Tracing Tracy Territory: Firsthand history of a Tracy mainstay
by Sam Matthews / TP publisher emeritus
Mar 16, 2012 | 2864 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Key employees of the Owens-Illinois glass-container plant stand in front of the plant sign on Schulte Road west of Lammers Road. Left to right: Dan Armagost, manager; Janet Matthai, health and safety; Syed Shah, materials manager; Sherry Jones, human resources; Ron O’Toole, production manager; Kary Birdsong, finished-products manager; George Rodriguez, controller; and Cameron Wohleber, quality manager. The plant has about 340 employees.
Key employees of the Owens-Illinois glass-container plant stand in front of the plant sign on Schulte Road west of Lammers Road. Left to right: Dan Armagost, manager; Janet Matthai, health and safety; Syed Shah, materials manager; Sherry Jones, human resources; Ron O’Toole, production manager; Kary Birdsong, finished-products manager; George Rodriguez, controller; and Cameron Wohleber, quality manager. The plant has about 340 employees.
slideshow
Don Low, Arleen Robbins and Max Mobley remember when the first bottles began coming off the production lines at the new Owens-Illinois glass-container plant on March 19, 1962.

They were there.

All three longtime Tracy residents were among the 120 first employees of the plant west of town that was opened 50 years ago. In the past few days, I had a chance to talk to Low, Robbins and Mobley — all of whom made careers at O-I — to hear what they recall of the opening of the plant 50 years ago.



Don Low

Don was not a new O-I hire. He went to work at the firm’s Ione sand mine in 1955 and later transferred to the O-I regional office in San Francisco as a purchasing agent.

“When I heard that a new plant was going up in Tracy, I put in for a transfer as an administrative assistant,” he said. “I already had been involved in buying equipment for the plant.”

He said that Bob Staib, who had been O-I project manager in building the plant, was the first plant manager, and other key staffers were brought in from Oakland, Portland and Los Angeles plants.

“I recall we had a pretty smooth startup without any major problems,” he said. “The start on March 19 got us going, but it was a couple of weeks before we were in full production.”

Making ketchup bottles for Heinz and Del Monte was a primary mission of the new plant, Don recalled.

“We made a whole lot of those ketchup bottles at the beginning, and we made a lot of 5- and 8-ounce baby food bottles, too,” he said. “They were long runs, and we were very efficient and made a good profit right at the start.”

Don noted that the Tracy plant at the beginning was a satellite of the larger Oakland plant, where many of the administrative functions, including purchasing, accounting and payroll, were conducted.

“I can remember taking boxes of time cards down to the Greyhound depot in Tracy to be sentto Oakland,” he said.

After three years at the Tracy plant, Don moved to O-I’s Portland plant before returning in 1969 to Tracy as administrative supervisor.

“I believe it was in 1968 that Tracy became a standalone plant with the addition of a second furnace and a staff independent of Oakland,” he said.

Don continued at the Tracy plant until retiring as plant controller in 1986.

“Yes, I saw a lot of changes over the years, but the basic function of the plant, turning out quality glass containers, was the same. I know there have been many changes in the container business, but the Tracy plant, with its wine-bottle production, looks to be in a good place.”



Arleen Robbins

Women were always an important part of the workforce at the O-I plant — primarily inspecting and sorting bottles on the “cold end” of the production process — and Arleen was on the ground floor as one of the first women hired.

“I had been working as a car-hop at Henry’s Drive-In when I saw in the paper that O-I was hiring,” she recalled. “I think there were about 1,500 people who applied for about 60 jobs. There was a lot of competition.”

Applicants were given interviews and physical and mental tests, and Arleen was one of those selected.

“It was an exciting time with a new plant, a new job and people around town talking about it,” she said.

After receiving training from O-I employees from Oakland and other plants, she went to work as a selector (checking for defects) with the “C” shift, one of four rotating shift teams formed for the 24-hour operation.

“It took some doing to get used to the rotating shift — hours changed every week — and I really never became completely used to it, but it was part of the job and I wasn’t about to quit. Some people quit, but a lot of them came back.”

Arleen said the work at O-I always required someone in good physical shape to move around on the floor and move bottles and lift boxes.

“It was hard work requiring a lot of teamwork; we earned our money,” she said.

Arleen later became a leer foreman, working in the annealing process that strengthens newly formed bottles and applies a coating to keep bottles from chipping when coming in contact with others.

After 15 years, she got off the rotating shift and became a day-shift auditor, taking random samples from pallet loads as a final check for defects.

“When the plant first opened, there was a small staff, so everyone pretty much knew who the other people were,” she said. “I enjoyed the people, and we had company gatherings. The plant became my life.”

Robbins, who retired in 1993 after 31 years at the O-I plant, added: “I’m still proud being associated with the best bottle-maker in the world.”



Max Mobley

Max was working on the construction crew building the plant in 1961 and, when the plant was about to open, was hired by O-I.

“I started out stacking boxes and then moved into the ‘hot end,’” where molten glass becomes bottles in forming machines, and became a forming-machine operator, foreman and a foreman supervisor.

“Sure, it was hot work next to those machines,” he said. “It could get up to 150 degrees, but you could deal with it, and it was part of the job.”

Max said the rotating shifts created employees who became good friends both on and off the job.

“Especially because of the changing hours on rotating shifts, it became your life. We had softball teams and bowling teams; then we would hold parties.”

Max said his brother, Don, also worked at the O-I plant (and later became a “company man” as a salaried employee). Two of Max’s sisters-in-law also worked there.

After retiring in 1994, Max worked as a consultant for a firm associated with bottle-forming machines.

What was the best part of working at O-I?

“I guess it was knowing you were producing a quality product that was important to the food and beverage industries,” he said. “Every time I went to a grocery store, I’d pick up glass bottles and look at the bottom for the O-I symbol and was always glad to see the number 22 (Tracy plant’s number).”

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.
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