The business known locally as the old Diamond match mill has been in existence in Cloquet since 1905 and still uses most of the same equipment imported from Sweden during the renovation in the 1940s.
The original Diamond Match Company building was made of wood in 1905 but the plant closed three years later because it was too far away from their match manufacturing plant. Some 20 years later, Diamond Match came back to Cloquet when they took over what was then the Berst-Forster-Dixfield match mill in 1928-1929. Shortly after that, they made the logical decision to build a brick building.
Diamond continued making the same products that Berst-Forster-Dixfield had been making for a short time, including clothespins and tongue depressors which were made from birch trees. However, when the birch tree supply dwindled, Diamond stopped making the other products and focused on making matches from poplar trees.
When the new larger brick building was finished, complete with its new machines, Cloquet became the largest manufacturer of wood matches in the United States.
Sometimes the company even dipped into the political realm. During World War II, Diamond Match made matches to ship overseas. The matches were printed in several different languages with instructions printed on them how to derail trains and burn up supplies of the enemy. The matches were dropped by airplanes behind enemy lines, according to the exhibit currently on display at the Carlton County Historical Society.
The company changed in many ways over the years: new warehouses were added, machines updated, plus experimentation with different products as well as mergers. Diamond Match became Diamond Gardner, Diamond National and Diamond International.
Now called Jarden Home Brands Diamond Division, the building is 350,000 square feet and sits on 38 acres of land along Cloquet Avenue, a quiet presence on the edge of downtown.
“We have a huge footprint,” current Jarden Home Brands plant manager Mary Andrae said.
The products have changed with the times, ranging from clothes pins to chop sticks, to long-reach matches and even candles for a short time.
“It's like an open time capsule, a step back in time,” Andrae said during a program and exhibition reception at the Carlton County Historical Society in Cloquet Friday.
At its peak, there were about 600 men employed at Cloquet’s Diamond match mill. In just 40 years, the workforce was cut in half to 300 employees. Currently there are 100 people employed at Jarden Home Brands in Cloquet.
It comes down to economics: to keep the equipment repaired and running costs a lot of money.
“It’s sad, but it's the way it goes,” said Irene Rudnicki, a retired employee who also presented Friday.
Rudnicki started working for Diamond in January 1966 and made $1.19 an hour as her starting pay. She began with entry-level “women’s” jobs like hand packing and quality control, and worked her way up to manager before retiring after 42 years with the company.
When Rudnicki began working for Diamond there were 12 match lines; today there are four. The pay between men and women was equal for the same jobs, she said.
Rudnicki worked for the plant when they dabbled with the candle industry. She was a flying foreman and traveled with others back and forth between the company’s different facilities.
She traveled to the factory where the candles were made in Kansas City which was a bit of a culture shock for her, due to the large number of Hispanic and Somali employees.
The candle factory employed many people who practiced the Muslim faith, so they had praying rooms that were dark and with cardboard on the floor and mats outside the door for the shoes. Rudnicki was concerned about the flowing clothing the Muslim woman wore getting caught in the machines, but there were not any issues in the short time they owned that factory, she said.
“One of the woman asked me how many wives my husband had,” Rudnicki said with a laugh, “I told her my husband had one and that was one too many.”
In the end, the distribution of the candles was too difficult and costly and Diamond discontinued the candle business.
There were many accidents over the years at the mill - Rudnicki’s finger was involved in a small one.
She remembered it was a Thursday morning, because it was payday and she wanted to hurry through her job on the inner box machine. She sliced off the tip of her finger and went to the company nurse on duty.
“I felt like I fell back and hit my head on the floor, then bounced back up,” Rudnicki explained.
Nurse Eleanor Wells drove her to the hospital to have the fingertip sewed back on, but had to stop for gas first next to the old Ed’s Bakery.
“After she filled up with gas, she said she would be back for her green stamps,” Rudnicki remembered, laughing and noting that the hospital was able to sew it back on, happily.
Rudnicki was not alone. There were many accidents at Diamond over the years and several workers had fingers or portions of fingers missing because the machinery was wide open. Saws were 50 inches across and there were no guards in place in those days.
