More difficult times struck “the shop” in 1979, as the union forced a company-wide strike. Lasting over 170 days, the walkout was then the longest running strike in UAW history.
In 1983, the company reported a $165 million loss and later that year officials of IH announced the plant would be closed “as part of its overall strategy to return its agricultural equipment business to profitability.” Officials said the Canton plant would be closed effective October 31, 1983. The economic blow to the community was profound. Unemployment rose to double-digits, families moved away to find work, and stores closed. The downtown became almost deserted, and historic buildings fell into disrepair. It was a very, very difficult time for the Canton community.
Sixteen years later, the International Harvester Plant was destroyed on August 6, 1997, by a raging fire that ripped through the four block area and spread black ash throughout the city. Emotions ran high as memories came rushing back to many residents while they stood by and watched a longtime Canton landmark burn. The fire started in the south side of the plant in an area near the warehouse, and was reported at 4:03 a.m., according to Canton Police Chief Mike Elam. Around 4:45 a.m., a column of soot and smoke shot hundreds of feet into the air as flames engulfed the elevators and warehouse portions of the plant.
At dawn, a huge, black cloud of smoke could be seen from all over the county and beyond. By 5 a.m., the heat was so intense, Chief Elam ordered knocking on doors of residences on Walnut Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues to advise residents of the potential danger. Residents on Walnut from Second through Fourth Avenues were also evacuated and moved north to Chestnut Street.
The fire indirectly led to the fatality of one woman, Betty Carley. The sixty-nine year old resident of Sunset Manor nursing home was pronounced dead at 7:50 a.m. after being struck by a van while the nursing home was being evacuated.
Mayor Don Edwards said at the time that the six-story warehouse glowed in flames and the old, dry, 12 to 18 inch square timbers in the warehouse were helping to fuel the blaze. Every fire department in Fulton County was activated. In addition, fire departments from Pekin, Bushnell, Macomb, Trivoli, Havana, East Peoria, and others were reported to be on the scene.
As the fire continued to burn into the third day, the famous IH whistle was found. The whistle, which blew regularly seven times a day, was found late on August 7, in the powerhouse of the plant. For many years, the whistle blew off a trail of steam as it announced times for workers to take a break, lunch time, and the beginning and ending of shifts. Local resident Tom Simas said the whistle blew for 17 seconds and would be pulled every weekday before 6 a.m., 6:52 a.m., 7 a.m., noon, 12:22 p.m., 12:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. The whistle could also be heard on special holidays such as New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve.
Fire Chief Michael Jackson said crews continued to be on the scene around the clock. At approximately 9:45 a.m. on August 8th, flames were visible through the windows of the building just west of the main gate.
On August 10th, using the smoldering IH building as a backdrop, officials from the City of Canton and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) held a press conference to confirm what many local residents already suspected — the fire still burning at the plant was the result of arson.
On May 20, 2002, after a five-year investigation, Police Chief Mike Elam and other officials held another press conference to announce the arrest of a suspect in the arson of the IH plant. Chief Elam confirmed a sealed Federal indictment was obtained for the arrest of Jerry A. Sprabary, 41, after he was interviewed by Chief Elam and Lt. Dean Putman in Ft. Worth, Texas. Sprabary was later tried and sentenced to federal prison for the crime.