Dea Thomas, 54, tugs on a large needle, threading a leather lace through a baseball glove at Nocona Athletic Goods Co. in Nocona, Texas (pop. 3,198). She works diligently, just as she has for the last 12 years, and pauses only to answer questions of fellow lacers, most of whom she trained.
With 75 employees, Nocona is known for its quality mitts-and for being the last producer of completely American-made baseball and softball gloves in the nation.
But when a fire destroyed its factory in 2006, the company's future stood in the balance until Thomas and her co-workers exchanged leather-crafting tools for hammers and paintbrushes. Together, they rebuilt their workplace to preserve both their jobs and the company's 75-year glove-making tradition.
"We became carpenters and painters. We built all the tables and shelves. Everything you see, we built," says Thomas, glancing across the production area.
Owner Rob Storey, 48, rallied employees to salvage equipment and reorder leather to keep the northern Texas town's third largest employer in operation while the factory was moved to a new location. In the meantime, no Nocona workers lost their jobs or missed a paycheck.
"We still had inventory coming in and our people were OK, so we just had our vendors and suppliers ramp it up," Storey says. "What we do is unique to the U.S. It was a given that we would reopen."
Nocona owners and employees found inspiration to save the business in the company's long leather-crafting history.
Storey's grandfather, Bob Storey, played baseball for Rice University in Houston before becoming president of Nocona Leather Goods Co. in the early 1930s. Trying to offset sagging sales of the company's wallets, purses and belts, he suggested making baseball gloves.
In 1934, the company made its first glove, and Storey named it "Nokona" with a "k" because, according to company lore, he couldn't trademark the town's name. Business boomed and, within six years, Nocona was concentrating solely on sports equipment, ultimately changing its name to Nocona Athletic Goods in 1956.
"It really was a passion and hobby for him," says the founder's son, Bobby Storey, 79, who managed the company from 1973 to 1991 and continues as its chairman of the board.
Before Bob Storey's death in 1980, he shared his love of baseball with local children by sponsoring Little League baseball teams and providing gloves to children in need. It wasn't uncommon for a glove to land mysteriously in a kid's yard during the night.
Today, Nokona gloves remain a treasured possession among ball players.
"It was the only glove I ever wore," says Carroll Beringer, who pitched for the minor league Fort Worth Cats in the 1950s and went on to coach the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. He fondly recalls his father buying him his first glove-a Nokona-at age 7. "Sixteen years playing and 11 coaching, it was all Nokona," says Beringer, 79, of Fort Worth, Texas.
Nokona gloves cost from $100 to $250 each, and are sold at more than 1,300 retail stores nationwide.
"We have the smaller end of the marketa higher-end glove," says Rob, the third generation of the Storey family to run the company. "Each glove has distinguishing features, so no two gloves are exactly the same."
Each Nokona is assembled by hand, with more than 20 individual pieces of leather bound together during a 40-step process. Gloves are made from buffalo, kangaroo and cowhide in a variety of colors ranging from traditional tan to vibrant pink. Quality craftsmanship has enabled the company to maintain relationships with professional teams since the 1940s.
Starting from scratch
Nocona's history took a dramatic turn on the morning of July 18, 2006. Before workers began their shifts, a fire started in an overheated box fan at the back of the company's 60,000-square-foot factory. For about 20 minutes, family members, employees and friends dashed inside the front offices to save what they could.
"It was shocking," Rob recalls. "I don't know that I felt sadness; it was an adrenaline rush really of 'what can I do?'"
Employees eventually congregated across Walnut Street as flames consumed the factory. The building burned for eight hours and smoldered for the next three days, leaving behind the smell of smoke and an air of uncertainty.
That same week, Rob met with all of his workers at the Nocona Public Library to deliver this promise: "Not only do you have your job, but your paycheck will be ready tomorrow and next week and the week after that."
Thomas was among those who listened gratefully. "He called us all together and said 'you're all my employees; it's not over,'" she recalls.
The next day, employees began sifting through the fire's rubble in search of the custom-made, steel leather-cutting dies used for each Nokona design. They meticulously cleaned the dies and had them re-tempered. Within a week, Rob had moved the operation into a nearby defunct boot factory. Ten days after the fire, Nocona workers were cutting leather again.
"It was almost invigorating to figure out how to do things from scratch," Rob says.
With increased demand and a limited labor pool in Nocona, Rob partnered with two other companies last year to open a second baseball glove factory in Worcester, Mass., and a baseball bat factory called Good Wood in Fall River, Mass.
The company's growth and survival is a testament to its loyal owners and dedicated workers. "We're the last of the big, independent ball glove makers in the United States," Rob says. "We've always followed the path less traveled."