When residents of Crisfield, Md., talk about the newly reopened Carvel Hall cutlery plant, they don't praise the beauty of its stainless steel steak knives or comment on the convenience of its outlet store.
They talk about jobs.
For small Somerset County, on Maryland's Eastern shore, each job is a godsend. And Carvel Hall just hired 27 people, a number that could jump to 100 within two years.
Carvel Hall Inc., a 95-year old business, closed its doors in October when its parent company, Towle Manufacturing Co. of Boston, filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors. The company's 75 workers lost their jobs, joining 246 workers laid off when Campbell Soup Co. closed its Mrs. Paul's division in Somerset County.
Those are significant numbers for a county with a work force of 12,000. In May, the county's unemployment rate topped the state at 10.1 percent, more than triple the state average of 3.3 percent.
Determined to help ease the county's troubles, business leaders and state and local officials banded together to put Carvel Hall's craftsmen, supervisors and administrators back to work.
"Carvel Hall will by itself represent a potential decrease of one percent in unemployment," said Tom Laidlaw, director of economic development for Somerset County.
Last year, the county's unemployment rate attracted the attention of Gov. William Schaefer, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and other state officials who toured the region, pledging to revitalize the county.
Fortunately for Carvel Hall, the state followed through. The Maryland Industrial Land Act fund loaned the county nearly $1.3 million, and the county extended the loan to investors who agreed to purchase and upgrade the Carvel Hall facility.
In addition, the Maryland Industrial Development Finance Authority guaranteed $1 million of a $1.4 million loan from the local Peninsula Bank to the investors.
The purchase of Carvel Hall by a group of Eastern shore investors, including Robert J. Bell -- who runs his own management consulting firm -- became final Aug. 2. Bell and other investors, while responsible for the loans, did not invest any additional funds.
Carvel Hall already has rehired 25 people, and production has begun once again on its line of steak knives, carving sets, historical knives and tools for the local seafood industry.
That's good news for longtime Carvel Hall employees, many of whom had been unable to find other jobs when the plant shut down.
Kenny Sterling, a Crisfield resident, spent 27 years grinding and polishing knives for Carvel Hall. When the plant shut down, he helped his wife and his 9-year old daughter make ends meet by doing odd jobs, such as installing stereo equipment and repairing videocassette recorders. Now, he's back on the job.
"I would make someone a very good housewife," he chuckled. "I was getting the meals and taking care of our daughter... . It was rough, and I'm glad to be back."
Alonzo Brown, who worked as plant supervisor for 29 years, had a similar story. "I couldn't find another job. I received unemployment and did work around the house."
"I feel real proud that we opened up again," he said.
Maron Atkins, a Carvel Hall employee who managed production and inventory control for 13 years, went back to school when the plant closed. She said Crisfield's 5,000 residents didn't realize it would take so long for the plant to reopen.
"We didn't want to see this company gone," she said. "It would affect everyone in the community -- the retail stores and the grocery stores. This is a nice little town." Carvel Hall's reopening, she said, "makes everyone have a more positive attitude."
Most employees credit James A. Hart, former plant manager and current president of Carvel Hall, with working behind the scenes to reopen the company. After the plant closed, Hart worked as a consultant to Towle to watch over the facilities and worked on his own time assisting potential buyers who were looking at the company.
"I did that not for Towle, but for the locality," Hart said.
Hart's employees agree. "I and everybody back here owe it all to him," said Sterling.
For Hart, the challenge is developing a strategy to keep the company in business independent of Towle, which used to handle all sales.
"Our biggest challenge now is assembling a manufacturing staff and sales force to help us reenter the marketplace, and letting people know our products will be equal or better in quality," Hart said.
But, he said, getting products back on store shelves should be no problem for a company that's been in business for 95 years.
Carvel Hall's predecessor, the Briddell Company, founded in 1895, functioned as a blacksmith shop manufacturing carts and farm equipment. It also made seafood harvesting tools for local watermen.
The Briddell family supplemented its product line by producing anti-tank rocket shells during World War II and machetes for export to South America. Towle Manufacturing, a silversmith company, acquired Carvel Hall in 1961.
In 1986, Towle entered bankruptcy, emerging later in the year. Although it sold off some of its assets, it held on to Carvel Hall. Towle reentered bankruptcy in 1989.
When Towle went into bankruptcy for the first time, "it picked prized companies it wanted to keep, and Carvel Hall was one," Hart said.
In 1989, though, Towle decided to trim back operations to focus on its own silversmith business, Hart said. At that time, it decided to shut down Carvell Hall.
Hart said Carvel Hall's annual sales exceeded $3 million before the company closed. "We're cautiously optimistic that we can get up to speed," he said.
Last week, in its first step back to the market, Carvel Hall reopened its outlet store, which sells the company's knives and other houseware items.
"We had a really nice response," Hart said. "There were a hundred people there without any advertising at all."