Demolished plant now piece of Camp Hill’s pastPublished 7:50pm Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Mel Rechtman came to Camp Hill in 1944 and started a small clothing plant that would become the cornerstone of five Alabama factories in the American Apparel family.
The South Main Street building was that was the first plant to feature men on sewing machines, churning out uniforms to outfit the military during the Korean War.
“My father had worked in factories in Toledo and his father and grandfather had been hat makers,” Rechtman’s daughter, Janet Rechtman, said from Atlanta in a recent telephone interview. “He somehow got cross ways with the union and couldn’t work there anymore. So, at 16 or so, he heard they were looking for people to come to Alabama and build factories, so off he went. He did the tour and before you knew it he was there starting a plant. At 18, he had a plant there in Camp Hill up and running.”
It operated at full speed for some 25 years with Rechtman at the helm. From military uniforms to women’s apparel, Rechtman changed with the times.
“My dad was a bit off-color at times,” Janet Rechtman said. “When people asked what he did, he would smile and say I’m in ladies pants. That’s just the way he was.”
Rechtman moved to Atlanta and in time sold the plants to others. Historians and Janet Rechtman both say that the plant stopped operating in the late 1970s or early 80s.
When the plant went quiet in the 1980s, it didn’t take long for the building to show signs of neglect. The following three decades brought major roof damage crumbling walls in places and broken windows. Dilapidation was the rule, not the exception.
But the owner deeded the building to the town. Camp Hill recently began a move to tear it down. For years the city has hoped to start the process of cleaning up the Main Street area, but with so many vacant property owners, the process has been slow.
Camp Hill Mayor Danny Evans said at a recent event celebrating work on the town’s library that they hope to see major steps in the cleanup in the years to come.
“Like with the library here, we hope to get a lot of this kind of thing done,” Evans said. “We start with what we can do and hope others will follow.”
Even though the building is down, it not all the way out. Workers have been busy stacking the bricks taken from the building on pallets and they will be used in other projects, officials said.
“I’m glad they are doing that,” Janet said. “I grew up around that plant and you hate to see it go, but at least they are salvaging a bit of that history.”