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Mercer's Wendell August embraces new home in return from fire

| Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, 11:51 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Wendell August has a new factory, offices and retail space in Springfield Township in Mercer County.

Three-and-a-half years after she rushed co-workers out of a burning Mercer County forge and gift shop, Valerie Drew choked up as she welcomed customers to Wendell August Forge's new headquarters.

“I'm just ecstatic,” said Drew, a 16-year employee. “It's euphoric to be able to say thank you and welcome back to my home.”

Wendell August opened its gift store, forge and offices on Tuesday in Springfield Township, about six miles from the Grove City facility that fire destroyed on March 6, 2010.

Wendell August has added 40 employees since the fire to increase its staff to 110 and has expanded its distribution network to include major retail outlets nationwide and in Canada, according to the company. Its $8 million facility — nearly as big as a football field — has room to grow, with 6 acres available for expansion, said Will Knecht, company president.

“This is the absolute beauty of the American spirit,” Knecht said. “The greatness of Wendell August has yet to be written. The greatness of this community will be heralded from shore to shore as we expand our distribution.”

Started in 1923 by Wendell McMinn August, the forge produced handcrafted ornaments, jewelry, coasters, picture frames and mementos such as ashtrays for the “Millionaires Flight” of the Hindenburg, brass plates to honor a nuclear treaty between the United States and Soviet Union in 1979, and replica tickets to commemorate the Pittsburgh Penguins' final regular-season game in Mellon Arena.

The Penguins order, the largest in Wendell August history, came just after the fire. Employees began work on the order in a warehouse and finished in four weeks, Knecht said.

As flames destroyed the building, Knecht huddled with employees and prayed.

“I was actually looking at the fire and wondering what I was going to do on Monday,” Drew said.

She had no reason to worry.

“Within a couple of hours, we were digging through the ashes to see what we could salvage,” said Adam Post, who started with the company just before the fire.

Five days later, production resumed in the warehouse. Offices reopened in two weeks and a retail store in four — both in donated building space.

Bill Saunders, 46, of Grove City felt fortunate to find a job at Wendell August soon after the fire. On Tuesday, he sliced sheets of aluminum into 3.5-by-10-inch strips. The strips will be carved, pounded and buffed into pieces of the company's Santas of the World collection.

Abby Tobias, 25, of Grove City started full-time with company a month ago.

“I love it,” she said as she used two needle-nose pliers to twist paper-clip-thin, silver-coated pieces of brass into hoops for a bracelet. “It can't get much better than making jewelry all day.”

The company settled in Grove City in 1932.

Knecht on Tuesday acknowledged people who provided food to workers in the days after the fire; employees, who picked through charred debris to salvage tools, dies, metal and machines; and Gov. Tom Corbett, who awarded the company a $4 million Economic Growth Initiative grant.

Corbett said he has given Wendell August pieces as gifts to dignitaries in France, Germany, Brazil and Chile.

Ruth Ann Welton, wife of Springfield Township Planning Commission Chairman Fred Welton, said the forge is part of Mercer County's identity.

“It puts us on the map,” she said, “... and not just a little country bumpkin on a hill.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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