For generations, the large brick-and-wood building in Hagerstown’s West End was known for the wonderful smells it produced, maybe even more than the hundreds of jobs it provided.
“Oh, my gosh, what a fragrance!” recalled Linda Irvin-Craig, 68, who lived in Hagerstown until 1952. “You drove down that street or anywhere in that neighborhood and, if you weren’t hungry — you were after you drove by there.”
The building — home to Manbeck Bread Co. until it closed in about 1980, and then a military contractor until last fall — is being demolished. The structure, which had begun to weaken, should be gone by midsummer, according to Allegany Wrecking & Salvage.
Then the more than 2-acre site at the corner of Burhans Boulevard and West Church Street will be put up for sale, said Judy Merrbaugh, whose husband owns the demolition company. Merrbaugh said she was asked by a representative of the building’s owners to market the property.
The building, which is addressed as 358 W. Church St., is owned by Henry and Patricia Isenberg.
The Isenbergs also owned Reisner Products Inc., which made U.S. Navy and other products in the building for about 25 years, according to former Reisner Products President Crystal Keeney.
Historical records indicate the structure was built in about 1915, said Irvin-Craig, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. She said she doesn’t know the building’s original use.
Herald-Mail records show that Manbeck celebrated its 50th year in 1975.
By 1975, Manbeck employed 170 people with an annual payroll totaling $1.5 million, according to the newspaper.
By 1979, President Don Beaver, whose family owned the baking company, wanted to expand the operation, which had 213 employees by then, the newspaper reported.
Newspaper archives show that in the late 1970s, problems arose, including a nationwide shortage of natural gas, which was needed to fuel Manbeck’s big ovens.
According to a Herald-Mail story in 1980, Manbeck was in negotiations to be bought by other companies. In the meantime, creditors had filed a petition in court to have Manbeck placed in involuntary bankruptcy, the story reported.
Beaver couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.
Reisner steps in
Reisner Products Inc. bought the building at a bankruptcy sale sometime in the 1980s, Keeney said.
Reisner Products was the government contracting division of Reisner Inc., a longtime Hagerstown company.
Reisner Inc., which was a manufacturer of pipe organ components, also made devices for the military, said Peter Wright, whose family bought Reisner Inc. in 1972.
During World War II, Reisner Inc. “made status boards for the Navy,” Wright said.
“They were clear boards that you could see through, and every old black-and-white movie that shows radar moving in a circle on a clear board — they’re showing a Reisner status board.”
The boards, which are also known as plotting boards, are used on ships even today, Keeney said.
“They plot destinations on them. And, on some, there are range circles” for radar, she said.
Henry Isenberg owned a business in Philadelphia that was the only other company making such boards, Wright said. For years, the two companies competed against each other for government business — before realizing they’d be better off if one bought the other, he said.
So in 1975, Isenberg bought Reisner’s government contracting arm, which became known as Reisner Products Inc.
“He stopped making them up there (in Philadelphia), and we just made them in Hagerstown,” Keeney said.
With big machinery on the ground floor of what had been the Manbeck building, Reisner Products also made such devices as lead droppers, Keeney said.
“A lead dropper was used for like, practice torpedoes,” she said.
The lead dropper took the place of a more expensive part in the head of each torpedo in naval practices, she said.
The droppers “had to conform to an exact shape and weight. It weighed 50-some pounds. It wasn’t that huge. It was just heavy. No one knew things of this type were done in Hagerstown, but it was,” Keeney said.
At its peak, Reisner Products had about 25 employees.
“We used to get contracts for like, 300 or 400 of (some products) at a time. But that was years and years ago. They were all government contracts, and (when budget cutbacks came), they just stopped,” she said.
Out of business
More recently, Henry Isenberg, who was in his 80s, became ill and a decision had to be made about the company, Keeney said.
“Because we were slow, (Isenberg’s wife) just felt it was a good time to get out of it,” Keeney said. “They wanted to sell the building and everything.”
Keeney said she and her husband, Steven, who was vice president, were interested in buying the company — but that would have meant moving out of that building, too.
“There was so much expense to move it. It was too much of an investment to take a risk on,” she said.
So, Reisner Products went out of business on Sept. 30, 2011, she said.
At the time, there were just five employees, including Keeney and her husband.
