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News Maryland Harford County Abingdon

'Bata Belcamp' book chronicles rise, fall of footwear manufacturing center

"Bata Belcamp," Larry Carmichael's new book about the history of the Bata Shoe Co. in Harford County, chronicles life in a true company town from the first half of the 20th century, one that has since completely reinvented itself over the past three decades.

Carmichael, who manages the Historical Society of Harford County's website, has an intimate relationship with Belcamp, the Bata company's onetime local home. He lives in Waters Edge, the residential and high-tech business community developed since 1999 on the site of the former shoe factory complex.

The author lives in a townhouse complex built where several homes that housed the shoe company's executives once stood along the water. Carmichael, who has a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Texas, says he became curious about the history of the property and then decided to write about it.

This October marks the 10th anniversary of the demolition of the last building of the Bata Shoe Co. off Route 40 in Belcamp, Carmichael notes.

"Bata Belcamp" begins with the story of the Bata Shoe Co. move to Harford County from Europe in 1939 and ends with the implosion of the five-story Bata factory building in 2004.

Czech origins

Founded when the company's Czech owners relocated to United States during the Nazi occupation of their country at the start of World War II, Belcamp flourished around the shoe company's landmark five-story main plant and the equally tall "hotel" that was built to house some of the workers.

The book is well researched and contains many archival photographs. Readers are likely to be drawn to some aspects of the early Bata history in Harford County they may not be familiar with, including Tomas Bata Sr.'s pioneering developments in the shoe manufacturing process, the background of the site, the protests from domestic shoe manufacturers that greeted the first Bata workers who came from the old country and the Bata family's entanglements with the Nazi regime.

"Tomas Bata Sr. founder of Bata Shoe Co., realized in 1932 that when Hitler came to power in Germany it would not bode well for European companies," Carmichael said. "In that year, he directed his staff to look for locations in the west to move the operations of his international shoe manufacturing company."

Bata's son, Tomas Bata Jr., and half-brother, Jan, came to the U.S. that year and selected Belcamp as the site for this new international headquarters and major manufacturing facility. They liked the area's central location in the Middle Atlantic region and purchased 2,000 acres on the shore of the Bush River that included a historic farm and home known as Sophia's Dairy.

"Sophia's Dairy dates back to Colonial Harford County. Aquilla Hall one of the signers of the Bush Declaration [1775], built and occupied the property just off [current] Route 40," Carmichael wrote. "His wife was the sister in law of Robert Morris, the unofficial financier of the American Revolution, who visited Sophia's Dairy while the British occupied Philadelphia."

In 1939, when the first Czech employees migrated to Belcamp, Sophia's Dairy was used as a temporary dormitory for single men and women, the book explains. The basement was converted to a cafeteria for the workers who could easily walk from the factory to Sophia's Dairy.

A rocky start

"Bata Belcamp got off to a rocky start when labor unions, competitors and the U.S. government worked to prevent the company from bringing workers from Czechoslovakia to Belcamp," Carmichael writes. "The controversy played out over a period of six to eight months until, finally, Harford County government and U.S. Senator Millard Tydings, arranged for 25 Czech citizens to work at the facility. Some other Czech employees were able to stay due to joint or U.S. citizenship."

"This was a very stressful period for the 100 workers who fled Czechoslovakia under Nazi rule and came to America to start a new life," the author continues. "For the unfortunate 70 workers who were not allowed to stay, they had to relocate again to Bata facilities in Central and South America."

With the immigration controversy behind them, Bata slowly started to grow its workforce — some 650 American workers by 1940 — and shipped their first shoes internationally in January 1940.

The development of the shoe manufacturing plant coincided with the opening of the new dual highway, Route 40, linking Baltimore with points north. For the next quarter century, until the construction of I-95, the five-story Bata factory, which operated around the clock, was a beacon for travelers on the busy highway.

According to Carmichael, the Bata Shoe Co. under Tomas Bata Sr. was "an employee-focused company."