Little by little, safety took over, according to Rudnicki, adding that changes were met with resistance at first because the machines were easier to operate without the guards in place.
Once employees were properly trained to work on the machines and safety guards were implemented, the number of accidents dropped.
“It was an interesting time,” Rudnicki said.
Accidental fires were also an occasional problem. The retired employees at Friday’s presentation agreed that most of them were small and caused by people stepping on matches on the floor.
Ervin and Lola Pettit both worked for many years at Diamond: Lola for 40 years at the kitchen match machine, and Ervin for 39 years, mostly in the warehouse. Ervin, who had many relatives - including his father and brother - working at the factory, was also the union officer for 34 of those years.
Rudnicki and Ervin listed several products that were made at Diamond over the years, including sticks for ice cream treats and corn dogs, garden fencing and specialty items such as large matches for the San Francisco Opera and custom matches for the Palms Resort in Las Vegas that had different colored tips, like hot pink and bright blue, and the box was black. They were bundled in small groups and wrapped with tissue paper, then put into a box to be distributed to customers.
A little known product Diamond used to make was two types of chopsticks.
“They were a hoot,” Rudnicki said, as the former employees in the audience chuckled. “In the dryer, they turned into what looked like a ball of porcupine quills.”
In its heyday, the company had three match lines going until the smoking bans in bars and restaurants were implemented nationwide, when many places went smoke free.
“[Orders] went ‘poof’ - right down the tubes,” Rudnicki said. “It (the smoking ban) was for our health benefit, but it was jobs for us and we really hated to see it go.”
According to the former employees, Diamond had a language all its own. Workers and managers still use terms like “bull chain” and “the cage.” One that still baffles new employees is “skillet,” which is the outside of a match box.
“I was never bored,” Rudnicki said. “It was an interesting place to work.”
In the 1970s, the cheap disposable lighter gained in popularity. In six short years, it took over the market.
“It was the next nail in the coffin,” Andrae said.
In the 1980s and ’90s, it was cheaper to get the products overseas and, in 1998, Diamond Brands was sold to Diamond Operating Corporation.
Diamond Operating Corporation filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001, then Jarden Home Brands bought them out of bankruptcy in 2003.
Jarden Home Brands still offers three legacy Diamond Brands products: Diamond toothpicks, kitchen matches and penny matches as well as new products such as colored toothpicks and long-reach matches.
“We have the luxury of having a lot of brand loyalty within the older generation,” Andrae said.
Several of the former employees agreed that the Diamond Strike-A-Fire fire starter is the most underrated product currently at Jarden.
Jarden encourages people to come in and tour the company.
“Anyone of you who wants to come in, I encourage you to stop in,” Andrae told the crowd at CCHS Friday. “We may not be able to do on-the-spot tours, but if someone is available we will walk you around.”
According to Andrae, Jarden Home Brands is the only match mill left in the United States.
“We’re the last one standing,” Andrae stressed. “This is the single remaining wood stick manufacturing plant in the U.S.”
After the presentation the audience was invited to look at and touch a variety of products that have been made at the mill over the course of its 110-year lifespan. There were many photos of the machines and employees to look through on the table and in albums.
“It was a good place to work,” the Pettits said.
GO EXPERIENCE HISTORY FOR YOURSELF
The Carlton County Historical Society’s new exhibit called “Wood City Smokestacks” features Cloquet’s three big wood products industries and their historical predecessors: Sappi Fine Papers, Jarden Home Brands, and United States Gypsum (USG). In September, Part One of the exhibit opened including Sappi and its predecessors, Potlatch and Northwest Paper Company. On September 26, CCHS opened Part Two of the exhibit which featured Jarden Home Brands and its predecessors, Diamond Match and Berst-Forster-Dixfield. On November 27, CCHS will open Part Three of the exhibit about USG and its predecessors, Conwed and the Wood Conversion Company.
The “Wood City Smokestacks” exhibit will continue at the museum until next spring, with monthly programs about all three of Cloquet’s wood products industries. Their smokestacks still define the landscape of Cloquet.