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McClatchy-Tribune  05/14/2014 11:59 PM ET
'Bata Belcamp' book chronicles rise, fall of footwear manufacturing center [The Aegis, Bel Air, Md. :: ]

May 14--"Bata Belcamp," Larry Carmichael's new book about the history of the Bata Shoe Co. in Harford County, chronicles life in a true company town from the first half of the 20th century, one that has since completely reinvented itself over the past three decades.

Carmichael, who manages the Historical Society of Harford County's website, has an intimate relationship with Belcamp, the Bata company's onetime local home. He lives in Waters Edge, the residential and high-tech business community developed since 1999 on the site of the former shoe factory complex.

The author lives in a townhouse complex built where several homes that housed the shoe company's executives once stood along the water. Carmichael, who has a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Texas, says he became curious about the history of the property and then decided to write about it.

This October marks the 10th anniversary of the demolition of the last building of the Bata Shoe Co. off Route 40 in Belcamp, Carmichael notes.

"Bata Belcamp" begins with the story of the Bata Shoe Co. move to Harford County from Europe in 1939 and ends with the implosion of the five-story Bata factory building in 2004.

Founded when the company's Czech owners relocated to United States during the Nazi occupation of their country at the start of World War II, Belcamp flourished around the shoe company's landmark five-story main plant and the equally tall "hotel" that was built to house some of the workers.

The book is well researched and contains many archival photographs. Readers are likely to be drawn to some aspects of the early Bata history in Harford County they may not be familiar with, including Tomas Bata Sr.'s pioneering developments in the shoe manufacturing process, the background of the site, the protests from domestic shoe manufacturers that greeted the first Bata workers who came from the old country and the Bata family's entanglements with the Nazi regime.

"Tomas Bata Sr. founder of Bata Shoe Co., realized in 1932 that when Hitler came to power in Germany it would not bode well for European companies," Carmichael said. "In that year, he directed his staff to look for locations in the west to move the operations of his international shoe manufacturing company."

Bata's son, Tomas Bata Jr., and half-brother, Jan, came to the U.S. that year and selected Belcamp as the site for this new international headquarters and major manufacturing facility. They liked the area's central location in the Middle Atlantic region and purchased 2,000 acres on the shore of the Bush River that included a historic farm and home known as Sophia's Dairy.

"Sophia's Dairy dates back to Colonial Harford County. Aquilla Hall one of the signers of the Bush Declaration [1775], built and occupied the property just off [current] Route 40," Carmichael wrote. "His wife was the sister in law of Robert Morris, the unofficial financier of the American Revolution, who visited Sophia's Dairy while the British occupied Philadelphia."

In 1939, when the first Czech employees migrated to Belcamp, Sophia's Dairy was used as a temporary dormitory for single men and women, the book explains. The basement was converted to a cafeteria for the workers who could easily walk from the factory to Sophia's Dairy.

"Bata Belcamp got off to a rocky start when labor unions, competitors and the U.S. government worked to prevent the company from bringing workers from Czechoslovakia to Belcamp," Carmichael writes. "The controversy played out over a period of six to eight months until, finally, Harford County government and U.S. Senator Millard Tydings, arranged for 25 Czech citizens to work at the facility. Some other Czech employees were able to stay due to joint or U.S. citizenship."

"This was a very stressful period for the 100 workers who fled Czechoslovakia under Nazi rule and came to America to start a new life," the author continues. "For the unfortunate 70 workers who were not allowed to stay, they had to relocate again to Bata facilities in Central and South America."

 

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