupancy rate. Banks, a movie theater, a restaurant and other service businesses dominate the area. Folks around town say the retailers, one by one, abandoned the square save for a few. In their places sprang up attorneys’ offices, insurance agencies, and a Tae Kwan Do dojo.
One block to the northeast, the husk of a building looms vacant, with five iron beams bracing the exterior of the south wall from falling. A string of Christmas lights hangs underneath boarded-up windows on the west and south sides of the building.
The old O’Sullivan Industries headquarters and manufacturing plant is a mile south of the intersection of Gulf and 12th Streets.  It is a one-million-square-foot facility at the junction of two railroad tracks situated on 10 acres of land, across the street from the city park. The western side of the plant seems to be nothing but loading bays, where convoys of 18-wheelers used to line up to receive payloads of furniture that would then be shipped out across the country.
Lynn Calton, who has been the city manager for 21 years, can recall a time when car after car would travel to and from the plant, at all hours of the day.
“For years and years, they were running three shifts, 24/7 down there,” he says. “Every morning when they would start the day shift, it was an unbelievable stream of cars coming into Lamar. Both rural, and from places like El Dorado Springs, Lockwood, and even Kansas and Oklahoma.”
When Calton first heard news of the plant’s closing, he was devastated.
“What are we gonna do?” he remembers asking. “We got all these people who are not [going to] have jobs. Over time, people had to make decisions they thought they were never [going to] have to make about being out of a job.”
It wasn’t just the O’Sullivan employees who were worried. Mike Orahood says several spin-off businesses, including one that processed scrap lumber and sawdust for pallets and other contracting work, were started in the wake of O’Sullivan’s success. All around Lamar, businesses enjoyed the spoils of the plant. When it closed, the ripple effect went out across the area.
“Some of those businesses got soaked pretty bad when the plant finally went out of business,” he says. “When they shut it down, there were some pretty hard feelings.”
Around Lamar, plenty of people started to worry about the future — and how they’d pay the bills until then.
“It went from feast to famine around here,” he notes.
But the bad times only lasted so long. Losing the plant caused a breakdown in the local economy, but the city has started to recover. Data from the Missouri Department of Labor shows that unemployment in the county has fallen from a peak of 13 percent in November of 2010, nearly three and a half years after the plant shut down, to 8.8 percent in June of this year. The average unemployment rate statewide is 7.1 percent. The unemployment rate in Barton County remains in the top 25 counties with the highest unemployment rate in the state.
“Obviously, it really shot up our unemployment, but people since then have moved on,” Calton says. “Some people left town, and went to work in places like Pittsburg (Kan.), Joplin and even farther west into Kansas.”
Many stayed, though. Even members of the O’Sullivan family kept their homes in town.
“For a lot of people in Lamar, this is home and they don’t want to leave here,” he says. “Even though they had to go to Joplin to get a job, they don’t want to leave. This is still a little, small town, quiet community, you know?”
But for as many people who felt tied to the community, there were still others whose only reason for staying in town was financial. And it was for precisely that reason that many people found they were unable to leave — even if they wanted to.
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“They’re going to go where the money is”
Deloris Ruth is one of the folks who didn’t leave. She worked for 21 years on the banding line at O’Sullivan. For most of that time, she commuted from Stockton to Lamar each day, an hour drive each way. After O’Sullivan closed, Ruth says she took a job in Nevada , 30 miles north of Lamar, working for a company that assists individuals in the community.
“I drove back and forth from Stockton every day until 2003, when they had the tornado,” she says. “Then I moved to Lamar, and I only had to drive a couple of miles to and from work every day. I was just ecstatic about that.”
When O’Sullivan closed, she found herself out of a job. She was laid off on in June 2007, a few weeks before the plant shut down completely.
“We didn’t even know this was going to happen,” she says. “They took us to this room and told us we was laid off. It was about an hour before we had to go home … I was too old and too young. I was too young to retire, but had I been a few years older, I could have drawn unemployment until my retirement kicked in.”
Like a lot of O’Sullivan employees, she had a few things to worry about. The first was insurance. Getting it individually wasn’t easy. And suddenly, with hundreds of factory workers looking for jobs, it wasn’t easy finding a new career that could cover her health care.
Many of the jobs were elsewhere, but Ruth couldn’t leave. Thanks to the local housing market, she’s tied to the city indefinitely.
“If I were to try and sell my home, the housing market has gone down so much that I wouldn’t get very much for my house,” she says. “So I’ve got an investment there … I’m just going to stay here. I’ve got my house paid for, so what kind of a win-win situation would that be?”
That being said, she says she likes living in Lamar.
“This is a friendly place,” she says. “It’s a small hometown where they treat you nice.”
She has found a new job, though. She works now in Nevada, and makes the 30-minute commute to her job. She likes the job, but it doesn’t pay as well as her job at O’Sullivan. She’s had to change the way she uses her checkbook. She’s had to “downsize” her buying power.
“I was used to making more money,” she says. “I’m past retirement stage, but I check on this stuff and they want ‘x’ amount of dollars and this, that, and the other. You’re talking about $300 to $400 more in insurance off the top before you start paying for your everyday things like gas, phone, groceries, your water … How much does that leave you to live on?”
Not much. But the people of Lamar have gotten through it on faith. Through it all, Pauletta Orahood says she always believed that her family would find employment after O’Sullivan. Pauletta became president of the Barton County Historical Society. Mike finally found stable work south of Lamar, in Webb City, but went through three or four jobs before he got to his current employer. He even commuted to Springfield for a stint.
