WHEELING - Following a 37-year career with the Wheeling-LaBelle Nail Co., Jerry Hickman is now looking for a new career because the 158-year old plant is closed.
"My father worked there for 40 years, and I worked there for 37. It's sad to see it go," said Hickman, a Bethlehem resident, on Friday. "Now, here I am at 58 years old trying to start over."
The plant - which is located near the intersection of Interstate 470 and W.Va. 2 in South Wheeling - opened in what was then Wheeling, Va., in 1852. After West Virginia officially separated from Virginia in 1863, LaBelle continued to play a role in moving industry forward throughout the United States.
A part of Wheeling’s culture since 1852, the Wheeling-LaBelle Nail Co. is now closed.
In recent years, however, LaBelle fell on hard times, Hickman said, noting only 10 employees still worked at the plant when it closed Sept. 30. This number falls far short of the 67 employees he said worked there when he started at the factory in 1973.
"There was just so much foreign competition," Hickman said. "Now, there were plants in China and (South) Korea that took some of our largest customers."
Until 1997, LaBelle was affiliated with the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. Atlanta resident Dennis McMorrow then acquired the plant that he operated until the closure.
"It is too bad," McMorrow said of the LaBelle closing when contacted by The Intelligencer late Friday. "We have a thing going on called the recession, which just makes things so difficult."
McMorrow said he still owns the land where the factory sits, noting he did not know what the future holds for the plant.
Hickman said the company had 47 workers when McMorrow took over, but said the numbers steadily declined through the years.
In fact, he said the remaining employees only worked for a total of six months over the past two years because of the challenging economy.
"We tried to get someone to market our products, but it just never happened," Hickman said.
Hickman is now trying to get a job in which he can use his new commercial driver's license, adding, "I hope I can get something local."
According to the LaBelle website, the facility stands as a national historic landmark.
The company produced five distinct varieties of nails, including spikes, common nails, boat nails, stainless steel nails and tie keys.