JFK assassination: 50 years later

Northwest Indiana businesses came of age in Kennedy years

2013-11-16T17:00:00Z 2014-06-27T18:23:19Z Northwest Indiana businesses came of age in Kennedy yearsLouisa Murzyn Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
November 16, 2013 5:00 pm  • 

The era of John F. Kennedy was a time of dramatic political and social change.

Looking back 50 years after his assassination, it was also as if a tornado making good on his campaign promise to get the American economy moving again roared through the business sector in Northwest Indiana.

In 1963, corporate profits were at a record high. Locally, the Amoco refinery, Inland Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and U.S. Steel all dotted the lakeshore, and the Bethlehem Steel mill in Burns Harbor started construction a year earlier.

A program in the early 1960s to link the nation's economic vitality to a movement for conservation of the natural environment – known as the Kennedy Compromise after JFK's involvement – led to the creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor to satisfy industrial needs.

Pleasant View Dairy milkmen were lined up every day at 5:45 a.m., waiting to hop into the company’s fleet of 35 snub-nosed Divco trucks to deliver milk to 15,000 area homes.

“They drove standing up, and it was tricky,” said Ken Leep, 80, president emeritus and son of the founders of the Highland dairy. “There was one pedal if you pushed it down too far it would brake immediately and your load would tip on you. My very first day on a route in Highland ... I slowed down, and the whole thing locked down and the entire load of milk was on my back.”

Home deliveries were at their peak and made up 90 percent of the dairy business. Back then, there were 28 dairies in Lake County alone compared to less than 10 in the entire state today. The family-owned business sells more milk than ever now, but in 50-foot semi-trucks to area supermarkets.

Home delivery declined as women entered the workplace and the dairy made its last home visit in 1992.

“Nobody was at home to receive the delivery,” he said. “The milk would sit on the porch and if it was warm, it would spoil. If it was too cold, the milk would freeze and break the bottles.”

Also contributing to the change was the increase in grocery stores, which would run milk on sale for less than what the dairy paid for it.

When Albert’s Diamond Jewelers opened its original family-owned store in East Chicago in 1962, it followed a department store model and sold items such as dishes, luggage, Polaroid cameras and televisions.

Over the last 50 years, changes in where people shop have been as drastic as the changes in any technology. At the time, shopping was done in traditional downtown districts, but today most shopping is done in out-of-town malls or shopping areas, or online. Larger diamonds are the trend in jewelry.

“It used to be common to give a one-quarter or one-third carat diamond engagement ring,” said Albert's president Josh Halpern. “Back then, if a lady got a one-carat it was big and if she got a two-carat ring it was gigantic. In today’s world, it’s very common and we sell them almost every day.”

A half-century ago, it was only big business that traded abroad. Current advances means businesses of all sizes are now able to sell in the global marketplace. “I wasn’t selling jewelry and diamonds to people around the world back then,” Halpern said.

The company has shipped engagement rings to Australia, England and Germany. “Those things wouldn’t happen without the Internet and customer referrals,” he said.

Social media makes customer service even more imperative.

“In the old days, if you were bad at what you did, customers told maybe a dozen people,” Halpern said. “Now with a click of a button on their smartphone or computer they can tell tens of thousands of people instantaneously if they are unhappy.”

According to NIPSCO spokeswoman Kathleen Szot, small business wasn’t the only sector experiencing economic expansion. Plans were being made for the future of Indiana with ocean-going vessels, rail service that traversed the state and a tollway that crossed through the heartland of America.

NIPSCO, like many other companies, was maturing and coming of age. To serve the needs of expanding new communities and supply the gas needs, about 500 miles of distribution mains and 300 miles of service lines were installed. The Bailly Generating Station went on line and the company signed with Bethlehem Steel, now ArcelorMittal, for electric capacity for its new Burns Harbor Plant.

“Population was increasing, suburbs were cropping up, large industry was developing and downtown business districts were modernizing – all of which meant greater energy needs,” Szot said.

Virginia Salyer, 82, whose father-in-law, Joseph, was the founder of Salyer Plumbing Inc. in Hammond, fondly recalls the times as prosperous. She is retired but worked as a secretary and married Josph's son, Ralph.

“The '60s were good to us,” she said. “We were very involved in the expansion. But it comes and goes. In our business, it can be fantastically good one day and the next you are looking for work. Today’s world is extremely competitive and you have to fight to get bids. In the old days, you stayed with contractors. Life has changed a lot.”

Salyer remembers milk delivery and, in fact, her home was built with a milk chute that was sealed so her grandkids didn’t crawl through it to get into the house.

She also remembers using a mechanical comptometer and a standard typewriter.

“Today's world is so different,” she said. “I walk into the office and ask a question and they punch it into the computer and tells me instantly. We used to walk to a file cabinet to get the information, and all the blueprints were laying on tables.”

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