Friday, September 19, 2008

The Glue Factory

When I was seven and bouncing in the back of our 1966 Chrysler (no seat belts), just before arriving at paradise (grandma's house) there was this stench so strong only my dear grandmother could properly explain to a seven-year-old what it was precisely.

"The glue factory!" Grandma exclaimed. "That's old horses, they're making glue!"

When you're a kid - and I guess even as an adult - you hope the story isn't true. That a tall tale is being told, and that's all, you hope.

Turns out she was right. The myth, in my imagination larger then life at the age of seven, was confirmed nearly 30 years later upon our arrival and investigation of the Peter Cooper Glue and Gelatin Factory near Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

The Peter Cooper Glue factory was, apparently, too stinky even for Milwaukee in 1899. It was built on the far outskirts over one hundred years ago, nine miles directly south of the booming industrial city on Lake Michigan.

When we arrived, probably thirty years after the last horse rendered its hooves to the adhesive cause, the air was heavy and acrid and the place resounded with sounds of clanging steel and dripping water. As some ghost hunters would say... the place felt very active.

Most rooms were enormous with lots of what were, at one time, giant windows, now with torn plastic pitifully in place to contain asbestos particles from escaping into another world - a world of full of life, in contrast to this one.

Even in the largest of rooms, hundreds of feet long, voices seem to be muffled by the thick air. A yell or two for your nearest companion more often than not fell silent as if you were always alone, as if you decided to enter this wasteland of industry by yourself.

An awkward silent, as they were right next to me... I could swear. I was spooked and it was the middle of the day.

I continued to shoot wondering where everyone went. There was Thomas, with his shirt covering his nose and mouth, and I wondered if that was that to protect him from asbestos or an attempt to tame the stench of animal bio matter that still hung heavily in this decrepit place. I was too busy setting up my next shot to decide.

I called it "the masher". I was sure that this was machine was an evil machine. One device that, if not was the perpetrator of death, then its close accomplice. It was the largest chain-driven machine I could ever imagine running and I wondered about the noise. Who's job was it to keep this massive chain, the width the size of my fists, lubricated?

27 years after the glue factory stopped slaughtering animals, a building wide exposed to the harsh Wisconsin elements of winters and summers, the stench of animal matter was too strong to not feel ones gag reaction kick in.

Jell-O. It was Peter Cooper who owned the patent for Jell-O, the delicious fruit flavored gelatin desert that was a smash during the industrial revolution. It was cheap, high tech (for the time) and I'll be darned if it was a truly American desert. And in addition to Jell-O we can thank Mr. Cooper for the first American steam-powered rail engine, the Tom Thumb.