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Billions of candy bars later, Clark quietly closes

Sunday, May 02, 1999

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In 1886, so the story goes, an Irish immigrant named David L. Clark began making candy in a small house on the North Side, peddling his product on the streets of Pittsburgh. It was a low-key venture, one without fanfare or flamboyance.

  David Matter has led Oxford Development Co. into new businesses, diversifying the long-time developer. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

On Friday, 20-odd workers straggled quietly from Clark's O'Hara plant, the broken and bankrupt remnant of the once-mighty candy bar company Clark had founded and made famous beyond his wildest expectations.

"We knew the day was coming. We just made the best of it," said Russell Sarver, 57. With 34 years of employment under his belt, Sarver has the most seniority of anyone on Clark's payroll.

These workers, most of whom had just ended what might have been the last shift at Clark Bar America Inc., were taking their historic role in stride. After all, they reasoned, what could they do?

There was still hope that someone would buy the company from owner Jim Clister during a bankruptcy court auction next month and keep the business here, hope that someone would preserve a Pittsburgh icon.

Despite their equanimity, workers like Sarver spoke with some bitterness about putting their life into a company to get nothing in return. They criticized the management.

Alvin Mitchell, 53, who lags just behind Sarver with 32 years on the job, complained that public assistance was going to build sports stadiums but not to help a work force that numbered roughly 100 people early this year. Greg Karis, 39, lamented that the 17 years he spent at Clark were the best ones of his life.

For weeks, Clark Bar America's work force had dwindled until only a skeleton crew was left Friday. Production of the company's signature chocolate-and-peanut-butter flavored Clark Bar stopped days ago at the request of Pearson Candy Co. of St. Paul, Minn, which has offered $1.68 million for Clark's trademark and production line.

Machinery stopped. Workers walked away, wondering if they would ever return, knowing that if they didn't, they wouldn't receive any severance pay because of concessions made when Clister bought the business in 1995. Four employees will return to the plant next week to clean up and ship out whatever remains.

Bankrupt, hammered with high rent at the Regional Industrial Development Park, plagued with poor product placement in supermarkets, Clark Bar America's life in Pittsburgh seemed to be winding down.

Once, the D.L. Clark Co. dominated Pittsburgh's North Side from its headquarters on Martindale Street. In those heady days, the plant was a hive of activity that buzzed at a volume unknown in recent years. Hundreds and hundreds of workers swarmed daily into the plant beneath the towering red-and-white brick smokestack with the words "Clark Bros." running down its 170-foot length.

  Clark employees Alvin Mitchell, left, and Russ Sarver talk with reporters outside the company plant in O'Hara . Mitchell has been a Clark employee for 32 years; Sarver is a 34-year veteran. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

A half-century ago, the Clark Bar was more than a mere treat prettily packaged in a red-and-blue wrapper. It was a precious commodity that satisfied the sweet tooth of a nation at war.

Just a year after the United State entered the war, a newspaper story appeared here beginning like this: "American soldiers all over the world are begging and bartering for candy..."

They were hankering for the Clark Bar. A strike by more than 400 workers had stopped production at the North Side plant, at the time, one of the largest candy manufacturers in the country.

That interruption was preventing 400,000 candy bars a day -- 40 percent of the plant's production - from going to the war effort.

The image of battle-hardened GIs desperately scrounging for candy bars, like Oliver Twists in fatigues, seems absurd. But, according to one observer at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, candy bars -- knownas "pogie bait" to the enlisted men -- ranked close to ammunition in terms of importance.

"They could take the bombings and the snipings, and they could get along without vegetables and fresh meat," the observer wrote. "They wouldn't yearn so much for the bright lights and the movies and the girlfriends -- if only they had some pogie bait. Candy -- just candy. And there isn't any."

On Dec. 14, 1942, 11 days after the strike began, workers resumed production after an arbiter was appointed by the War Labor Board. The federal government had stepped in, and Clark bars were considered by the government to be an "essential" wartime product.

At least twice more during the war, workers shut down production. By then, Clark's daily shipments to the armed forces had risen to 1.5 million candy bars, or about 80 percent of its production.

In Oct. 1943, the U.S. labor secretary even became involved in bringing the workers back on the job, and the following year, government officials promised that soldiers and sailors would be on hand to safeguard them as they entered the plant.

Today, workers complained, they have enough trouble getting local politicians interested in their problems, much less anyone in Washington, D.C.

"I guess they're fed up with it," Karis said, referring to public assistance used to bail out the company during difficult times in the past.

In 1985, when Clark was teetering toward failure and its parent company, Illinois-based Leaf Inc., talked about closing the Pittsburgh plant and moving operations to Chicago, the late Mayor Richard Caliguiri formed a task force and pledged to work to reverse the decision.

City Council declared January 1986 "Save D.L. Clark Month."

When Leaf announced a second time that it would move its Clark bar operations to Chicago, local officials again rallied.

"It will take all our inegenuity and strength to save it again. It's more important because of the history behind it," former County Commissioner Chairman Tom Foerster said in Sept. 1990. Former Gov. Casey pledged the state would do everything it could to keep Leaf in Pittsburgh.

This time around, it seems, the workers are on their own.

As they made their way from the plant, television news cameras dutifully recording the undramatic moment, Clark's employees refrained from outbursts, jeers, chants and breakdowns. They went out with a aplomb.

"Now we go home and cash the next to last check," Sarver said just before he and Mitchell drove away. Meanwhile, a woman was emptying sandwiches from the vending machines inside the plant and packing them into a truck.

In truth, the workers' quiet exit from Clark Bar America provided a perfect bookend to the company's humble beginnings. After 113 years, three locations, untold millions of candy bars and a parade of owners, the circle had almost closed.

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