October 23, 2021

Longtime maintenance man at former Smith Corona plant retires

Cortland Standard Photo Archive 2012

CORTLANDVILLE — Bill Highfield knows the nooks and crannies of the former Smith Corona plant — a 10-acre building— that he’s worked at a good 45 years.

“I love the building. I know its idiosyncrasies,” he said of the 440,000 square feet space which is now Cortland Commerce Center, owned by developer David Yaman.

“The original building was built in 1959. It had an addition put on it in 1966 and another put on in 1976,” said Highfield, the building maintenance man for the structure from Oct. 16, 1972 to Sept. 27, 2019.

He’s seen Smith Corona it its heyday, through its closure here and even helped set up the company’s building in Mexico in the 1990s. He worked the plant when Carl Ochs owned it from 1999 to 2010, and then when Yaman bought it in 2010 to the present.

The Route 13, Cortlandville center has 22 clients, Highfield said, including: “Survivors of Buckbee Mears,” now working as Precision E Forming, a small crew of Monarch Machine, JM Murray employees, Pall, KIK and Hummel Office Supply, said Highfield.

“It’s like a city.”

Highfield’s last day maintaining the electrical, plumbing and heat systems, working solo at this point, was Sept. 27

“How do I describe Bill,” said Yaman. “He loves what he does. He loves the people that he works with. It’s a big family in the building and he’s a big part of it.”

Highfield is also very knowledgeable in mechanics, plumbing, electricity, Yaman said. And he’s seen an amazing amount of change.

“I own the old Crescent Corset Building, the old Smith Corona building and the old Buckbee Mears building,” Yaman said. “And everyone says, ‘my grandfather worked here. My father worked here. We have a special place in our hearts for this building,’ particularly Smith Corona. We are still getting letters from people in jail or elderly people asking for Smith Corona typing parts,” said Yaman.

“I love this place,” Highfield said. “It’s my home away from home. It’s been 47 years, who would have thunk it,” said the 66-year-old South Otselic man.

That 47 years includes a year and a half stint in 1993-1994 down in Tijuana, Mexico and a layoff of about a year in the mid-1980s.

Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor

Bill Highfield of South Otselic in front of the decommissioned water tank used by the former Smith Corona plant on Sept. 26. Highfield has spent most of his 47 years doing maintenance on the plant, now known as the Cortland Commerce Center on Route 13, Cortlandville. He retired Sept. 27.

“Back when Smith Corona was here, we had a super staff.”

“I love these guys,” he said of the current workers. “I always tried to save money for the owners. I gave my absolute best. I am a no brain. I didn’t have a college education. But I was raised on a farm in Harford and that helped. We always did work for ourselves.”

At Smith Corona, Highfield did welding and fabrication. He welded new steam pipes. He taught himself electrical work. And the maintenance crew took him under their wings. Harrison Grant was his teacher of the old boilers. “He was an old duffer,” Highfield said.

Sam Ferro of Cortland taught him rigging, the art of moving equipment, and plumbing.

“I actually broke him in when he first came to maintenance,” said Sam Ferro of Cortland, who worked for Smith Corona for 37 years. “He’s an A-1 guy in my estimation.”

The building is “very solid,” Ferro said. “I was there since day one, getting it ready … setting up plumbing, electricity, machine adjustments.”

Highfield said of his background: “God game me a brain and good hands. Both my grandfathers were mechanically inclined. One ran an elevator shaft in a coal mine in Pennsylvania. The other was a logger and farmer and he could make anything run. He could make a junk thing run.”

The Smith Corona plant had punch presses, screw machines and milling machines. “It was so loud, you couldn’t hear yourself.”

“We had close to 1,800 on days, 900 on second shift and 300 on third,” he said. In its heyday, Smith Corona employed 5,000 people in Groton and South Cortland, according to Cortland Standard reports.

“As the type writer changed through the years, it got to have more plastic materials … We slowly went from metal forming to injection mold machines.”

“I didn’t repair machines. I would rig them up or plumb them if we moved them,” said Highfield. “When (company officials) announced July 22, 1992 they were moving to Mexico it took a lot of wind out of a lot of sails.”

The workers felt betrayed, he said. “I think Mexico was one of the nails in the coffin. And the other, they didn’t stick with Acer,” he said of the computer company which the company tried to adapt to at one point.

“We didn’t evolve with the computer,” he said.

Highfield enjoyed working in Tijuana, Mexico.

“One thing that stuck out the most was that the Mexican people loved me …They invited me into their homes.”

He said 10 percent of Mexican people were filthy rich and 90 percent were poor. Highfield made sure the Mexican maintenance crew got any decent scrap wood he’d find.

These days: “I have some sort of project going on, general maintenance, taking care of the vent system,
taking care of plumbing. I have been doing some work on the alarm system in the building.”

Highfield got inventive getting rid of an old exhaust system from a 560 square section of roof.

“I took my four wheeler on the roof, with a boat trailer, with a winch,” he said. He’d pull the exhaust unit onto the trailer with the winch, drove it over to the side of the building and rolled it to the ground. Then he scrapped the metal.

Yaman had to get a Smith Corona injection molding machine out of the building. The machine was 35 feet long, 10 foot tall, six foot wide, said Highfield.

He called a rigging company who estimated getting the equipment out would cost $6,000.

“I can scrap that,” Highfield said. “I cut that machine in pieces with a cutting torch,” Highfield said.

In retirement, he hopes to pursue his passions: “Get back into the muscle car business. Restore snow mobiles. Skeet and trap.”