"Mr. Bata believed that company resources should be used to enhance the employee experience and thus increase employee loyalty and productivity," he notes. "The Bata Belcamp campus was built on this model."

Self-contained town

"The Bata Hotel was the social center of life at Bata Belcamp," Carmichael said. "It was a five-story structure with living quarters for single employees, ballrooms for company events and single's dances and a movie theater. On the ground floor there was a grocery store, bank, post office, company store and a cafeteria."

The shoe company campus also provided duplex homes for married employees and single family homes for executives. The town even had its own company-published newspaper from the 1940s into the late 1960s.

From the 1940s through the 1970s, Bata Shoe was Harford County's largest private employer, peaking at 3,400 workers in the 1950s.

Later, as fewer and fewer workers lived on the campus, the company began providing bus service for workers living in Baltimore and other outlying areas. Management proudly announced annually that employees had voted overwhelmingly against becoming unionized.

During this period, Bata's worldwide organization, which proudly proclaimed itself "Shoemaker to the World," opened dozens of plants around the globe both to be closer to markets and to take advantage of cheaper labor in many of those markets. The company's headquarters also decamped to Canada, and a building constructed at Belcamp for that purpose was used as a warehouse.

By the late 1960s, leather footwear was no longer manufactured at Belcamp, as the plant began to concentrate on making combat boots and other footwear for the U.S. military and specialty consumer footwear, much of it using latex or other rubber compounds and canvas.

As the military boot contracts dried up toward the late 1980s and new competitors like Nike entered the specialty consumer footwear market, the Belcamp factory's economic fortunes waned.

Reinvention

Even before its shoemaking operation in Belcamp declined to the point of no longer being viable, Bata's management had begun to focus on development of its extensive vacant properties across Route 40 from the plant into a new business and residential community it called Riverside. Today, Riverside is home to some 7,000 people, a school, a shopping center and the largest concentration of industrial and warehouse buildings in Harford County.

In the 1990s, what was left of the shoe manufacturing business at Bata Belcamp was sold to a company founded by former Bata managers called Onguard Industries. In 1999, the Bata Hotel, which has stood vacant for years, was demolished by Harford-based developer Clark Turner, in a first step toward redevelopment of the old factory campus.

All the manufacturing was subsequently moved to nearby Havre de Grace, and in 2004, the five-story plant building which had stood like a beacon to travelers on Route 40 for nearly 65 years, was imploded to make way for the remaining Water's Edge redevelopment on the 200 acres where the Bata campus had stood.

The Bata name lives on, of course. The main drag entering Waters Edge is named Bata Boulevard and many photographs and other artifacts from the shoemaking era will be found inside the new Waters Edge Events Center, a 32,000-square-foot meeting and conference facility that opened last fall.

And, most recently, an article in Friday's edition of the Wall Street Journal about the origins of the Washington Wizards, nee Bullets, NBA team, contained this blast from the past: "The name traces back to the defunct American Basketball League, where the Baltimore Bullets debuted in 1944, though its origin is something of a mystery. It has been attributed to the fact that the team played in an armory and, alternately, to the Bata Bullets athletic shoes, which were made in nearby Harford County, Md."

(Well, maybe. The 1960s-era Bullets did wear the Bata sneaker, as the Carmichael book notes special fittings were arranged in Belcamp for stars like Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe, but the eponymous relationship between team and shoe name sounds like a chicken-egg thing.)

Author Carmichael served 30 years in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society of Harford County, has published three articles in the society's newsletter and is also author of "Caught in a Storm, the Jennie Wade Story" available in e-book from Amazon.com.

"Bata Belcamp" sells for $9.99 and can be purchased at Preston's in Bel Air, Washington Street Books in Havre de Grace and online at Amazon.com.

Carmichael will be lecturing about Bata Shoe and signing copies of the book at the Historical Society of Harford County, 143 N. Main St. in Bel Air, from 2 to 4 p.m. on May 17.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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