50 Years Ago: Newspaper sells with story of shoe factory
Even Dick Hardwick, editor of the Navajo Times, was surprised about how well the July 31, 1969, issue of the paper sold.
Years later, asked what issues of the paper during his four years as the newspaper’s editor sold the most, he would point to that issue, saying that he heard from the paper’s carriers it sold out within hours of hitting the stands. If it was possible, he said, he would have gone back for a second printing and would probably have been able to sell another 10,000 copies easily by the weekend. So what did readers find so interesting? A big scandal? Did someone important die?
No to each. Instead, the big attraction was a front-page story about the opening of a tennis shoe factory in Mexican Springs, New Mexico, at the site of a former Job Corps operation. It made sense, Hardwick said, that a story about a company planning to hire several hundred Navajos in the next year or two would attract so much interest. After all, the unemployment rate on the reservation was more than 60 percent with thousands of Navajos looking for a steady income.
The Times had printed a few articles over the past year about plans to create the factory but most readers probably thought it was just another story about a company talking about coming here and then finding a reason at the last moment to go somewhere else.
This one was different and it all had to do with Ed Soloman, who was president of the Armax Corp. out of New Jersey. As the story goes, Soloman and his wife spent part of their summer in 1968 visiting the Navajo Reservation and his wife fell in love with the area and its people. She began pressuring her husband to find a way they could start a business here.
It turned out that Soloman had a friend in the area named Henry Hillson, who had a clothing store in Albuquerque and a contract with the BIA and the tribe to furnish the clothing that was distributed to students at the beginning of the school year. Hillson would later talk about his relationship with the tribal government, saying one of the reasons he got the lucrative contract was that he made sure to donate to all of the campaigns of all of the candidates for chairman.
This was illegal under tribal law, which banned donations to campaigns from non-Navajos, but Hillson said no one in the tribe really checked to make sure the laws were followed. He also said a lot of off reservation companies did it to keep in good standing with whoever was in power. Hillson got Soloman in touch with the tribe’s chairman, Raymond Nakai, who jumped at the chance to have a new business start up just as he was running for re-election.
Nakai paved the way for the proposal to sail through the Navajo Tribal Council. When Soloman appeared before the Council to get his lease approved, he stressed that he was not asking for any money. All he wanted was the tribe to co-sign loan papers for $150,000 which he planned to use to buy equipment and materials he needed to make the shoes.
The Council approved the proposal almost unanimously and within months Soloman was ready to open his factory. He said he was now in the process of hiring 130 Navajos to work at the factory with plans to increase that number to 600 by the end of 1970. He also told the Council that he already had companies pledging $5 million for purchase of the shoes once they were made.
The company will be run almost totally by Navajos, he said, with the only non-Navajos working there being him and his wife. He said the company planned to manufacture at least 20,000 pairs of shoes a year. Within days of the story running in the Times, Soloman had more than 2,000 applicants for the jobs and he discovered the first problem he would have to overcome – lack of housing.
No money was set aside for housing and Soloman was forced to limit his first employees to those who lived with driving range of the new factory. The Times would keep track of the story for the next couple of years in part because Nakai was making as much political hay out of the factory as possible – and his opponents were broadcasting problems the factory was having. It’s not certain just how many Navajos were employed at the factory. There were reports that it was less than a hundred.
The factory was struggling to survive a year after it opened and it soon became a memory. Years later, the Times tried to come up with a reason for the company’s failure.
It may have been because of economic factors. When it first opened, Navajo employees were being paid through training contracts with the U.S. Department of Labor, which paid them as they were learning their jobs, probably six months. So for those six months, Soloman had no personnel costs and his supplies has been paid for through his loan so almost everything was profit.
But when the training period was over and he had to start paying employees himself as well as buy new supplies, his profits probably plummeted. There was also a question about just how firm that $5 million in contracts were since even by 1970, the tennis shoe business was run by brand appeal and thus made it very difficult for a startup company to find buyers.
In any case, the shoe factory soon became a memory and it was quite likely that the tribe had to repay most of that $150,000 loan.