Tireless Task: History buff continues decades-long writing project about Uniroyal

by Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth

EXPLORING THE FACTORY.Jack Zais, who worked in maintenance at the tire plant for 25 years, sits before a Banbury mixer, for which the building was named.
EXPLORING THE FACTORY.Jack Zais, who worked in maintenance at the tire plant for 25 years, sits before a Banbury mixer, for which the building was named.

Ring the doorbell of Jack Zais on a Friday in December and you’ll hear a muffled Christmas tune on the other side of the front door. He welcomes guests into the tidy blue living area where 13 of the books he has authored about the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant lay out on the dining table. The motion clock above the table strikes the hour and whirrs to life, chiming “The First Noel” while the face dances. It’s difficult to hear the soft-spoken man over the din.

Past the dog bed where their geriatric white Maltese rests, through a hallway, is a 10x10 office where Jack, a local historian who specializes in the history of the tire plant, has spent eight to 12 hours per day, three days a week, since they moved in. This is a habit he has kept for the past 25 years, since the closing of the plant in 1992.

“If I set my mind to something, I don’t let hardly anything stand in my way. As long as I have the blessing of my wife, that’s the only thing I need.” – writer Jack Zais, on his meticulous 25-year effort documenting the history of the former Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant in Eau Claire

Books and papers are stashed in every corner and crevasse of the room, piled as high as the trailer home’s ceiling. A desktop computer glows dimly from the corner desk, straining to process dozens of windows of document scans, photos, emails, and research pages.

Upon the closure of Uniroyal, where he worked for 25 years, Jack was eligible for retirement, but “not ready for the rocking chair,” he said. To fill his time, he dedicated himself to the task of compiling the most complete history of a U.S. manufacturing plant ever made, focusing on the company. He and his wife, Connie, set aside $5,000 for the project.

But the task was larger than they expected: Jack has reviewed more than 80,000 pages of records, every issue of the Eau Claire Daily Leader and Daily Telegram published since the plant’s opening, hours of video, dozens of photo albums, and a stack of journals taller than his 6-foot frame, and he continues to condense them into comprehensive historical texts based on subject. So far, he has published 12 books, with a 13th – the second in a series of general history about the plant – heading to print this December.

The cost of the project has exceeded Jack’s expectations as well. Between making copies, purchasing historical documents, and paying for printing, he has spent nearly double his original budget. When he began printing his most recent series, he secured support from Banbury Place, American Phoenix, and the Royal Credit Union in order to offer the publications at a reasonable cost to customers without digging too deep into his own pockets.

Jack’s latest publications include the first book in a series encompassing the entire history of the Uniroyal plant; one focusing on the Michelin Tire Company buyout of the plant and its shutdown; and a text documenting women’s work and pay in the plant.

Jack is very matter-of-fact about his decision to write about women’s issues. He noticed a recurring discussion in company documents regarding policy for female plant workers and compiled the references, like he has done with other subjects.

Although there was only one woman employed by the factory during its first year of operation, in the next several years the company hired enough women to total about 14 percent of its workforce. This was in great part a money-saving measure, according to Jack, as women were hired to do what was considered easier work at lower pay. Under Wisconsin law, women were not allowed to work the night shift, which was also used as justification for their lower wages.

The plant’s labor union – the United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum, and Plastic Workers of America – and the company held different ideas of which women should be hired. The union wanted preference to be given to single women, since they considered married women in the work force to be “double dipping” and removing job opportunity for men. The tire plant wanted to give preference to married women, since they were less likely to quit their jobs to get married, which the company considered a waste of its investment in training them.

A difference in pay, among other discriminatory practices, continued through the 1980s and until the plant’s closure, according to Jack. These practices resulted in what was perceived as unfair treatment of men as well as women, which is expressed through documents Jack included in the book.

Much of Jack’s writing on women’s issues at the tire plant was informed by a set of journals written by Melba and Avis Baehr, who worked in the tire plant for a combined 70 years. They began work at the plant in the 1930s, retiring in 1995. Their daily records totaled 70 journals and 12 scrapbooks, which Jack read and condensed into a separate text called “Diaries of tire plant sisters: their social and work lives revealed.”

“People are always bringing stuff in,” Jack said. It doesn’t always pan out neatly into its own book, as was the case with the Baehr sisters. For example, he was most of the way through a book on health and safety at the tire factory in July. Then, he said, “Someone came and dropped off boxes of health and safety manuals, and I had to rewrite the whole thing.”

Jack is considered an expert on matters pertaining to the tire plant thanks to his decades of experience and research. He was recently interviewed by a team from Wisconsin Public Broadcasting to comment on the history of Eau Claire for a series on different cities within the state. He is also planning on presenting a number of lectures at UW-Eau Claire on the history of the plant. Jack expects to publish at least seven more books, but jokes that there is no end in sight for his exploration of the manufacturing facility’s history.

“If I set my mind to something, I don’t let hardly anything stand in my way,” Jack said. “As long as I have the blessing of my wife, that’s the only thing I need.”

Many of Jack Zais’ books on the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant can be purchased at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.

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