The union hall of a disbanded Ohio local is finding new life as a museum and learning center, thanks to an innovative partnership forged between the local’s former leaders and a nearby university.
North Canton, Ohio, Local 1985 was one year away from its 60th anniversary in 2016 when it was forced to disband after the area’s last remnants of the Hoover Company, where most of the local’s members had worked, closed down.
“The sad part is that we disbanded and that a lot of people lost their jobs,” Nick Tomey, Local 1985’s final business manager, told The Canton Repository. “The silver lining is that our legacy will be preserved and continue on.”
That preservation is taking form as a new museum housing the local’s records and memorabilia under the care of the Museum Studies Program of North Canton’s Walsh University.
“Shortly after Hoover shut down operations, we asked the International Office if we could donate our union hall to Walsh, and they gave us the approval to proceed,” Tomey said. The idea had garnered the backing of International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth Cooper, who at the time was international vice president for the Fourth District, which covers Ohio.
Just across North Canton’s Main Street from the Hoover plant, Local 1985’s hall had long been an integral part of the community, the site of numerous events and social gatherings for members and their friends and neighbors.
“Walsh was a great fit, because this building has been a part of the community for a lot of years,” Tomey said. “We just hated to see it close up.”
Walsh University is a 3,000-student Roman Catholic liberal arts college founded in 1960 that operates Ohio’s only museum studies program, one of about a dozen in the United States. Installed in the university’s new Local 1985 museum is a mix of permanent and temporary displays exploring the IBEW’s place in North Canton’s history, providing researchers and other interested parties supervised access to some of the local’s files and photos.
Strategically-placed throughout the museum are interactive stations called “maker spaces,” hands-on activity and teaching stations specially designed to allow young people to get a taste of what working at Hoover might have been like.
For most of the 20th century, Hoover was among the most popular and profitable makers of vacuum cleaners in the world. Founded in 1907 in what was then called New Berlin, Hoover started out making leather horse saddles and automobile seats. But after one of its employees invented an improved version of the “electric suction sweeper,” the company decided to put resources into producing and selling it.
By 1916, the company had become so successful in this new venture that it had to build a massive downtown factory to handle the ever-increasing demand for its products.
Although Hoover would go on to set up manufacturing facilities all over the world, North Canton (as the city would be called from 1918 onward) would remain the company’s headquarters for decades.
“This town probably would not be here if it wasn’t for the Hoover Company,” Tomey said. “They ran a really good company.”
Early on, various unions had represented employees at the plant, which Tomey said was Hoover’s only unionized operation. A year-long strike in the mid-1940s broke the union that was in place at the time, however, and not until 1957 was the IBEW able to successfully organize workers under Local 1985.
By the late 1970s, nearly two-thirds of Hoover’s 5,000 employees belonged to the local, working for the company as electricians, assembly-line workers, truck drivers, and so on. But within a few years, Hoover was struggling financially, and in 1985 it underwent the first of what would be a succession of corporate takeovers that too often were accompanied by episodes of downsizing.
By 2006, Hoover was under Whirlpool’s corporate umbrella when Local 1985’s leaders, fearing the appliance giant would try to outsource what was left of the dwindling Hoover-division work, mounted an effort to buy the vacuum cleaner operations in an attempt to preserve the remaining jobs in North Canton.
Instead, Hoover’s product lines were sold that year to TTI Floor Care, a Hong Kong-based corporation that also owns the Oreck and Dirt Devil brands. It didn’t take long for TTI to lay off 600 Local 1985’s remaining members and close the North Canton plant.
TTI also shut down Hoover’s bag-manufacturing facilities in 2012, and then in 2016 the company shut down Hoover's nearby distribution center. The resulting job losses spelled the end of Local 1985, and it disbanded shortly afterward.
For most union locals, this would be the end of the story. But Tomey had been impressed with Walsh’s historical center and museum inside the Hoover family’s 19th-century home on the college’s campus about a mile and a half east of the factory. That center, he noted, barely mentioned workers and the IBEW, and that inspired the former business manager to approach Walsh about using Local 1985’s hall as a venue that would highlight union labor’s role in Hoover’s history.
“We also wanted to keep the legacy of Local 1985 alive for future generations, so you could bring your grandchildren here and tell them, ‘This was my union hall,’” said Tomey, a second-generation Hoover worker. His father, James, had worked there for nearly 41 years, and Nick started at the company when he turned 18 in 1976.
After several months of preparation, the museum was dedicated on Dec. 6 with a ceremony featuring several of the final former officers and board members of Local 1985 who were on hand as honored guests, along with Fourth District International Vice President Brian Malloy, International Representative Bill Dietz, and officials from North Canton and from Walsh University.
“The IBEW museum has hit on a concept that will not only preserve the legacy of the Hoover worker, but build on it for the benefit of the entire community,” said Walsh Provost Douglas Palmer. “Hopefully, we will remind the young people in the community of the skills, the innovation, and most of all the spirit that goes into making something with one’s own hands.”
North Canton Area Chamber of Commerce President Doug Lane hopes the museum will help visitors learn what The Hoover Company meant to North Canton.
“It was a factory town,” Lane said. “Whether you lived here or worked here, the IBEW was a major player. I think it meant stability for a number of residents, and I think it had a place in a lot of people’s hearts. These were hard-working men and women that hopefully were getting better lives for their children.”
City officials anticipate that the hall-turned-museum will become a focal point of North Canton’s downtown revitalization efforts, as developers are transforming the former factory into a mixed-use, residential and commercial community called The Hoover District.
Meanwhile, a plaque noting Local 1985's union’s hall’s prominent place in North Canton’s history is on the Main Street-facing part of the building.
“That last day when I walked out of this building and I locked it up, I just thought, wow, there was no one to say goodbye to. That was a lonely walk,” Tomey said. “But I’m happy the lights are back on today.”