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Friendships forged at Duluth's Diamond Tool remain strong 20 years after factory closed

Tim Kusnierek laughs at a story shared by Jerry Hallsten, right, at a gatheirng of former Diamond Tool employees got together at G.B.Schneiders in West Duluth Monday morning. At left is John McMillian. Dave Ballard / For the News Tribune1 / 3
Old pictures from Diamond Tool, brought by Dennis Hackett, are shown at a gathering of former employees of the West Duluth factory earlier this week. Dave Ballard / For the News Tribune2 / 3
Dennis Hackett shows old pictures from Diamond Tool and explains the process of how tools were produced. At right is Chuck Hartley. Dave Ballard / For the News Tribune3 / 3

Twenty years ago this month, Diamond Tool and Horseshoe Co. closed its doors in West Duluth. Some employees wore “Out the door in ’94”

T-shirts. Some got into a limousine in the name of going out in style.

The hardware manufacturer that once outfitted the hooves of ponies and Clydesdales alike, and forged wrenches still hanging in countless Duluth garages, remains a vital presence in the lives and memories of some of its former employees.

“We can talk for hours about the same experiences,” 62-year-old Jerry Hallsten said.

Today, Diamond Tool’s former office and factory employees will gather at the Kom-On-Inn in West Duluth for a reunion marking the 20th anniversary of the plant’s closing.

Earlier this week, a handful of the men who worked in the noisy factory gathered to reminisce about their work. The gathering place was GB Schneider & Co., at 4602 Grand Ave. Seated around a table and drinking coffee, the men were sitting right in the middle of the site formerly home to their massive block-and-a-half-long workplace.

“This would be right where the forge shop used to be,” said 68-year-old Dennis Hackett, describing a sweltering space that the men agreed was the heart of the mill.

“Every piece and every part was individually forged,” said 67-year-old Tim Kusnierek, sporting a mint condition Diamond Tool trucker’s cap as he settled into his seat under a retro-style Diamond Tool sign on the restaurant wall.

On a sunny, 80-degree day, the forge shop and its 30 hammer forges — along with its 30, 2,000-plus-degree furnaces — would spike temperatures inside parts of the plant to more than 100 degrees. Still, it was a workplace the men welcomed. They were unionized and well-paid. They said they felt like important cogs in a marvelous industrial age.

“The days of blacksmithing were long gone,” said 65-year-old Chuck Hartley, a trimmer in the forge shop who snipped excess steel from tools and shoes.

The mill peaked with 800-plus employees in early 1982. During that time, the plant was kicking out up to 3,500 adjustable wrenches a day, among other products. But by the last day on Oct. 28, 1994 — the plant now two owners removed from the Swanstrom family that started the business in 1908 — there were only 80 employees left. All of them had at least 20 years of experience in the plant. These were people who’d established a bond as strong as the forged sealing of top-and-bottom horseshoe halves.

“You knew these people longer than you knew your own kids,” Hallsten said.

It wasn’t just the length of time they’d known each other that created their bond. It was the toil. The forges banged so violently and so often the men described tea cups rattling in neighborhood cupboards. Inside the plant, the harsh and repetitive nature of the work created an environment in which the employees sought refuge in their shared experience.

“It was all about the people,” 78-year-old John McMillian said. “That’s what made the job possible when you had to do something 1,000 times a day — 2,500 if you were good with pliers.”

The men described how they would set up challenges with one another, like who could move the most products down the line in a single shift.

“It could be extremely monotonous,” Kusnierek said. “It was the guy next to you who got you through the day.”

It’s wasn’t as if the employees were chatty. It was too loud for that. Rather, theirs was the common bond of people being part of something bigger. Mostly, they were proud of their work. They knew they were making high-quality products.

“This is the smallest wrench we made, right here,” said Hartley, pulling out a 4-inch adjustable wrench. “It was all American steel; we were absolutely fanatical about that.”

To a man, the people around the coffee table harbored no lingering animosity for losing their jobs. They all recovered and have retired from other jobs. They recognize now that they were part of a different time. Their time at Diamond Tool came when Americans bonded over industry and enemy. The plant was once lauded by the U.S. government for its hefty tank wrenches that were used throughout war efforts to adjust and replace the tracks on tanks.

The men described the factory owner, John Swanstrom, in glowing terms as a confident and fair man. They recalled him telling new hires they’d be working with good people, because that was the only kind of person he said he would bring into the mill. Swanstrom was accessible, too. A worker from any part of the plant could be invited into his office.

Kusnierek was hired the week after he’d returned from military service in Vietnam.

“That was one of the first questions they asked me, ‘Were you in the service?’ ” he said. “They were very military-friendly.”

At its height, operating three shifts daily, Diamond Tool hired an off-duty police officer to control traffic while incoming and outgoing employees crossed the street to and from the company parking lot.

On that last day, after crossing the street, “We all headed to the Kom-On-Inn for a big whoop-de-doo,” Hartley recalled.

Twenty years later, they’ll do it again for old time’s sake.

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