Great Dane closes Savannah plant, takes a look back at rich history of trailer production
Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, BY RICK WEBER
View all Great Dane Savannah plant's history photos and captions
Early refrigerated trailers made long-distance shipping of fruits and vegetables possible.
January 12 was one of the strangest days of Chris Hammond IV's professional life. As he rode through the manufacturing facility in Great Dane Trailers' plant in Savannah, Georgia, he felt like he was in the grip of a cruel time warp.
Is this Sunday? Or Monday? he thought.
He knew in his heart that it was Monday, but it sure looked and sounded like Sunday. Machinery was not manned and trailers were not moving. The only sounds he heard were the faint echoes of a three-man skeleton crew that was packing up leftover parts that would be shipped to Great Dane's plant in Brazil, Indiana.
“It was an unusual feeling,” said Hammond, 41, vice president of dealer sales. “It was weird.”
Three days earlier, the last trailer rolled off the assembly line at the Savannah facility. For the record, it was a reefer headed for Sysco.
Great Dane, which was founded in 1900 in Savannah and built its first trailer there in 1930, announced in November its plans to close the Savannah facility, citing the effect of the extended economic downturn on the transportation industry coupled with the need for more efficient production.
The plan is to retain the corporate offices, which house the research and development lab, sales and marketing, accounting, customer service, and engineering.
January 8 was cloaked in sadness. Great Dane gathered its 270 employees who would lose their jobs, fed them breakfast, and took group pictures. Savannah TV station WTOC (Channel 11) documented the day as employees reminisced, some crying.
“To be honest, it broke my heart,” said Chris' father, retired Great Dane president Kit Hammond, 69.
Kit's father, retired chairman of the board Chris Hammond II, 96, was there when the first refrigerated trailer rolled off the assembly line in the 1940s.
“It's like a funeral service,” he said.
The Channel 11 reporter and cameraman moved from employee to employee, documenting their long personal histories with the company and the pride they had in the product.
“My father worked out here for 45 years,” quality-control supervisor Bernie Griner said, “and I have for 35 years.”
“To us, this is the best trailer ever built, and always will be,” said plant superintendent Connie Barker, a 42-year veteran.
Specialist Walter Ross: “We are the Cadillac of the trailer industry.”
How loyal have the employees been? Well, one of them — former plant manager, Dewey Cribbs, who started working in the plant at age 15 and remained for 53 years — requested that the outline of a Great Dane be carved into his granite tombstone. When he was buried on May 6, 2002, he wore his 50-year service pin on the lapel of his coat.
“I'm sure that 2000 years from now, when some archaeologists are digging this up, they're not going to expect to find that,” Kit said.
Reflecting days after the closing ceremony, Kit said all three of them — himself, his father, and his son — were “very emotional.”
“We grew up with a lot of the employees,” he said. “I worked with a lot of the fathers of the kids in the plant. I call them ‘kids.’ Most of them have been there 30 to 35 years. It always was like family.
“For me, I can remember when I was a kid, I'd come out with my father right after World War II, and the company had a Great Dane mascot. The watchman kept it and we'd play with it and have a great time. Then, when I was in my early teens, we got a Great Dane ourselves and named it Van Trailer. And we had it for years.”
When Chris IV was 5 or 6 years old, Kit would bring him into the plant and they'd wander around. Amid the roar of the machinery, Chris would ask his dad, “What's going on out there?” And his dad would say, “The little baby trailers are being made.” And for the longest time, he thought “the big trailers were making the little trailers.”
Chris' most poignant adult memory came 15 years ago when he had ascended to salesman.
“We had 20 really heavy-spec'd dry vans,” he said. “Savannah was about the only plant in the world that could build this spec. I remember being nervous. I was thinking, ‘If this trailer is wrong and we build this thing, my boss is going to shoot me.’ I came to the plant for the pilot and the guys were saying, ‘I hope it's right, because behind that group of trailers is the rest of the order.’ They had already built them because they didn't have a lot of other work going on.
