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Tucked away on State, foundry holds key to city history.
Story and photos by Colby Frazier
Some children have vivid first memories of playing with a favorite toy, being strapped into a hated car seat or learning to ride a bike. For Don Archer, life's inaugural slice of existence has its roots at 1400 S. State inside the brass foundry that his great-grandfather built there in 1922.
The State Brass Foundry & Machine takes its name from the street it sits on, and in this era of oppressive technology, the gray masonry building that has housed the foundry for 94 years still stands.
Inside, bearded men in denim overalls pour molten metal into casts large and small to keep society's industrial machines running smoothly. Chains and pulleys hang from the ceiling, shiny brass ovals are carved to precision inside computerized cutting machines, a conduction furnace melts metal and new casts are formed from wood cutouts and silica sand.
Though some jobs are repetitive, Don Archer, the fourth-generation of Archer men to work at the foundry, says part of the job's charm is solving problems and often getting to do something different.
"It's unique," Archer says, noting that the position of "foundryman" is becoming an increasingly rarefied title. "I like to say that it's different every day. There's always something coming in the door that's new, that's a challenge that you have to figure out to make it new for the customer."
His father, Kim Archer, whose first name derives from his great-grandfather and early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints apostle Heber C. Kimball, began working at the foundry in 1972.
One of the first accounts that Kim Archer secured, he remembers, was manufacturing brass bearings for FMC Jetway, now JBT Corp., in Ogden. Shining brass gears made on State Street are the guts of thousands of jetways around the world, Kim Archer says.
While State Brass Foundry performs jobs small and large, Kim Archer says some of his largest customers run fish farms around the world. On the morning of Aug. 9, the foundry crew had just poured nearly 1,000 pounds of molten metal into a cast that would become a roughly 6-foot-tall pump housing for an aquaculture company.
These pumps, he says, are designed to carry live fish and water from one area to another while feeding them through the pump head first. If they go in backward, their gills are damaged and they die.
Archer says he ships three to four of the pump housings each week to places as far flung as Norway and Sweden.
While little has changed at the foundry over the decades, the area surrounding the business has changed, and in Archer's opinion, it hasn't been for the better.
On the same Tuesday morning that his 18 employees were busy making the new pump housing, Archer says that when he showed up for work at 5 a.m., he caught sight of a prostitute performing oral sex on a customer in the parking lot of the Wasatch Inn.
Each morning, foundry employees find the parking lot littered with hypodermic needles. A full beer can flew through a foundry window a couple of days before this story was published, and break-ins, Archer says, especially when the price of copper, brass and aluminum are high, are frequent.
Don Archer, who started working at the foundry full-time at the age of 18, says he was exposed to the wonders and the sins of the world on State Street. "If you can imagine somebody doing something, I've seen it done out here," he says. "You see things that you shouldn't see and it's getting worse around our neighborhood."
But crime and prostitution are only part of the issues with the street that his business calls home. As Salt Lake City has morphed, and heavy manufacturing jobs have fled to the city's outskirts, State Brass Foundry has remained, the smoke rising from its vent stacks and the pile of spent silica sand out front, standing out amid the convenience stores, fast food joints and hotels.
The business' uniqueness, Kim Archer says, has attracted the ire of city officials who are concerned about air pollution and wastewater quality.
But while Archer does what he needs to do to keep his business alive in Salt Lake City, he says he would like to see something done about the cottage industries of drugs and prostitution that thrive at nearby motels.
The nature of his business, and the combination of the perception that the city isn't doing enough to crack down on crime in the area, he says, has resulted in a mutual dislike. He says the city hates him "probably because I put out a little smoke and I am what I am downtown," while "I hate the city because [it] isn't doing anything with the problems we've got here on State Street."
And while heavy manufacturing jobs sometimes appear to be a fading relic of American industrialism, the State Brass Foundry is thriving. Short on space and needing to expand, Archer says he has purchased a pair of buildings on 2.5 acres at the old Tooele Army Depot. There, he says, they can expand the business.
Eventually, Archer says he hopes to move the bulk of his foundry operations to Tooele, but current plans have the machine shop remaining on State.
As he walks from room to room in the ancient building, its walls blackened with soot, he points out the old gas-fired furnaces that lie dormant beneath the building, and veteran employees like Steve Kump, who has worked at the foundry for 40 years, and was busy handling a flame-thrower.
While the world outside the foundry walls changes, bits and pieces of that world are fabricated inside. From the beehives that grace the south entrance of the Utah State Capitol, to the Pioneer-era map of Salt Lake City imbedded in the floor of the City Creek Center bridge above Main Street, and to the names on gravestones that fill the state's cemeteries, one is never too far from a brass fixture crafted on State Street.
And a fifth generation of Archers is waiting in the wings. Don Archer says one of his sons wants to be a physician, while the younger of the two enjoys lending a hand at the foundry, where he, like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, will be able to say he's a foundryman.
"It's a unique thing," Don Archer says of being able to tell people, "I pour molten metal for a living. There's not a lot of people who can say they do that."