“We were all like family. It was really hard when it closed,” she said. And, “unfortunately, the plotting boards we still made, are still used by the government and no one else makes them.”
In the meantime, Reisner Inc. — whose pipe organ business had long been based at 240 N. Prospect St. — went out of business in about 1990, Wright said.
“It paralleled the decline of the mainline churches. We followed suit. They couldn’t afford to buy them,” he said.
Flour tanker trucks
Joel Merrbaugh, 54, the owner of the wrecking company that is now demolishing the former Manbeck and Reisner Products building, remembers working on another similar project in that building when he was in his 20s.
“My dad’s company, John Merrbaugh & Son, we took the (Manbeck baking) ovens out in 1980 or ’81,” Joel Merrbaugh said.
The ovens were two stories tall, according to Bob Banzhoff Jr. of Hagerstown, who worked at Manbeck after graduating from St. Maria Goretti High School in 1969.
That summer “I worked in the pan room, which was in the basement. Then, the next summer, I worked at the panner, which is part of the dough room where they put the dough into the pans. And then, I worked the bread oven and, eventually, I ran the bread oven on the second shift,” Banzhoff recalled.
Banzhoff, who left Manbeck in late 1972 to become a licensed surveyor, said working in the big bakery was hard but interesting.
“‘Bonnie Bread’ was their bread. They had a mascot — a little girl was pictured on the wrapper. They also made specialty breads,” he said.
He remembers the bread being sold at such places at the H. L. Mills grocery, which was owned by former Hagerstown Mayor Herman L. Mills, and at groceries in places as far north as New Jersey.
The Hagerstown operation was so large that the flour came in by rail car “and they’d load it into silos in back of the building and use it from there. Also, the flour came in by tanker trucks. They used that much,” Banzhoff said.
“We made tens of thousands (of bread loaves) in a day, easy. “(We) Would start maybe 6 in the morning, running (in two shifts) to 2 in the morning, sometimes,” he said.
Manbeck “furnished uniforms and everybody on the production line wore white, plus you had to wear either the white paper hat or, if your hair was long enough, you had to wear a hair net. Didn’t make any difference whether you were a man or a woman,” he said.
‘A Rube Goldberg thing’
The manufacturing process involved a long line of bread pans and racks, taking a circuitous route through the building.
“Along the way, they’d get filled with dough, then they would rise,” he said, beginning a description of a lengthy process that included giant mixers, dividers and “almost like a Rube Goldberg thing.”
In the latter, the product “rolled up a cone along a spiral ... got flattened into a tube, then it fell onto a belt at a 45-degree angle ... when it caught the tip end of it and turned over ... rolled it into a diagonal roll ... dropped out into a pan ...” and still more.
There were two giant ovens, each fired up to 450 to 500 degrees, Banzhoff said. On a continuous chained track, racks of bread pans moved through the ovens — a process timed to give each pan 22 minutes of high heat, he said.
Before it could be sliced and bagged, the bread had to be cooled. “You can’t cut hot bread because it’ll sag,” Banzhoff said.
Manbeck had a production line for making bread loaves and a line for making bread rolls, he said.
In the latter, the workers made hot dog and hamburger rolls, as well as what the company called “pull-aparts,” which were like today’s brown ’n serve dinner rolls, he said.
The scent of dough
Judy Merrbaugh and Irvin-Craig remember Manbeck fondly.
Irvin-Craig said she was about 6 or 7 years old in the late 1940s when Manbeck “hired my mother as a hospitality lady. She and a group of women would go out on a bread truck — they were all housewives dressed very neatly — and give loaves of bread to people. They were doing some kind of big promotion.”
For Merrbaugh, who is 50, the thought of Manbeck is tied to the memories of her youth.
“My mom had my hand, and we were walking through Hagerstown. You didn’t have malls back then. When you wanted a new dress for Easter, you went downtown. When you wanted to shop, you went downtown. And that was the place to be,” Merrbaugh said.
And, for both Irvin-Craig and for Merrbaugh, the memories of Manbeck are dominated by the fragrance.
“I remember when I was a little girl, walking down the street and I could smell the bread baking,” Merrbaugh said.
The memory of such scents wafting through the air aren’t welcome to Banzhoff, however.
“You smell that bread for 12, 14 hours a day — after a while, it was just not that appetizing,” he said with a laugh.