“We're standing there. We had all the customers looking at it. At the end, after looking at it for hours, the only problem they had was that they didn't like where the tag lamp was. I literally had been sweating, thinking, ‘If they need a dimensional change, we're dead.’ I remember telling the customers, ‘I'm glad the tag lamp is the only problem, because I think we can handle that.’ That was probably the most nervous I ever was as a young salesman.”
And now, the plant is empty. The memories are all they have.
“Great Dane has been a part of the community since 1900,” Kit said. “It survived 108 years, not always in the trailer business. In the end, the only type of trailer we built in Savannah was refrigerated trailers.
“It's been a long time. What fascinates me is there have been a dozen different types of trailers manufactured in that plant. Virtually every conceivable trailer: truck bodies, marine and domestic containers, refrigerated trailers, van trailers, flat trailers, lowboy trailers, gas/petroleum tank trailers, asphalt, grain, bulk fruit, open top. Everything except dump trailers has been built in that plant.
Here's a look at that rich history of the Savannah plant:
Sheet-metal blowpipe systems with their familiar cyclone dust collectors were an expected sight at sawmills, planing mills, and furniture plants throughout the Southeast at the turn of the century. Many of these dust- and chip-collecting systems were fabricated at The Savannah Blowpipe Company, then transported and erected throughout the region. The company had been established in 1900 in Savannah with a total capitalization of $3000. By 1912, the company had begun to fabricate light structural steel and steel plate products.
In 1919, the company, with 25 employees, moved to a new location on Lathrop Avenue with 10,000 square feet and a 10-ton traveling crane, power tools for cutting and punching, steelwork, and blacksmith facilities.
In 1931, The Savannah Blowpipe Company was incorporated as The Steel Products Company, with total assets of $100,000. With better highways being developed throughout the Southeast, it decided to design and manufacture truck trailers for over-the-road freight hauling.
To implement this decision, The Steel Products Company hired the best trailer man it could find. He had been building truck trailers in Greenville, South Carolina, and calling them by the name of Great Dane, the name applied to trailers built by The Steel Products Company. Why? Well, he had been familiar with the use of Great Dane dogs in Belgium as work animals known for their strength and stamina. He thought these were the outstanding qualities of his product.
A market for lighter weight trailers gradually developed through economic pressures and the advent of highway weight laws aimed at haulers. In 1938, The Steel Products Company responded with lightweight tank trailers and van trailers made of high-tensile steel. A stressed-skin van of exceptionally lightweight design became the principal Great Dane product.
The Steel Production Company pioneered the refrigerated trailer field in the early 1940s by building the first produce van with a wet ice bunker and a gas engine and blower system.
“They'd load a 300-pound block of ice in the front of the trailer, have a Briggs and Stratton engine on the outside turning a propeller on the inside, which would blow cool air on the produce,” Kit said.
In 1947, they made the first mechanically refrigerated trailers.
By 1949, the company again responded to an economic opportunity, this time with a van trailer made of aluminum and with a tandem axle.
In 1953, refrigerated aluminum trailers were in demand for use in the Florida perishables market and became the standard for the eastern United States.
Sales outlets had been established in 31 cities and 18 states throughout the eastern half of the United States.
In 1958, The Steel Production Company changed its name to Great Dane Trailers, Inc. The following year, Great Dane brought out a redesigned line of van trailers and a new tank trailer line, both largely of lightweight aluminum. As these new trailers won widespread acceptance, the company phased out all structural steel products and further expanded trailer production.
Great Dane entered the piggyback and container market, completing its first piggyback trailer order in 1961 and its first maritime container order in 1963. Sales outlets had been established in 24 states blanketing the eastern of the country.
In 1966, Great Dane announced a $2 million expansion program, which increased trailer production by 100%.
In 1972, Great Dane acquired a second manufacturing facility by purchasing Arrow Trailers in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, all platform trailers are constructed at this plant. Since this time, production at the Memphis plant has increased by almost 200%.
