FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — After nearly a hundred years in Fort Wayne, Navistar picked up and left. Now the company is reinvesting in the Summit City.
On Friday, members of the Harvester Homecoming board held a press conference at the former International’s Engineering and Design Center on Meyer Road to announce a new Harvester/Navistar Musem.
“It’s an awesome thing, that we helped build that we can share with others, “Harvester Homecoming board member David Bradfield said. “Our goal is to share it with the kids and everybody else what we made.”
International Harvester first planted roots in Fort Wayne back in the 1920s. At that time a majority of the company’s trucks were made in the city. The company also had other products including agricultural machinery, earth-moving equipment for the construction industry, and turbine-driven compressors, generators, and pumps for the energy business.
Over the years the company would grow with the addition of a test track, International’s Engineering and Design Center, a Truck Sales Processing Center and a Master Parts Depot. Several vendors were also located in Fort Wayne just to service International.
“You couldn’t go anyplace, without knowing a relative, a neighbor, or somebody involved in Harvester,” former employee Larry Temenoff said. “There were also several little factories that made parts for this vehicle or that vehicle. So it wasn’t just the 10,000 jobs in Fort Wayne there were another 10,000 jobs fed this Harvester. We were the truck capital of the world and people wanted a reliable vehicle.”
Then in the sixties came the International Scout. For more than two decades the vehicle was designed, engineered, tested, and made in Fort Wayne.
During this time the city was considered “The Heavy Duty Truck Capital of the World.” In the 60 years, the truck plant was operational more than a million heavy trucks and more than half a million Scouts were made.
At its peak, International Harvester was the highest employer in the region, employing more than 10,000 in 1979.
“There was always something different,” former Harvester employee Howard Pletcher said. “I was in the warranty and the product relatability at Harvester. We were always working on problems. If something broke we got involved with it. And my favorite part was working on all the product lines and getting to see what was going on.”
Harvester employees could also move around and change jobs within the company. Harvester also offered tuition reimbursement to help better educate their employees.
“It took me about 8 years but I got my bachelor’s degree,” former employee Jim Bickel said. “I started on the assembly line in 1959 and after going to college I went upstairs as a process engineer. It was a great program.”
But a strike in the late 1970s would change that. A 172-day strike in 1979–80 that left its major product areas open to competitors, Harvester encountered economic difficulties and began cutting back its manufacturing and marketing operations. Then in 1982, the company sold most of its American construction equipment business and in Fort Wayne, less than 5,000 were working in the plant.
That same year the company announced the Fort Wayne plant would close and the Scout discontinued. The last truck rolled off the assembly line on July 15, 1983, and an era in the city’s industrial history ended.
By 1985 International Harvester had sold most of its farm equipment line to J.I. Case subsidiary of Tenneco Inc. Under the terms of the latter sale, Harvester was obliged to change its name, which it did in 1986 to Navistar International Corporation.
While the plants may have closed Navistar’s International’s Engineering and Design Center and Test Track still had a home in the Summit City. But by 2010 talk began that the long-time employer would be packing up and moving west.
“It was a sad time,” former employee Jerry Betley said. “When I was hired in 1965 I never expected to be here that long but with the moving to Lisle, it was pretty sad to walk through the building. It was devastating.”
Workers held rallies and city leaders begged the company to stay. In the end, Navistar moved its headquarters to Lisle, Illinois, along with 1,400 jobs.
“At one time it was the lifeblood of Fort Wayne,” former employee David Pelz said. “I was one of the lucky ones. I spent 50 years here (Navistar). It was just a great family. I can remember Palm Sunday the tornados hit years ago in 65.’ We all got together, we had a caravan from engineering and met up with a caravan from the main plant and we went down to Berne. We had chainsaws and we helped people. That’s stuck with me. That they cared about the community and the people around us.”
The company finally pulled the plug on the Fort Wayne operation in 2015 with the closing of its test track on Oxford Street.
Navistar was officially gone from Fort Wayne, but the legacy stayed.
A few years after Navistar left a homecoming event was planned. The homecoming was planned to celebrate the company’s long history in Fort Wayne and host a reunion for former International Harvester and Navistar employees and their families.
In 2019, the Harvester Homecoming held its inaugural event which saw hundreds of classic trucks returned to the place they were built and brought thousands of people from across America back to the Scout Park Conference Center to marvel at the antiques and reconnect.
The following year the event was brought back with safety precautions due to COVID-19. Thousands returned to the Summit City.
With the third Harvester Homecoming set to take place Aug. 6 to 7, officials predict the crowd is expected to be just as big if not larger than in years past.
Officials say that they are working to raise money to open a museum to educate younger generations and preserve the history for generations to come. And though the jobs are gone and the buildings still stand, the memory of the company remains for decades to come.
Fort Wayne Truck Works Museum:
Surrounded by former Harvester employees, their families and Harvester Homecoming officials unveiled the plans for a Harvester/Navistar museum on Meyer Road. The new museum will be called the Fort Wayne Truck Works Museum and Area Industry Museum.
“I’m just hoping that people will get a taste for the history and not right it off because it’s old,” Pelz said.
Navistar was one of several sponsors to donate money to the cause. They will also be loaning vehicles in their private collection to help start the museum. SweetCars, Three Rivers, and Hanning and Bean have also made donations to help fund the museum.
The museum will be at the former International Engineering and Design Center on Meyer Road. The building sits on 142 acres and the facility where the museum will call home is 345,000 square feet. Harvester Homecoming officials have already started to work on the building and displays.
Officials say the goal is to house a variation of Harvester and Navistar trucks especially those built in the Summit City. In some of the former offices, displays showcasing former employees’ work and memorabilia will be on display.
“Come out and support this,” Bickel said. “We want to build this museum into a memorial that attributes to a long-lost facility and the lives of those who worked here.”
At this time there is no open date for the museum. But for a donation, you can get a tour of the center with items going on display in the museum starting next Friday at the Harvester Homecoming event, Aug. 6 to 7.