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An idle plant, an empty town

The gypsum quarry in Empire, Nev., supplied building materials for the housing industry — and a heart for the tiny town. With the plant dark, Empire's homes are fast emptying.

March 29, 2011|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • The tiny town of Empire, Nev., is centered on its gypsum quarry. But the plant has gone dark, and the town's homes are quickly emptying out.
The tiny town of Empire, Nev., is centered on its gypsum quarry. But the plant… (David B. Parker, Reno Gazette-Journal )

Reporting from Empire, Nev. — This state is scarred with remnants of quests to unearth riches beneath the desert.

Scores of Nevada gold- and silver-mining camps boomed momentarily before the ore petered out and the prospectors scattered. Yet, about 100 miles north of Reno, on the edge of the Black Rock Desert Wilderness, the community of Empire worried little about the ephemeral nature of other mining towns.

Theirs had bustled along since the 1920s — when Empire was named for a brand of plaster — and building materials giant U.S. Gypsum Corp. had run things for more than half a century. When Mike Norman was asked on his application in 2006 why he wanted a job here, he wrote: "To be able to work without fear of company closure; have been told this is a great company."

Norman, now 57, and his wife, Barbara, 54, moved from Montana so he could work at USG, the sole reason for Empire's survival. Employees would unearth gypsum at a nearby quarry and truck it to the large yellow plant with rust-colored smokestacks. There, assembly lines churned out plaster and drywall, key components in home construction.

Workers lived in the shadow of the whirring plant, and USG essentially served as mayor, police chief and landlord. Norman did a little bit of everything for the company, including tending to trash and sewers.

Before long, the Normans had woven themselves into the community, where almost everything sat on company land: the two churches, the nine-hole golf course, the store selling hot dogs and DVDs, the two-bedroom apartment that the couple rented for $125 a month. They planned to stay until Mike Norman retired.

They didn't foresee the housing crash that would rip apart the American economy — and Empire along with it. There was, after all, still gypsum left to mine.

Empire was founded by Pacific Portland Cement Co. for the gypsum. When Chicago-based USG took over in the late 1940s, it continued the town's singular focus. There were few other reasons to decamp off State Route 447, which skirts little more than brown peaks and bulbous tufa rocks on its path north of Interstate 80.

In time, there were enough households, here and in the neighboring blip of Gerlach, to fill a two-page phone directory. (The combined population grew to about 500 by 2000, with the majority in Empire.) Locals survived partly on pluck. The Lions Club, for a time, provided ambulance service in a station wagon.

Anna Marks, now 52, arrived in the 1960s when her father was transferred from a USG operation in California. The family rented a blue-roofed home the company had selected for them.

Marks' dad was the plant's quality supervisor. Her mom raised three kids and worked at the general store, which, when it opened, cut down on how often locals had to trek to "town" — meaning two hours to Reno — for groceries. When Marks was in 10th grade, in 1975, the family was uprooted again.

But she so enjoyed her childhood here that she returned as an adult. Then left again. And returned once more, to an apartment not far from the Normans'. While Marks, her husband, Anthony, and their three children missed city conveniences, the cheap rent allowed them to sock away cash.

"I think living here screws you up about money. You're used to living on so little," said Marks' 22-year-old daughter, Monica.

There were other advantages to living in a place where directions involve first names ("Turn right at Anna's house"). Keeping teenagers in line was a cinch. When one of Marks' sons was revving his father's Camaro outside the store, someone immediately ratted him out. The town manager could kick out families who failed to hold their liquor or their tempers.

Marks intended to stay put until she retired from the plant.

A decade ago, hurt by multimillion-dollar asbestos claims, USG filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It emerged in 2006, its sales booming, just before the real estate market began to collapse. "There are just too many homes," said USG spokesman Robert Williams. "The whole country overbuilt."

In 2010, USG announced the permanent closure of five facilities nationwide, including one in South Gate.

It was early December in Empire, and quarry manager Steve Conley had a rotten feeling about the upcoming company meeting. The housing crisis had continued to shred USG's profitability. Sales had plummeted from $5.8 billion to $2.9 billion in four years.

The recession pummeled Nevada harder than most states. Not much need for drywall when two-thirds of homeowners were underwater on their mortgages, and entire neighborhoods were deserted. Operations here had recently been trimmed to a few days a week.

Conley, 58, grew up in Empire and married his wife, Judy, at local St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church. They live in Gerlach, across from his parents, in a home with a fireplace mantel he carved from the leftovers of a wooden tram that ferried gypsum. He'd worked for USG for 40 years.

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