Change came to town early Tuesday morning. It seemed seismic, at the moment.
Imagine Terre Haute without a business directly operated by the Hulmans. That reality has been a long time coming. Last week, it got real.
Hulman & Co. sold its iconic brand Clabber Girl to a large, New Jersey-based corporation, B&G Foods. Little will visibly change at Clabber Girl Corp. and the stout building at the corner of Ninth Street and Wabash Avenue, company officials say. Aside from a desire to expand operations at the local plant — where 180 employees manufacture Clabber Girl’s familiar baking powder, baking soda, corn starch and other baking products — “it’s going to be business as usual,” said Gary Morris, who’s been Clabber Girl’s president for the entire 21st century.
The status quo also applies to the popular Clabber Girl bakeshop, restaurant and museum, which is filled with historic mementos from the Hulman family, dating back to their 1850 arrival in Terre Haute from Germany.
“This is all staying here,” Morris said Wednesday morning, when he and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles announced Clabber Girl’s sale.
B&G paid $80 million for the brand, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing. B&G adds a profitable name to its portfolio of 50 food brands, which range from Green Giant to Cream of Wheat. The food maker expects Clabber Girl to generate $70 million to $75 million in annual net sales, according to the SEC filing.
In return, Clabber Girl gets an owner zeroed-in on the food business, and Hulman & Co. can focus on its core interest — auto racing, through the Indy 500, IndyCar series and IMS Productions.
It’s a transition as smooth as Will Power or Helio Castroneves leading the pack around the first turn at the Speedway.
Yet, in terms of Terre Haute’s economic history, it appears the city has rounded a long, gradual turn and entered a straightaway to a new future. Hulman’s sale of Clabber Girl Corp. and its baking powder — a product the Hulmans have manufactured downtown since 1899 — ends the family’s direct business footprint in the city.
Its reach once stretched into all corners of the community. I started my professional journalism career 42 years ago as a Hulman employee, when the family owned the morning Terre Haute Star and afternoon Tribune.
That’s all changed since then. Everything changes. Cities and people who handle change best expect it and adapt to it. Clabber Girl itself has done just that, even with a core product — its baking powder — still being used as it was decades ago. Morris came to Terre Haute in 1999 and became its CEO in 2000. Since then, Clabber Girl has grown from 50 workers to 180 employees; renovated the corner-hugging main building; added the bakeshop, restaurant and museum; and expanded its product line.
Clabber Girl honored its 19th- and 20th-century roots, while giving residents 21st-century jobs and a historic downtown destination.
Humans tend to lament change and wistfully long for their own good old days. Many Hauteans, though, would be confused and likely downright uncomfortable to live in the city’s past, specifically 1893, when the Hulmans cut the ribbon on their company’s new buildings at 900 block of Wabash Avenue.
For starters, they’d wonder why the family built such a spectacular main facility, crafted in Romanesque Revival style architecture.
Then, they’d question the Hulmans’ choice of a main speaker for the grand opening — Eugene V. Debs. That same year, 1893, he organized the nation’s first industrial labor organization, the American Railway Union. A year later, Debs would lead railroad workers in strikes that froze the Great Northern Railway and shut down the Pullman Company. He was jailed. In less than a decade, Debs would make the first of his five runs for the presidency on the Socialist Party ticket.
And, Debs also was a beloved, devoted friend of Hulman & Co. co-founder Herman Hulman, a symbol of American capitalism. Debs’ father and Herman often shared hunting stories with each other.
And, more than 5,000 residents flocked to spaces between Wabash Avenue and Cherry Street to hear Debs and toast the company’s new structure, a celebration complete with fireworks.
Such friendship between a labor activist and a business mogul sounds impossible in 2019. It happened in 1893, though. Debs congratulated “our eminent citizen, Mr. Herman Hulman, upon the gratifying success that has crowned his life work as a merchant in Terre Haute. He stands today on the very summit of success.”
Yes, Debs said that.
Debs also weaved a poignant reminder about change, and its inevitability, as he spoke to the crowd about Herman Hulman’s growing business. Debs gave his oration as a 37-year-old on the brink of international notoriety, with the 62-year-old Hulman and their fellow Terre Hauteans listening. A Tribune-Star retrospective in 1999 detailed Debs’ words.
“I know the years are speeding on and that his gray hairs tell, in mournful numbers, that the last milestone in the journey is not far away,” Debs said of Hulman. “And though riches [have] come to him as a reward of business sagacity, thrift, perseverance and indomitable will, they have not obscured his name, which is better than riches and will glow in the memories of men when the great business building — the completion of which we commemorate tonight — has been leveled by the gnawing tooth of time.”
Indeed, Hulman’s name remains central in Terre Haute’s history. His building still stands, but the “gnawing tooth of time” has brought changes — albeit subtle ones — to the operation its housed for more than a century. The Hulmans’ business interests now center on Indy. Clabber Girl is busy moving forward to a new era.
That leaves the community with both feet fully into its next chapter. Terre Haute and its residents must decide the pace of its steps forward.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.