Elgin watch company changed a community

PLACES IN OUR HISTORY

A monthly series about people, places and events in Kershaw County

By KRISTY EPPLEY RUPON
Staff Writer

The Elgin National Watch Co. brought progress – and a new name – to the town of Blaney 41 years ago.

But when the plant shut down after less than five years of operation, it left the town with more than just a name change.

It left a legacy that has helped Elgin become what it is today, according to longtime resident and Kershaw County Magistrate Judge Pete James.

“The one thing the town did not have was a water system,” James said.

When the watch company built its new plant in 1962, it brought water to the small West Wateree town. “The town wouldn’t have had the growth it had (without the water system),” James said.

The watch company also left an industrial facility that has provided jobs to hundreds of residents over the years. Today, the building houses HBD Industries’ Thermoid plant.

But there is a generation that remembers when the watch company brought promise – and controversy – to Blaney.

Economic progress. Signs of Blaney still exist today in Elgin: Blaney Elementary School, Blaney Fire Department, Blaney Baptist Church, to name a few.

But momentum to change the name back in the early 1960s was quick to surface, when Elgin National Watch Co. announced that it was moving its headquarters from Elgin, Ill., to South Carolina, in an effort to cut operating costs.

It didn’t take residents long to get behind the name change effort.

James had lived in Blaney for five years when, in 1962, 95 percent of the town’s registered voters elected 61-16, to change the town’s name to Elgin.

James, like many others, was in favor of changing the town name – a vote for progress, he said.

Lifelong Elgin resident Sarah Emanuel said her family supported the name change as well.

“My father was real interested in the economy,” she said.

“I think he thought it meant progress. We didn’t mind (the name change) that much.”

But there were some who were less enthusiastic – including residents of the Elgin community in Lancaster County, 45 miles away, who tried unsuccessfully to block the change by filing for incorporation.

But in the end, progress that the town had so hope for with the watch company didn’t work out too well, Emanuel said.

By the end of 1967, Elgin announced that it would phase out South Carolina operations after less than five years – and shut down its U. S. operations – because it could no longer economically produce watches in America because of import competition.

When the namesake left the town, some residents who weren’t happy about the initial name change pushed to change it back to Blaney. But no one mounted a formal drive to do it.

Ten and even 20 years after the watch plant folded, people still were asking James, “Why don’t you get that name changed back?” he said.

But now, 36 years later, the campaign to revert back to Blaney had dwindled as much as the population who remembers the town by that name.

With newer generations that have only ever known the town as Elgin, the push “has been less and less,” James said.

Reach Rupon at (803) 771-8622 or e-mail krupon@thestate.com.

March 20, 2003  State (published as The State)  Columbia, South Carolina
Page 83

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