LEXINGTON, KY. -- Once, life in Lexington was so simple the grocery stores had no bagels.
White bread, yes. Bagels, no.
But that was Before IBM.
The company's arrival in 1956 transformed Lexington from a quiet college town into a thriving, diverse city where people like William D. Reed could find food they liked.
Reed was among the group of employees from New York state that International Business Machines Corp. sent to Lexington to start up the new plant.
At first, Reed drove to Cincinnati to buy things he was accustomed to having in New York. He would return with bags full of bagels, salami and other things he could not find anywhere in Lexington.
All that soon changed, just as so many other things about Lexington changed during the rapid growth that began with IBM.
But earlier this month, there were reports from Wall Street that IBM was negotiating the possible sale of its typewriter, keyboard and printer operations. All of the product lines are made in Lexington.
What Lexington would become if IBM shipped out is not something city officials like to think about.
Mayor Scotty Baesler and Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce President Ed Houlihan all but refused to acknowledge the unnerving reports that IBM might sell its plant here.
"I don't have any reaction, because I've been hearing rumors for six months," Baesler said.
Still, community leaders might have to face the music. Or lack of it. With more than 5,300 workers, IBM is Lexington's largest private employer. It is -- and always has been -- a generous supporter of local charities, the arts and the University of Kentucky.
IBM's arrival in Lexington 34 years ago was a major turning point in the city's history. The company forced up local wages; brought more attention on education; and provided jobs not only for many people, but also for minority workers, who had had few career options before.
"It really was the beginning of Lexington's industrial revolution," said Carl B. Cone, a former chairman of the University of Kentucky's history department.
IBM's departure also would be a major turning point. Replacing a large employer is one thing. Replacing a civic pillar is entirely another matter.
"I don't think any community could fathom replacing a corporate citizen the magnitude of IBM," said Gary Kleine, a Lexington business official who worked for IBM in Texas.
Back when IBM came, the city was much smaller than it is today; there were no suburbs or shopping malls, and downtown still hummed with life -- especially on Saturdays, when residents converged on Main Street to shop.
Reed and his family could hardly find an apartment when they moved to Lexington. Major subdivisions like the one where he lives now did not yet exist; rolling farmland still prevailed, and Tates Creek Road -- now a five-lane road from downtown to the county line -- was just two lanes wide.
In Fayette County in 1956, population 116,700, the local economy was based primarily on tobacco farming, the horse industry and the University of Kentucky. And the economy was stagnant.
To boost the sagging economy, the Chamber of Commerce created the Lexington Industrial Foundation. The town planned to recruit some good, clean industry. It succeeded, luring big names like Square D and WABCO and Trane.
But first and foremost came IBM -- "a model of the type of industry people in central Kentucky wanted to have," said Theodore Broida, president of QRC Research Corp. of Lexington.
"Prior to that time, Lexington had no real growth, no industry at all," said W.L. Rouse Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of First Security Corp. of Kentucky, "They kind of broke the ice."
Workers at the IBM plant in Lexington churned out the first typewriter in the winter of 1956-57. Only a year before, the 271-acre plant site had been a working farm, said the chamber's Houlihan.
Change came fast and furious. "It's still almost inconceivable that it would grow this fast and this large," Reed said.
"The whole character of the city undoubtedly changed,'' Wright said. ''You brought in a good many people from outside Kentucky. You had so many new employees and so much money, it just really started the ball rolling."
Up popped two shopping centers on what then were the outskirts of town. Subdivisions began springing up nearby.
"It was the beginning of modern Lexington," Cone said.
IBM placed an emphasis on locating in cities where employees -- many of them engineers and scientist -- could send their children to adequate schools. Its arrival placed pressure on Lexington education officials to raise their standards, Wright said.
In 1950, the median grade-level attained by Fayette County residents 25 and older was 10.4, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show. By 1960, that had jumped to 11.2. It was 12.3 in 1970 and 12.8 in 1980.
It was the first time Lexington had ever had much of a middle class to support the school system or any other community venture, Reed and Cone said. Before IBM brought a new breed of young professionals to town, University of Kentucky faculty and administrators had been the city's middle class.
But the university almost was a community in itself. Outside campus, a large gap had separated the horse farm owners and the tobacco strippers.
Thanks to IBM, Lexington became more diverse. "They certainly raised the wage scale, which had been abysmally low for many years," Wright said. "That put pressure on other businesses in Lexington to follow suit, and that fed into the ability of a large number of people to buy homes.
"It had a snowball effect."
The love affair between Lexington and the corporate giant has not been without its rough spots, although they have been few and far between. One of those, a run-in with the NAACP, came several years after IBM started production in Lexington. The group challenged IBM officials over their minority hiring policies, Urban County Council member Robert Jefferson said.
IBM opened up new job opportunities for blacks by the sheer magnitude of its operation, Jefferson said. Policy had little to do with it, although the plant came up with a plan for minority hiring soon after being challenged by the NAACP. But for the most part, IBM's name has been like magic in Lexington. The company that provides work for Lexington's Opportunity Workshop and contributes more money than anyone else to local arts and United Way is highly regarded -- by its employees and by the public.
"You can walk in stores here in town, and you show your IBM I.D. and you can cash a check," said Kenneth Current of Lexington, a former IBM executive who supervised the shutdown of an Indiana distribution center in 1986-87.
"You're accepted as a trustworthy person. I think that's part of the reputation. It's something I think is attached to the name 'IBM.' "
One of the things that's attached is Lexington. Is anyone ready to believe the tie between Lexington and IBM might be severed now? After all these years?
"I wasn't ready to believe it," Reed said. "I just couldn't imagine it would happen.
"It could be kind of devastating."