Ex-Bohn employees gather every year for reunion

Former Bohn Aluminum union workers gather Saturday to celebrate their 20th reunion at Lakeside Entertainment Center in South Haven. The reunions were started by the late Lomax Smith, who started them in 1999. “It was his desire to keep everybody together,” said former Bohn employee Dorothy Sherrod, who now organizes the reunions each summer.

SOUTH HAVEN — It’s been more than 20 years since Bohn Aluminum shuttered its factory in South Haven. But that doesn’t stop former employees from getting together once a year to reminisce.

Such was the case on Saturday, when members of 1210 United Auto Workers union gathered for their annual reunion at Lakeside Entertainment Center.

This year’s event proved to be a special one.

“It’s our 20th anniversary for the reunions,” said Dorothy Sherrod, who organized the event. “It was started in 1999 by Lomax Smith. It was his desire to keep everybody together. He passed away in 2008 and passed the baton to me.”

At its peak, Bohn employed more than 500 union and non-union workers before closing in 1996 and relocating operations to Wisconsin.

“So many of our co-workers have passed away,” Sherrod noted.

But ones who survive, like Margaret Batiest, make it a point each summer to attend the reunion.

“I’ve been to lots of them,” said Batiest, who worked at Bohn for 19 years. “Last year was the first one I’ve missed in a long time.”

Batiest and her husband both worked at Bohn. She was a machine operator and he a molder.

“I like seeing all the people at these reunions. We were like a family,” she said.

Irene Hunt worked at Bohn for 25 years as a machine operator and as secretary of the union.

“It’s not so much the job we missed. It was hard work,” she said. “It’s the people we miss.”

Perry Martin was employed in Bohn’s quality department.

“I worked there 10 years. Other guys had worked there 40 years,” he said.

Ed Bus was one of them.

“I did everything,” said Bus, who was sporting his 40-year pin at the reunion. “When they hired me at 18, I swept the floors.”

Former union president George Wallace was another longtime employee, who worked as a mold die maker before retiring in 1994.

“We had a good relationship with management,” he said. “We never had a strike.”

But during the 1980s a lock-out occurred when the union and management couldn’t agree to a contract.

The union kept paying the workers’ insurance, but not their paychecks. “We painted houses, picked blueberries. It was pretty rough,” Wallace went on to say.

The company used what non-union employees it could to keep production going, but was having a hard time keeping up with customer’s orders, according to Wallace.

The lockout ended after six weeks. “It was a good thing because we just about lost our biggest order,” Wallace said. “When we got back to work we got a raise.”

About 60 former Bohn union workers attended Saturday’s reunion.

“It gets smaller each year it seems,” Batiest said. “A lot of us have passed on.”