“I think he was probably worried about it more than I was,” Pauletta says. “I work part-time, so I have some income, but that’s the bind you get into. You depend on those two incomes and then when you don’t have it, it’s hard to do.”
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“We decided to start planning our way out”
While some former O’Sullivan employees have turned to out-of-town options for employment, Brian Brewer took another route. He worked at O’Sullivan for 21 years, from 1984 to 2005, first as a maintenance electrician, and later as a senior manufacturing engineer. He too, was raised in Lamar.
“When I started, it was growing like crazy and we were adding buildings,” he says. “[Wages] at [O’Sullivan] started out higher than just about anybody’s in the area. They had a lot of benefits that it’s hard for any business to maintain that. I had a great job. I loved my job there. I planned on retiring there.”
He’d gone elsewhere for work, once — in 2005, Brewer moved to Cedar City, Utah, to work as the plant engineer at O’Sullivan’s newest plant.
But then he came to a realization.
“We knew the place was going to fold, so we decided to start planning our way out,” he says.
He started talking to Tim Riegel, a co-worker at O’Sullivan. Riegel’s roots at O’Sullivan ran deep. His grandfather was Tom O’Sullivan, the founder of the company.
Together, they opened up Fast Eddie’s Hot Rods and Garage in 2005. The business is located just north of the town square, in what used to be the Gilkey Chevrolet dealership. After General Motors shut down Gilkey’s dealership as part of its nationwide reorganization, Fast Eddie’s was the only repair shop in town. They started with just a single part-time employee.
Fast Eddie’s didn’t stay a small for long. They started taking new cars — especially new Ford Mustangs — and rebuilding them as ‘69 Mustangs. These days, car owners from all across the country have been sending their cars to Lamar to get the Fast Eddie’s makeover.
Other O’Sullivan employees have also paired up to open a series of small businesses in town. There’s Redneck Manufacturing, a fiberglass deer-stand manufacturer; and VersaCourt, which manufactures a composite playground surface for basketball and tennis courts.
Not everyone in these businesses is a former O’Sullivan employee. Redneck and VersaCourt are co-owned by Danny Little, a former banker. His focus is on creating jobs for locals, and he says his companies are responsible for about 60 jobs in Lamar. There aren’t too many companies trying to create jobs in Lamar, and the town needs it, he says.
“People are much more tied to town,” he says. “You can’t move away easily without taking a hard hit on what you might have had with any kind of housing market. People are still on the long-term unemployment list. For me, the hardest part is seeing a community that was once so vibrant have to adjust.”
Little acknowledges that Lamar isn’t the only place facing hard times and an uncertain economic future.
“It’s nothing the rest of the country isn’t going through,” he says. “[The jobs at O’Sullivan] were high-paying jobs. I know people who were making $75,000 to $100,000 now working for $25,000 to $30,000.”
Little says he would like to see the city focus more on small businesses as a means of driving the economy rather than “trying to hit that home run with a large corporation.”
At Fast Eddie’s, Brewer echoes those sentiments.
“What you notice now — and Lamar has done an exceptional job of this — if you go to other small towns around here, the square is dying, Main Street is dying,” he says. “We have empty buildings around town … but at the same time, there’s been new restaurants that have opened and are thriving. We’re still a farming community. The basis of our entire economy is agriculture, basically.
“What we need is five more Fast Eddie’s, and three or four more Redneck Manufacturing[s]. We don’t need another 1,500 person company, as great as that would sound. I believe to get this community more stable, we need a lot more smaller companies and smaller businesses that are stable, and pumping money in.”
As far as a saving grace, Calton, the city manager, points to agriculture — specifically, winter wheat, soybeans and corn — for helping keep the farmers afloat.
“You can drive around Barton County, and we’re flat enough and have a different kind of soil,” Calton says.
“If you go south to Jasper County, you’re going to run into rocks [in the soil]. But Barton County is good for growing row crops, and some cattle farmers, too. So with the price of those grains over the same period of time, that helped the local farmers survive.”
Calton says the city of Lamar also entered into a partnership with Republic Services — formerly Allied Waste — to build a generator powered by landfill gasses collected at the nearby Prairie View Regional Waste Facility. The city also laid five miles of transmission line to its own electric company.
Lamar’s also part of the Joplin Regional Partnership, a coalition of local towns working to spur economic development in southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas.
“We all banded together, and this has been 10 years ago,” Calton says. “We all felt like individually, we couldn’t hire an economic development director. So we all kicked into the pot, so to speak.”
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“They’ve got to get past that”
For Pauletta Orahood, it feels like the community is still playing a waiting game to see what will happen next. The plant still lies empty. Its parking lots are vacant. The freight doors are closed.
“I think people are just kind of holding their breath,” Pauletta says. “[O’Sullivan] not only was good for Lamar, but it drew people from so far away in. They shopped here, and ate, and bought things just like anybody else.”
Mike Orahood says he thinks the city is setting itself up for failure if it continues to wait for another major employer on the scale of O’Sullivan.
“I work in Webb City, and there’s a lot of little businesses down there,” he says. “The company I work for has probably 70 people. And Lamar doesn’t seem to want to do that. They want [O’Sullivan] again. They want 1,500 people again. And they’ve got to get past that …
“You go through little towns with little businesses of 20 people, but there will be 20 of those businesses. And Lamar doesn’t seem to care anything about that. The chance of getting another business in here that employs 1,500 people is gone. It’s just not gonna happen.”