Like honey on a baked ham, ice glazes porch railings and bare trees, the streamers over B&W Motors ("Our Business is Exhausting") and the windows at Stihl Chain Saws. It is quiet here on Main Street in the "Hub of Augusta County," and the paint-cracked little city among the cornfields looks deserted.
East on Main toward Devil's Knob, a looming Blue Ridge peak that wears a winter coat of pine, silence breaks and heavy machines roar. Rising from the snow and the mud is the mountain that Hershey Foods built -- a great chunk of concrete promise for the unemployed in the valley.
During the past two weeks, 4,000 men and women have ridden down Main, parked cars and trucks at meterless curbs, and filled out applications for the 350 new jobs Hershey will offer next fall when its new $86 million plant begins making Whatchamacallits and Reese's Pieces.
That so many people in this valley of 93,000 want those jobs seems surprising in Virginia, a state that boasts an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent. Like fog from over the mountain, the national recession has rolled into Augusta County, leaving 3,000 workers unemployed. In nearby Waynesboro, one of the largest cities in the Shenandoah Valley, unemployment has reached almost 11 percent, well above the 8.4 percent national average.
Life being as it is in the Shenandoah-- slow, simple and conservative -- there is little feeling of urban urgency or crisis. When recession comes, as it did in 1975 when unemployment in the area reached 8.8 percent, it doesn't seem to cut quite so deeply, for expectations aren't quite so high.
"People here are extremely conservative," says Lilian Morse of the Staunton-Augusta Chamber of Commerce. "They don't buy what they can't pay for. They have gardens and raise animals for food. Bad times around here aren't so much a hand-to-mouth thing. It's more like people not buying a new coat or not going to the movies."
Even so, the flow of applicants for jobs with Hershey has been steady. Some are people like Karen Harris, 18, who has spent the last four years at Waynesboro's Red Carpet Inn, working her way up from dishwashing to buffet salads, (she is still earning the federal minimum wage, $3.35 an hour) or 35-year-old Jeff Carter, father of six, who can't make it these days selling building supplies on commission.
But most -- about 70 percent, Hershey officials estimate -- are like Frances Mayer, a mother of two who was laid off from the General Electric plant in Waynesboro 18 months ago, or Wade McNeil, a 23-year-old who graded brick at General Shale Products in nearby Rockbridge County until that company temporarily shut down in November.
"Why am I here?" McNeil repeats softly, stroking his gauzy beard. "Because ain't nobody else hiring, that's why."
"You can see why the county is glad to have us," says Hershey plant manager Harold Cook, who has spent his entire working life in the employ of the company that first packaged the Kiss. "We are a stable industry. Even during the depression Mr. Hershey was successful. People may not be able to afford to buy a car or a refrigerator, but they can afford to reward themselves now and then with a piece of candy."
As the impact of the national slowdown began to be felt here, Dupont put its workers on a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule as demand for synthetics for clothes and carpets declined. General Electric laid off about 100 people as sales of computers, for which it makes components, fell. So, many here are looking to the 4,500-square-foot Hershey plant on 309 acres of farmland for new stability.
Though the plant's telephone number isn't listed, the operators at the Red Carpet Inn in Waynesboro know it by heart. Two patrons at the Library Restaurant in Waynesboro are overheard talking about getting work there. The man looking through magazines at Stuarts Draft's only 7-Eleven also has applied.
In addition to jobs, Morse says, Hershey's building and operating costs and its non-unionized wages -- between $6.25 and $10.25 an hour -- will stimulate the local economy. Morse estimates that each dollar spent will change hands two or three times before leaving the county, and that for every 100 new jobs Hershey brings, about 65 new retail and service jobs will be created in the county.
Since 1929, when DuPont first built a plant here, Augusta County has courted industrial partners such as Westinghouse, General Electric, Hollister and a dozen more. Cloaking suburban savvy in a bottomland drawl, Augusta residents diversified and revitalized, and avoided the rural population decline that has traditionally drained young people from the countryside.
Part of Augusta's attraction is its heritage, the work ethic brought by the valley's first settlers, the Scotch-Irish and the Mennonites.
Augusta also has the Norfolk and Western Railroad, sewer and water lines thoughtfully laid in a county that is still about 90 percent farmland, Interstates 81 and 64 for transport and the promise of delivery in two days to over half of the population of the United States by the more than a dozen trucking companies here. Real estate tax rates are relatively low, 45 cents per $100 valuation.
And there's the Virginia payscale: In 1980, the national gross average hourly pay to production workers in manufacturing was $7.06, while production workers in Virginia were earning an average of $5.98 an hour. In its Pennsylvania plant, Hershey pays its production and maintenance workers between $8.41 and $10.44 and hour, union officials there say. There will be no union when Hershey's Stuarts Draft plant opens.
Aside from these reasons, Hershey officials say they chose Augusta because of the county's accessibility to its headquarters in Hershey, Pa., where the chocolate for the candy is made, and the Southeast, where the peanuts are grown.
"If we stayed strictly agricultural, we would have been strangled," said Augusta County planner Harold H. Ralston. "Things do change and we knew we had to change with them. You have to keep changing, keep growing, or you're going to die on the vine."
So far, Augusta's efforts to remain vital have been successful despite the periodic economic slowdowns that are seen here as an inevitable part of life. Children have stayed in the valley, newcomers have moved in and the population has grown from about 75,000 in 1960 to about 93,000 today, a sharp contrast to the declining populations of many other rural areas in Virginia.
Staunton, the county seat, has become a bustling city of 22,000, with a colony of glassblowers, poets and writers, a resident mime and a redeveloped downtown. A multimillion dollar American heritage museum is being planned. The county is counting on it to be the third largest tourist attraction in the state, behind Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens.
With all its growth, says the chamber's Morse, Augusta has managed to retain its quilting-bee charm. Crime is low, a feeling of community remains. Only 38 percent of the women in the county work, compared with over 50 percent nationwide.
But the economy being what it is today, says Mary Anne Fulton of the East Augusta branch of the Virginia Employment Commission, "People are real worried, they're real concerned."
Fulton says, however, that the residents of Augusta County are not the type to leave when things get rough. "They'll probably stay another year and see how things go. After that, they'll probably stay one more."
That's the way people are here in the valley. Like Frances Mayer, no one is expecting miracles from Hershey. People aren't waiting for the construction of a Hershey Park South, for a hockey team like the Hershey Bears or for their street lights to be replaced with ones shaped like Hershey's Kisses, as they are in Hershey. People like Mayer are just waiting for work.
"I hope I'm lucky enough to be hired," she says, and then pulls the lapels of her threadbare gray coat closer to her neck as she prepares to go back out onto Main Street, which is now dusted with snow. "I probably won't be hired, but I'm hoping. I'm hoping."