The infamous tunnel entrance was exposed as the Exeter Tag Factory was demolished. The tunnel was rumored to be a shortcut for Charles Smith, the index tag inventor, to travel between his factory and home. In reality, it just went under the alley to the Quonset to the west where the village’s original electrical system was housed.
The skyline of downtown Exeter has changed drastically with the removal of the Smith Index Tag Factory.
It took several days of demolition for the proud old Smith Index Tag building to safely be removed from downtown Exeter. Here the rear of the building has been demolished.
By Leesa K. Bartu
The Smith Index Tag Factory has dominated the Exeter landscape since the late 1800’s was demolished in the last month.
The building, now owned by the Village of Exeter, was donated to the village in July of 2015 by Seth Jones. Jones had purchased the building from brothers, Lester and Gaylord Becker in 2008.
During the heyday of the factory it employed over 70 plus those who did piecework in their homes. The tags were nothing like tags we describe today. Instead, they were part of an adjustable index tag system that were designed by Charles C. Smith, son of Dr. H. G. Smith the founder of Exeter.
To begin with, the corner building, which sits at the intersection of Exeter Avenue and Seneca, was owned by H. G. Smith and housed his First National Bank from 1889 – 1898. Smith worked in his father’s bank and invented the tags to help in his job. Once the tags were spotted by a businessman, Smith was asked to create more for the business community.
Smith had to find a resource for the perfect metal composite which would withstand daily usage. Smith began manufacturing in the factory in 1896 once all of his materials were in place and the business expanded quickly from there. Smith secured the patent on the product.
He began manufacturing in the director’s room of his father’s bank. The Fillmore County Story describes the product Smith invented, “The tabs are used to index books and card systems. Some, made wholly of steel, are called Signals or Guides. The signals may be either plain or printed with months, numbers, or letters. The guides have insertable paper labels protected by a celluloid covering.”
This is Exeter quotes the Fillmore County Story noting the popularity of the Smith products, “At one time almost all of the signaling items used in the world were made in Exeter. Although competitors arose, the Exeter factory long remained the acknowledged leader for quality signaling.”
In fact, the plant quickly outgrew the both the room they were in and soon the building and started expanding into the adjacent building. Along with physical expansion the business also evolved as employees along with Smith began to design and build their own machinery.
Also added in Smith’s stable of products was the gummed label which was not removable. Nesbit Whitmore, a 57 year employee at the factory, invented the machine which created the gummed index by stripping out rolls of cloth and pressboard.
Smith’s factory not only provided employment for the community, he also brought utilities to the Fillmore County village. In 1908 he opened his “Electric Light and Power Plant.”
The This is Exeter book reports that Smith brought “A coal-fired steam power plant that furnished Exeter and its citizens with electricity after the turn of the century.”
The power plant was quite a newsworthy event. This is Exeter quotes an article written in 1907 by a Mr. Settle who may have been a roving reporter for The Nebraska Signal, “The tag factory was installing a large new oil engine. It was being taken from the railroad station to the factory piece by piece, so large are its dimensions. It took six horses to draw one wheel on skids from the tracks to the factory door. The monster wheels were then hoisted by pulleys until they stood edgewise when the men rolled them through the doors into the building. One of the wheels weighed about six thousand pounds. This engine will be used for power at this factory for running the electric dynamo for lighting the city. This will give Exeter night and day current.”
In 1910 the Tag Factory was identified by a brand new electric sign on top of the two story building. It boasted 187 tungsten lamps.
While cleaning out the building before demolition, Exeter Village Maintenance Supervisor John Mueller found the blueprints of the Exeter water tower, commissioned by Smith. The east side of Exeter Avenue downtown burned in August of 1907 and the lack of water service was lamented. The town founders had water system plans drawn up in 1906 and by the fire of 1909 they were in place and kept the late night fire from spreading beyond a few downtown buildings.
In 1928 the water tower was erected in Exeter and Smith contributed to the construction costs and made sure the tower met his specifications. It had an inner tank that was to be used to furnish water to the sprinkler system in the tag factory.
Gradually machinery replaced employees and after Smith’s death in 1951 the factory was sold several times. Smith left his holdings and interests to Doane College.
His granddaughter, Barb Jansen, still lives in Exeter. Her mother, was one of Smith’s four adopted daughters. Just nine months after Jansen was born her father passed away. She, along with her sisters and her mother, moved back in with Smith in the beautiful home he built in Exeter. Smith died when she was about four but they continued to live in his home. Jansen doesn’t have a whole lot of memories of him.
She recalls finding some of his business paperwork when she and her sisters were cleaning out the house, “He wrote everything down. He was very careful with how he spent his money. I think it came out of him growing up in the depression era.”
Jansen didn’t recall a lot of the details of Smith’s estate but she knew he had a fondness for Doane University. “Most of his estate went back to the Doane campus. They named the men’s dormitory, Smith Hall, after him. He met his wife at Doane and thought so much of Doane back then. It’s too bad he didn’t think of the future of Exeter a little more.”
She has a few mementos of the different style of tags that she holds on to of her grandfather’s, “He employed a lot of people in town and it was great thing for the town back then. He really helped the community in that way.”
Smith, in addition to his business interests, ran for State senate and served one term in the Nebraska State Senate in 1911.
After Smith’s death and subsequent dispersal of his assets the still successful factory was moved in 1962 from Exeter with little notice to employees or management. John Tauriella, whose father Frank, was the manager at the time, was a small child when this happened. He recalled, “When they moved the Tag Factory out of Exeter it was because it was doing so well and not because it was failing. They took a good business that was thriving and moved it to Chicago.”
Tauriella’s sister, Judy Hansen, has wonderful memories of the time her Dad was the factory manager. “I used to go in a lot, I rode the elevator a lot. I remember the sounds of the machinery making the metal index tabs. I can still hear the machinery going. It was exciting to me to watch the tabs come out a finished product.”
When the business was moved it was a big blow to the community. Hansen remembers her Dad being offered a job to go with the factory to Chicago, “It was a good time in his life, (when he was the Tag Factory manager) he didn’t like that it was leaving. He was offered a job to go there (Chicago) but he didn’t want to move his family to the city. He grew up in Brooklyn and knew what it was like to grow up in a big city and didn’t want that for his family.”
Unfortunately, the manufacturing plant was never again to function again and was eventually bought by the Becker’s to store their car collection.
Jones purchased the building to store some of the old car parts he bought in the Midwest. He purchased the original tag factory only, with the Becker’s retaining the Modern Products building for their storage until after the death of Gaylord in the building in March of 2012. The Modern Products building, according to Hansen, was where the offices were located in the later years of operation.
There were always rumors of a tunnel that ran from the factory to Smith’s home about four blocks away but Jansen confirmed that it was not true. The doorway that might have triggered the rumor was in the basement in the same room with a very large old air compressor. There was a tunnel there that could have possibly gone under the alley to a Quonset building behind the factory to the west.
The future of the property is uncertain. The demolition project included the Tag Factory, the Modern Products building and the building which sits between the Village Office and the Legion. It was also donated to the Village by the Becker family.
The village recently held a revitalization meeting and several options were discussed for the large empty areas. Some options that were discussed included leaving the areas as downtown green space, a new village office, library and technology center or the possible sale of the property for economic development.
Author’s note: Valuable resources for this story were This is Exeter and The Fillmore County Story along with local historian Lonnie Shafer.