If you come across a Maple City Shirt Company men’s work shirt, keep it. It is one of the shirts made by Goshen College students in the three years that a shirt factory was set up in the basement of Coffman.Goshen College’s manufacturing debut began as a response to the need for student financial aid during the Great Depression. According to Mabel Brunk in the essay she wrote on the topic, the factory was designed to employ about 25 to 40 students who would earn from $100 to $200 a semester as credit towards their student accounts.
Joe Brunk set up the factory by bringing sewing machines from Maryland and installing them himself into the cement floor of the basement. Once he taught himself how to sew the shirts, he started instructing students and the business began on September 15, 1934.
For the first year, the shirts were available in two colors: blue chambray and gray covert. Students made 12,168 shirts in the first year and earned a total of $3410.57 towards their tuition. According to Rebecca Horst in her book Goshen College: A Pictorial History, it was rumored that “one student worked so many hours in the shirt factory that when he graduated, the college owed him money.”
“Every stitch a link of strength” became the slogan for the college shirts, which were advertised everywhere–from local light posts to church congregations. Students were encouraged to sell the shirts to people from their hometown, and the college even hired a marketing director to get the word out for the company.
But in the end, the fatal flaw with the business venture was that there was not enough demand for the shirts. Brunk writes that she did not know if any local stores sold the Goshen College brand, but documentation could only be found for one retailer, located in West Liberty, Ohio, that sold the shirts. It was hard to get people to change from buying their routine brands to a new, more expensive brand during the midst of the Great Depression.
By 1937, the factory closed and the company was unable to pay off all of its loans. Brunk said that the machines stayed in Coffman until “someone from Chicago paid for them to be removed.”
The college’s shirt making endeavor should not be labeled as a failure, though. Although it did ultimately succumb to low demand, Brunk quotes a student worker who said that they wouldn’t have considered going to college had it not been for the work-study system.
The Maple City Shirt Company was not the only garment industry business connected to our college. Two different clothing manufacturers–Vicky Jeans and Jean Lee Originals–operated out of the Physical Plant before it became Goshen College property in 1991.
Kevin Koch, the administrative assistant for the Study Service Term office, used to work for Jean Lee Originals. He was one of the first male stitchers at the company, which made cheerleading and band uniforms. However, this company was not part of the college, and more of the employees were 60- to 70-year-old European immigrants rather than college students.
The influence of the garment industry on campus is now long gone, but the legacy of the shirt factory stands in the history books as a testament to the creative problem-solving that this college is capable of in order to serve its students. Next time you’re at the Depot or the local Goodwill, look out for the rare Maple City Shirt Company brand work shirt so that you can be one of the few owners of genuine Goshen College fashion.