In 1974, a decision was made to build yet another manufacturing facility for van trailers in Brazil, Indiana — taking advantage of its centralized location to serve the western and midwestern trailer markets.
Expansion and innovations in insulating methods at the Savannah plant further expanded its capacity for reefers.
The decision was made to almost double the Brazil facility by adding a refrigerated trailer production line, completed during the first quarter of 1978.
In 1988, Great Dane acquired the SuperSeal reefer product line and the Wayne, Nebraska, plant from Timpte. The addition of SuperSeal reefer created the broadest line of reefers in the industry.
In 1996, Great Dane opened a dry van plant in Terre Haute, Indiana, as well as a parts distribution center adjacent to it. A year later came a merger of Great Dane and Pines Trailer, creating Great Dane Limited Partnership — the world's largest trailer company.
In 1999, Great Dane took on the challenge of updating its branch locations with the expansion of the Little Rock, Arkansas, sales office to a full-service branch.
In 2000, the company celebrated its 100th anniversary. Great Dane employees in Savannah gathered that year for a Centennial Open House and to celebrate the completion of the plant's 250,000th trailer.
Great Dane underwent another period of growth between 2001 and 2002 with two major acquisitions: the purchase of Strick's Eastern Van Manufacturing facilities in Danville, Pennsylvania, and Abbeville, South Carolina, and two of the Trailmobile's manufacturing facilities in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Charleston, Illinois.
In 2001, Great Dane began a new campaign to celebrate its entrance into the new millennium: The Next Generation from Great Dane. The next generation of products included redesigns of all refrigerated trailers and platform trailers, as well as the addition of two new freight van trailers.
In 2002, the SSL dry freight van was added to the product line. In addition to providing all of the advantages of conventional sheet and post construction, including ease of repair, the SSL's patented design offered durability and protection of cargo with its steel-lined interior walls.
The brand new Charlotte, North Carolina, branch opened its doors in July 2003 and subsequently became the model for future branch facilities. The addition of a high-tech paint booth, more service bays, and expanded parts warehouses and yard space enabled the new branches to become one-stop-shops for new and used trailer sales, parts, and service.
The Lancaster/Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and Dallas branches followed over the next year.
Between 2004 and 2005, Great Dane experienced another explosion in trailer engineering and technology with the announcements of five new products. Three new trailers were added to the lineup, and advancements in liner technology brought two more product introductions. The combo aluminum and steel FREEDOM line of flatbeds became popular for owner-operators and long-haul outfits. The Super LT refrigerated trailer, designed for the eastern US and Canadian truckload market, combined the best features and options of the popular SuperSeal and Classic Reefer for long hauls. Great Dane unveiled the versatile i-Van, a semi-insulated freight van for temperature-sensitive loads such as candy and chemicals. The introduction of the i-van represented huge investments in design and in Great Dane's Brazil, Indiana, manufacturing facilities where this trailer is produced. The company announced a $5 million re-tooling of the plant in early 2005, attributed in part to the addition of special foam presses and a modular assembly needed to build the i-Van.
Great Dane followed its 2003 introduction of PunctureGuard scuffband material with the development of PunctureGuard liner for reefers and vans — a highly durable thermoplastic innovation that creates a “damage barrier” against splintering, snagging, and everyday abuse imposed by loading and unloading with forklifts.
The company introduced ThermoGuard — a glass-reinforced thermoplastic, with an added composite layer that completely seals the reefer's insulation.
In the fall of 2004, Great Dane Limited Partnership announced the acquisition of a production facility in Huntsville, Tennessee, previously owned by Wabash National Corporation. Significant investments were made in the plant, which assumed production of the FREEDOM line as well as other platform trailers from the Memphis, Tennessee, plant. By the time of the start-up in the third quarter of 2005, two full production lines had been added to the existing one, with two finishing lines also in use.
The end of 2005 brought a significant change to the Great Dane front offices in Savannah. Kit Hammond officially retired from his day-to-day responsibilities at the company after more than 40 years.
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