Looking out toward the shore of Bush River while traveling on Route 40, just south of Aberdeen, is a community that made history 75 years ago. We used to call it Belcamp; now it is called Riverside.
Along with most of the world, residents of Hanford County watched in awe the events in Eastern Europe as we in Harford observed a connection between our Harford and certain aspects of that faraway drama.
It was in September 1938 that Neville Chamberland came back to London from Munich, believing the had bought peace by allowing Hitler a free hand in Czechoslovakia. By the following March, Germany had "protected the county" and lapped on the shackles of totalitarian rule.
What did that mean to the operations in its homeland for the Bata Shoe Company, a major Czech firm? Bata had been foresighted. In 1934, and before the end of 1939, its new American plant was in production there. By 1940, it was turning out a million pairs of boots and shoes a year, many used for the American armed forces.
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Bata, spelled Bat'a in Czech, became the largest employer in Harford. It gave jobs and opportunity for entertainment, culture and athletic events. We remember well the progress the community made because the former Harford Press published the newsletter "Bata News." We were invited to many of their bull roasts and cultural events and our children enjoyed Christmas parties for the children of the plant workers. They were wonderful community efforts!
Being a skilled shoemaker was not enough for Thomas Bata. He had a dream to mass produce shoes economically and efficiently and still maintain high quality standard. His dream supplied needed employment to many Harford Contains. The first year 150,000 pairs of shoes were manufactured; the next year the volume rose to over a million pair!
As the decades passed, the company's directions and focus changed. The founder, Thomas Bata, was killed in a plant crash. His son, Thomas Bata Jr., succeeded him. Production at the Harford plant dropped and a new division of the company set about turning much of the Bata acreage into what is now called Riverside.
During all this time, Czechoslovakia remained a subjugated nation, Soviet oppressors having succeeded the Nazis.
What a dramatic connection to our Harford. What a loss for many. In "Sketches of Village to Town to City," we included a sketch of Bata Shoe Factory in Belcamp that "employed many Aberdeen workers through most of the years after 1939 to the end of the century." Frank Novak, personnel manager, was unit president of the "Sokol" Gymnastic Organization at the plant. The company supplied products to the U.S. military worldwide during World War II and the Vietnam War.
In November 2004, it only took seconds to obliterate that part of Harford The Bata's signature five-story plant building "Shoemaker of the World" was imploded to make way for continued redevelopment of the former industrial site into the Water's Edge residential and business community on Route 40.
History! As memories of the past will be safe in the hearts and minds of those who worked in the shoe plant and their offspring, the incredible story of the Bata organization and what it meant to Harford will remain.