|Does history repeat itself?
In this undated photo, Short Mountain Distillery owner Billy Kaufman (center) shows off his Golden Rule marble at a reunion for former Samonsite employees in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/D. Whittle)
You be the judge.
The great-grandson of the founder of the old Samsonite manufacturing plant in Murfreesboro is the same man who has opened a business in neighboring Cannon County.
Woodbury businessman Billy Kaufman is the grandson of the late Louis ‘Lou” Degen, who opened Samsonite’s doors in 1960, bringing more than 700 jobs to Rutherford County.
Kaufman is one of the owners of Short Mountain Distillery, and he attended a recent Samsonite employee reunion in Murfreesboro to reflect on his family’s legacy.
“Degen was the son of Samsonite founder Jesse Shwayder, our great-grandfather who encouraged employees to live and work by the Golden Rule,” Billy Kaufman said, as he went around introducing himself to former Samsonite employees.
Former state Rep. John Hood, who arranged for Kaufman to be at the reunion, was the first local employee hired by Samsonite when the plant initially opened.
Gum resident Allen Watts, the second person hired by the company, was also at the reunion. Watts served as industrial engineer at Samsonite, which was originally named Shwayder Brothers.
“Billy shared with us that it was mere fate that brought him and his two brothers to open their distillery on Short Mountain,” Hood said. “It was his great-grandfather Jesse Shwayder, who founded the company. So, we invited Kaufman to join us today for our annual Samsonite reunion to share about his grandfather and great-grandfather and their strong ethics in business.”
Hood and several other former employees produced symbolic marbles from their Samsonite days, detailing the Golden Rule the old company was founded on.
“We also have the Golden Rule in our present-day company’s mission statement on Short Mountain,” Kaufman said. “We attach a coin with the Golden Rule on all our products that now are being distributed throughout Tennessee.”
How Samsonite was recruited, after closing a plant in Michigan, to relocate to Tennessee is an interesting tale and trail of big business.
“Judge Whitney Stegall, who was on the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, played a large role, and the fact that Middle Tennessee State University was here, were key attractions,” said Hood, who was hired by Samsonite to serve in human relation duties.
He said Stegall was instrumental in getting Samsonite executive to make the final decision to come to Rutherford County. Eventually, Stegall ended up representing Samsonite as an attorney.
“He was instrumental in my being interviewed,” Hood said, “and hired as the first personnel manager.”
Hood said that MTSU was also highly involved with the recruiting process.
“They hired Ed Voorhies, chairman of the university’s department of industrial studies, to work for Samsonite as director of training for the first two years of operation,” Hood said. “He worked in a part-time capacity for the company and MTSU during that time.”
Because Tennessee cities Gallatin and Pulaski were also wooing Samsonite officials, the neighboring cities heavily competed for the plant.
“It was high drama during the decision-making year of 1959,” the late Carl Steidtmann said during a 1992 interview, five years before the plant closed permanently.
Steidtmann served as plant manager in Murfreesboro during its early years in operation.
“MTSU agreed to assist in training tool and die workers,” he said. “Middle Tennessee worker quality also played a key role. … The workers here came from not only Rutherford, but from Cannon, Coffee and Bedford counties. The workers took a lot of pride in their work.”
Bell Buckle resident Wayne Watson, 69, was at the recent reunion.
“I started with Samsonite in production, went to shipping, and ultimately into line management,” Watson said. “I worked there from ’61 to ‘72. It was a good company to work for, and they actually followed the Golden Rule.”
Murfreesboro resident Charles Gilbert, 76, also recalled his Samsonite days during the reunion, noting he also kept the same memento.
“I was a department floor supervisor, and then general foreman over maintenance when I worked there from ’72 to ’83,” Gilbert said. “I still have my Samsonite marble containing the Golden Rule.”
Linda Phillips, of Murfreesboro, also described Samsonite as having “good people to work for and around.”
“I ended up working in the material house for the company,” Phillips said.
Ed Wright, 69, started as a production worker in 1961.
“I ended up working as an industrial engineer, working with the company until I retired in 1995,” Wright said. “As for employment numbers, I’d estimate the 1970s were the peak years, with between 650 to 700 workers at any given time.”
Kaufman and his two brothers, Ben and David, own and manufacture moonshine – legally that is – on Short Mountain at one of only six distilleries licensed to operate today in Tennessee.
For the Kaufman brothers, they hope to carry on their family tradition of following the Golden Rule for many years to come.