Driving back into the parking lot for the first time, Hendrick says she felt as if she'd never left. But two years of unemployment aren't easily forgotten.
"After losing your job of 32 years," she says, "you do have reservations. I'm comfortable here, but I don't think I'll ever have that same sense of security that I thought I had."
Dean Hoyle understands uncertainty. After nearly 30 years at the factory, he found himself out of work, too, scraping by doing yard work and mowing lawns.
His situation, he says, was even more agonizing because he was still recovering from the death of his wife from breast cancer, and work, he says, "had been a rock to me." After 14 months, Hoyle was hired at another furniture company, only to be laid off last year.
Hoyle, who works in the packing department, is struck by how much has changed since he first walked into the factory as a fresh-faced Army veteran. "These places were all up and running when I got out of school," he says. "Where are all the people going to go now and what are they going to do? Not everybody can be a computer programmer."
Hoyle's ruddy, mustachioed face breaks into a wide smile as he recalls going to the bank to deposit his first paycheck from the new job.
"I'm 57 years old and soon to be 58, and I've got enough sense to know this area is not full of opportunities for someone like me," he says. "If I could sum it up in one word, it would be grateful."
In January, Lincolnton's first piece of furniture — a cherry-wood nightstand — came off the line. All the workers signed it.
That same month, Bruce Cochrane had two dates in Washington, D.C. The first was the White House conference on insourcing, where he met Obama. The other was an invitation to sit in the first lady's box at the State of the Union speech, where the president spoke of a manufacturing renaissance. (For the record, Cochrane says he's never voted for a Democratic president.)
Cochrane thinks there's an appetite for U.S.-produced goods. He attaches a "Made in America" tag to each piece of his company's furniture, with a message: "We take immeasurable pride in the fact that our furnishings are made of select solid American hardwoods," he wrote, appending his name.
"I think people realize that made in America means jobs in America," Cochrane says. "And they have experience with a loved one or a family member or a friend who lost a job so it becomes more and more personal to them."
Bud Boyles, owner of the Carolina Furniture Mart in Lincolnton (where the nightstand is displayed), senses a similar mood.
"Timing is everything and he's definitely got the timing right now," Boyles says. "It might be a hard first year for him but people are saying, 'We're going to have to take a look at what we're doing. We have to go back to our roots and help our neighbors.''"
There have been small moments of satisfaction these first months, such as touring the factory with a friend, who said he thought he'd never again smell that earthy scent of fresh-cut wood. "It's nostalgic," Cochrane says.
But there have been problems, too. A malfunctioning machine needed fixing and the plant had to be rewired, a costly project. The technology has become so efficient that Cochrane says he'll need half the workers he first expected — though of course that's a mixed blessing, given the area's struggle with unemployment.
Within three years, Cochrane hopes to do $25 million in business a year. For now, he's determined to prove the naysayers wrong.
"People in this industry still don't believe this can be done," he says. "I don't have any doubt at all."
Sharon Cohen is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Chicago. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.
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