Jacobs preserves company history, a career in glass industry
It was April 1961, and the race was on. Lew Gayner, manager of the brand-new Brockway Glass Co. plant in Rosemount, wanted bragging rights to Minnesota’s first glass container plant. That meant starting production before American Can, which was opening a plant in Shakopee.
“So we had a 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. staff meeting every day, with notebooks — just like going to grad school,” recalled Rich Jacobs, then the youngest member of Brockway’s Rosemount management team. “And he said, ‘We’re going to start the plant in April because they won’t be able to start theirs until the next day in May.”
Brockway Plant 8 launched on April 30, fully equipped to supply bottles to breweries in St. Paul and Milwaukee. Rosemount, a mostly Irish Catholic town of 1,400, thanked Brockway for bringing manufacturing jobs to farm country with a public dinner in a church community room after the plant’s first year of production.
Jacobs has it all written down. The 85-year-old Burnsville resident spent his teen years and most of his career in the glass business. In recent years he’s written articles on the history of Brockway Glass Co. plants from 1941 to 1984, the year Plant 8 closed.
His work has appeared in publications of the Brockway Area Historical Society in Pennsylvania and resides with the Dakota County Historical Society, to which Jacobs donated writings and other materials.
“I hope I haven’t gone on too long,” he said in an interview, “but it’s kind of been my life.”
Raised on glass
Jacobs’ father, Richard, had worked for other glass manufacturers when he was hired by Brockway and sent to Muskogee, Oklahoma, to open a plant.
“I was in fourth grade but I got my spending money by collecting newspapers through the neighborhood and taking them to the plant,” Jacobs said. “They’d weigh them and the newspapers were put between the bottles, as opposed to the fillers that you now see in a carton of beer or a carton of wine or whatever.”
His father was moved to the company’s home base in Brockway, Pennsylvania, in 1949, where he oversaw three plants. Richard Sr. put his 16-year-old son to work. Jacobs’ job was putting Pepsi bottles through the label machine and stacking them in cases.
“That summer at age 16 I had two days off all summer,” he said. “The men worked seven days a week. If your buddy didn’t show up, you had to either work nine hours or 12 hours.”
Jacobs went on to earn an industrial engineering degree at Penn State University and a master’s degree at Lehigh University, where he also taught industrial engineering.
Masters in hand, Jacobs went back to work for Brockway, this time being groomed to become plant engineer in Rosemount.
“And I arrived in Rosemount on a Sunday night, the first Sunday in April of 1961, with a sagebrush down the street with one stoplight,” he said.
The plant was on 120 acres that used to be the Elliott farm. Jacobs was the first tenant in a new apartment building across Highway 3.
“Hey, I knew what I was doing,” he said. “I’d been around a glass house on a labor crew. I had a whole training that people never get even before I got there.”
In 1964 Brockway put Jacobs in charge of the “grunt work” of acquiring another company, Hazel Atlas, he said. In 1967 he returned to Rosemount, replacing Tom Robinson as manager of Plant 8 for three years.
For at least one shining period, from April to February 1962, it was the top glass container plant in America based on productivity measures reported by 125 plants.
“The average productivity in the industry was 80 percent, and that means 100 gobs, 80 bottles packed,” Jacobs said. “Eighty percent of the gobs coming down actually become bottles and get packed. The 20 percent that are defects are broken glass and recycled internally.
“Brockway’s plants, all except one, were at 90. When Tom Robinson was here he got this plant to 95, but he cheated — he didn’t watch his quality.”
Jacobs is a little unclear why Plant 8 closed, but he thinks high taxes compared with other Brockway properties was a factor. In any case, Brockway Glass Co. was acquired in 1987 by Owens-Illinois. And housing has replaced Plant 8, which stood shuttered for many years after.
Jacobs left the company in 1985 after working in the corporate office. He said he became president and CEO of National Gas and Oil, an Ohio company whose biggest industrial customers were Brockway and Owens Corning.
Jacobs later taught in the MBA program at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio.
He was reunited with Dakota County — and a lifelong friend by distance — when he came to Burnsville in 2019 to live with Ruth Collins, whom he first met in 1959 while the assistant tennis pro at Pocono Manor Golf Course in Pennsylvania.
His first wife died years ago, and his second wife Ingrid lives in dementia care. Coleman has been divorced and lived alone for many years. The pair are “legally significant others” in a civil arrangement, said Jacobs, who has two sons.
“She broke up with her boyfriend,” he said, recalling the summer of ’59, “we were together the whole damn summer, and here we are back together.”