In 1959 Hart Schaffner & Marx, the men's clothing manufacturer, located a trouser factory in Rochester. It was the first decentralization of operations in that Chicago company's 87-year history and also was the first such move by any of the country's major clothing manufacturers.

The plant had a long and successful life here, closing only after 40 years and employing as many as 500 women. Its local existence benefited Rochester in many ways and was a distinction for the city.

How it happened that Hart's chose Rochester for its plant is an unusual story that has not been recorded. I am about to correct that, because I am proud to have been a part of it.

In 1959 the late Jim Zimmerman, a local funeral director, was in the first of his 25 years as executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. I was editor of The Sentinel and a former Chamber president. H. C. Herkless of The Racket clothing store was the current Chamber president. We three also were close friends.

One June day Zimmerman received a telephone call from the offices of the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce. He was told that a representative of a major manufacturer, unidentified, would be at the Chamber's Indianapolis office two days hence and would like to meet there with our Chamber officials. No other details were provided.

Jim said we would have someone there and then he called me. There was no industrial committee of the Chamber at the time. We were a small, close-knit group that responded in an ad hoc fashion to arising problems and opportunities. Jim and I were enthused by the prospect of the Indianapolis meeting and so was Herk, who agreed to go along.

We drove down in Jim's car for the 10 a.m. meeting. Somewhere around Carmel his car had a flat tire. Herk and I got out to help change it but Zimmerman said that it was his car, his responsibility and he would do it.

(Ever afterward though, Jim claimed that we two refused to help and that without his quick work on the flat, the fateful meeting would have been missed. Jim always loved good fiction when he could apply it to himself.)

We three arrived at the State Chamber's offices to be introduced to Harold Narigan, who was to become our good friend during the ensuing months. He was methods engineer for Hart Schaffner & Marx, assigned to the preliminary location negotiations. Narigan proved to be a man of quick and sardonic wit, meaning that the four of us hit it off immediately.

We had our interview with him, thought it went well and then waited outside the office to see how our response would compare to those of the other cities invited to attend. After a time, Narigan emerged and said he would treat us to a Columbia Club lunch.

There we learned a surprising truth: Rochester was the only one of Hart's chosen Indiana cities to respond with a delegation that day. I believe there were four others invited, Crawfordsville among them. We never learned who the other three were. Much later it was disclosed that altogether Hart's had investigated or surveyed 50 cities in four Midwestern states for this plant.

Narigan congratulated us for our courtesy and interest in coming to Indianapolis but said he feared our small community could not provide a large enough pool of female workers to satisfy his requirements. The projected trouser plant, he said, eventually might hire as many as 300 (it actually peaked at 515 in 1965). He would need to be convinced there were twice that number, or 600.

We three said, almost in unison: "We have them! Let us prove it!"

Topps Garment Company had moved its manufacturing operations to Kentucky not long before. We knew many of these women were available; we also believed that their availability likely had helped get us onto Hart's list of potential sites.

Narigan agreed to let us try, but we must not identify Hart's in any way.

Immediately on our return, I published a story in The Sentinel about the plant's possible location here, without naming it, and in the story asked all women who might be willing to work there to fill out and return an accompanying information blank.

Over 800 responded. Narigan was impressed. He came to the city and interviewed a sampling of the women who had responded to our story to determine their quality as workers, but still did not identify his company. He remained impressed.

By the end of July, Hart's officials had become convinced of the employee pool's suitability and adequate size. Next the company was identified in a Sentinel story and the plant's trouser product was revealed. All women interested in working (no experience needed) now were asked to commit themselves by filling out employment applications. This was done over a five-day period in the basement of the First National Bank, then at Main and Eighth Streets.

More than 1,000 women did so. The plant became ours.

There were subsequent negotiations with Hart's officials in Chicago concerning their Rochester building plans and for these we three were joined by the late Byron Shore, a CPA and Zimmerman's predecessor as Chamber secretary. Byron was of invaluable assistance in successfully meeting the company's requirements.

The company had hoped to build its plant at the site of today's Shepherd auto dealership, corner of East Ninth Street and State Road 25. An option was secured on the property and architectural planning was begun, only to be unaccountably delayed. Meanwhile, the Buckeye Molding plant on Wabash Avenue became available. It was deemed suitable and was purchased by Hart's. Hiring and training of employees and the start of production followed early in 1960.

And so it came about. First, because we responded when others didn't; second, because we met the company's requirements in a timely, cooperative and enthusiastic manner and, thirdly, because Rochester workers were revealed to be intelligent, industrious and genial.

The same enthusiast response succeeded later in the same year of 1960 to locate here the Torrington fan blade plant (now Lau Industries). That project was begun by a professional factory-locating service called Fantus which had included Rochester on a list of a dozen cities to be investigated.

Because the ongoing Hart's experience had brought us some expertise in such matters, the four of us also directed negotiations with the Connecticut home office of Torrington (later shortened to Torin). Torrington's consideration of Rochester concluded with a visit by the company's president, Andy Gagarin, who would make the final decision.

On that day I was the only one available to accompany him on his inspection of the site along Indiana 25 northeast of the city. We inspected it and then together climbed the adjoining railroad grade so he could look over the ground. There he spoke to me the final words: "This will do. We'll have it."

The coming to Rochester, so closely together, of Hart Schaffner & Marx and Torrington with the jobs and prominence they represented, gave the incipient Chamber of Commerce an invigoration that has carried it forward to today and all of its successes in between. My part in it gave me great personal satisfaction.

Published Aug. 16, 2005