Closing Notes Of Ovation Plant: Memories And Music

Dan Haar
The Hartford Courant

NEW HARTFORD — The last guitar was long gone by late-morning Friday at the Ovation Instruments plant. Just about everyone had said farewell a few weeks earlier, when production stopped.

Back on that glum day, six or eight guys had climbed up into the tower of the 1840s mill building and rung the iron bell 47 times — one for each year Ovation made guitars at the New Hartford factory on the Farmington River.

Now, with the machines gone, just two factory employees remained: Howard Ives, a master craftsman who made the high-end Adamas line of instruments, mostly by hand; and Mark Lamanna, who joined the company just out of trade school three decades ago and rose through the ranks to head production for the past 10 years.

Lamanna stood with David Hurley on the vast, L-shaped, wooden floor, noisy with the task of making 15,000 instruments a year not long ago, now silent and empty except for two lone tables and rows of ancient wooden support columns, painted white. Hurley, whose family owns the historic building, is president of the Hurley Manufacturing Co., a spring-maker that shared the complex with Ovation.

Lamanna and Ives had finished the last details of cleaning up and restoring the space. After they all signed some papers, Ives would stay on as a Hurley maintenance employee.

Hurley, an optimist born in the last year of World War II, would have to step up his search for a tenant to fill 73,000 square feet of vacant, old factory space on three floors.

And Lamanna, 51, would join the countless thousands of Connecticut manufacturing workers thrown into unemployment in recent years as work dried up or moved elsewhere.

But for all of them, this was not a day to move forward. "I'm going to go home and just reflect. I have a lot of years here," Lamanna said. "I'm probably going to make a few calls to the folks who were laid off before me."

Ovation, always made at this factory, started when Charles Kaman — the helicopter pioneer, gifted engineer and serious guitarist — turned his attention to making a revolutionary acoustic guitar using a combination of space-age and traditional materials. The trademark rounded back delivered a smoother sound.

In 2007, Bloomfield-based Kaman Corp. sold the business to Fender, the guitar maker, for $117 million. Fender renamed Kaman Music as KMC Music, which makes or distributes a few other guitar brands, including Takamine and Gretsch; it closed the Hamer line.

Fender, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., announced on April 22 that it would close the New Hartford plant and continue to produce the Ovation brand in Asia, although the division headquarters remains in Bloomfield with about 100 people.

Finally, at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, Debra Pease, the KMC human resources and facilities manager, arrived at the old mill to deliver severance papers, and that was it.

She was not the enemy. They talked about the Kamans — Charlie, who founded the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, always with a large canine at his side, and his son, Bill, who ran the division. The elder Kaman's favorite was the Adamas line, made partly of graphite, like his helicopter blades.

Lamanna recalled Bill Kaman as a boss: "He used to push a broom around here."

"I still push a broom," said Hurley, whose company employs 30 and makes the main coil spring for the M-16 rifle, among many other products.

For Ives, a competitive weightlifter at age 62, the worst part is not making instruments anymore, especially for stars like Melissa Etheridge. "I used to be able to turn the TV on if you had a concert on," he recalled, "and say, 'I made that.'"

"We used to make her five guitars at a clip," Lamanna said, including a pink one last year for a breast cancer fundraiser.

Ovation players have included Paul Simon, John Lennon and many others. Glenn Campbell is a special name. "He's the one who put us on the map," Lamanna said.

And now, the map shrinks. To reach the final signing table in the front office, Pease and Lamanna had to walk past Lamanna's bare, 7- by 12-foot space with a square window overlooking the production floor.

"I used to have a big board for shop scheduling," he said.

"The hardest day for me was the first round of layoffs," Lamanna said. That cut hit 18 people several weeks ago. There were three rounds in all. "I tried to prepare, and you just can't."

The number of workers who lost their jobs, he said, was exactly the same as the number of years the company operated in the plant — 47.

Now, the Barkhamsted resident, who built a house to be close to work, just wants to stay in manufacturing, somewhere, because, he said, "It's stressful but rewarding."

Remaining are three longtime veteran Ovation repairers, who moved to a distant corner of the complex. One of them, Mike DeNoi, picked up an Ovation with a wood inlaid face and played a song for a few of us.

"I miss the people, believe me," he said. "I spent more time with these people than my family. I know the skill level of these people. It's such a waste; you can't replicate this."

That idea of needlessly lost skills kept coming up, and it's hardly new. This complex was built by a once-great textile operation that made ships' sails — the Greenwoods Co., which had its own village on this site, with a dam for water power. It exited Connecticut way back in 1901.

When a factory closes, its demise is a public marker in the community's memory, like a hurricane or a flood. Waring. Fafnir. Ideal Forge. Scoville. So many more, all gone — even as we celebrate this weekend the 200th birthday of Sam Colt, linchpin of all Connecticut manufacturing.

But the actual moment of closing is private, and personal. "Don't forget your keys," Lamanna says to Hurley, handing him the set just before leaving forever.

He turns to DeNoi. "I'm gone, pal."

"Stop by."

"Hmmm, I don't know if I can come here," Lamanna says, and leaves after a long handshake, arms on shoulders.

"All things come to an end, I guess," DeNoi says.

Now he's alone. "It's kind of like when you're a kid, you start out with all these relatives and slowly they drift away, like melting snow."

I ask him what's that song he's been playing.

"They Can't Take That Away From Me."

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