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Slump in construction industry creates a Sheetrock ghost town

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Calvin Ryle began working in Empire on July 1, 1971. In January, he helped bring the last piece of drywall off the line. Standing beside a conveyor belt in the factory, where his son also worked as a maintenance mechanic and his daughter-in-law as a quality-lab technician, Mr. Ryle raised his hand and pressed the stop button for the last time.

"I've been here for 39 years and seven months," Ryle said at the time. As the plant's quality supervisor and former general foreman, he set the record for longest continuous service – "I've never missed a single day, never been injured." Shutting down the conveyor belt brought him to tears. "The worst thing you can hear in a board plant is silence," Ryle said. "You're a part of building America. It's not just making Sheetrock here."

The plant's maintenance foreman, Aaron Constable, watched Ryle administer those last rites. "He actually stood there and cried," Mr. Constable recalled. "He's up there at the main start-stop station. When they said, 'You go ahead and shut her down,' it took him some while before he actually pushed the button."

At its height, EmpirE WAS HOME to more than 750 people, as noted in the July 1961 issue of USG's in-house magazine, Gypsum News. "The folks who make their homes in Empire are one big happy family," the magazine reported.

By many residents' accounts, that was still true until the end. Empire was an extended family, with the kind of intimacy and security – not to mention the gossip and lack of privacy – that comes with close quarters.

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