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A National Treasure Rises From The Ashes

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By Laura Ingle On February 15, 2011 @ 8:01 AM In Business, Economy

Since 1923, artisans and craftsmen at the Wendell August Forge in Grove City, Pennsylvania have been producing handcrafted heirloom pieces in sterling silver, bronze, pewter and other metals - a "made in America" tradition that is treasured both locally and nationally.

Wendell August Forge is on the National Register of Historic Places which keeps a list of America's historic and archeological resources worthy of preservation.    The company has made ashtrays for the Hindenburg, has been commissioned to make items by [and for] U.S. Presidents, The U.S. Congress, The Smithsonian and the Vatican. It was also asked by the U.S. government to produce 12 solid bronze plates commemorating the SALT II treaty between the U.S. and Russia .The factory was also a tourist attraction where people would walk among the craftspeople and take pictures of the hammering, anvilling, edging and polishing of metal pieces.

But, on March 6th, 2010, the nation's oldest and largest forge caught fire and burned to the ground after a spark in a spray booth ignited the area and quickly spread.  The devastating fire not only left the factory and retail store in ruins, it also left many jobs in question.   Len Youngo has been a die engraver for the company for 29 years and says he couldn't believe the fire's wrath and potential consequences.  Youngo tells Fox News, "I was horrified.  It was one of those times where you think, 'what am I going to do tomorrow?' I had nowhere to go, I didn't know what to do."

The week of the fire, Wendell August's Insurance adjusters told the owners they should expect to be out of business for up to 9 months.  It was another devastating blow to the company, which had just received the largest order in its nearly 90 year history the day before the blaze.  The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team had commissioned Wendell August to make 20-thousand commemorative tickets for the last game to be held at Mellon Arena and needed the tickets within a matter of weeks.  It seemed like an impossible task, but the people of Grove City rallied in big ways to help out.   So much so, that Wendell August was able to get back up and running in temporary spaces within 5 days of the fire and complete the Penguins order, which helped the company keep its financial head above water. A local business leader and real estate investor rented a huge industrial warehouse to the forge's owners for a good price and a quick deal that was made on a handshake before the lease was even drawn up so that the artisans and craftsmen could get to back to work quickly.

Wendell August's president Will Knecht continues to marvel at the efforts of his community members, telling Fox News, "literally since the fire, the amazing things that have happened to our little company are miraculous."  Last year's fire could have easily been the end of dozens of jobs, but as the company got on its feet, it added nearly 40 employees in the process.” Knecht continues,  "For employees who were worried about their jobs and their next paycheck,  not one employee missed a paycheck, not one employee!   In fact the paychecks were even greater because we had so much overtime that we had to work and since the fire, I think we had about 75 employees, we now have 114… miraculous."

Jason Fleischer, a craftsman who is one of the new hires, says he really needed the work to help support his family and is thrilled to not only have a good job, but one that means something to his values,  "I needed a job and I wanted a job that I could truly believe in.  Something that I wish the rest of the world would take heed to. I'm a firm believer in American-made, homemade, the way it used to be."  Fleisher adds that he was apprehensive at first about being too hopeful his new job would stick, saying, "After the fire we had all this work coming in, and it just kept coming in, and we were thinking there was a possibility for a lay-off after all this, but we just keep getting orders.  I think it's catching on."

The spirit of helping a fellow community member in need caught on in other areas too.   When the fire wiped out Wendell August's retail space, the owners of a local craft store stepped in to offered its most valued space for a good price, so that the company could continue to sell its products and keep afloat.   Anne and Dave Dayton of Slovac Folk Arts and Crafts in Grove City have owned their business for 10 years which specializes in selling Slovakian hand crafts.  Dave Dayton says making the choice to give up the front section of his store to Wendell August after the fire was a no-brainer, "I found that some decisions in business are really easy to make, and this was one of those. Because, we just put ourselves, in the situation of the people of Wendell August, and we knew first of all, that they had to be open for business in order to stay in business."

Knecht and his staff continue to express gratitude for all of the support offered from their community, adding, "It just shows that when we are down, when something bad happens American's rise up and we help each other."

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