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North Lawrence Dairy done

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NORTH LAWRENCE — For the first time in more than a century, the hamlet will be without a dairy plant.

The closing of North Lawrence Dairy Inc. means about 100 people will lose their jobs, according to Brian K. Hammond, president of Teamsters Local 687. The closure is a result of Healthy Food Holdings' loss of a contract to produce Breyers brand yogurt here.

Healthy Food Holdings said it lost its licensing agreement with Breyers owner Unilever. The plant also will stop producing Breakstone's cottage cheese. Breakstone's is a division of Kraft.

"This is in no way a reflection on the hard work and dedication of our North Lawrence Dairy employees," Breyers spokeswoman Andrea S. Rose said. "We are committed to treating our employees with fairness and respect."

Employees will receive severance pay and support in finding new jobs, according to the company.

James Nolan, CEO of Healthy Food Holdings, broke the news to employees in the plant's cafeteria during a shift change at 1 p.m. Monday. The announcement originally was scheduled for 7:30 a.m. Friday, but then it was canceled without explanation late Thursday. It is uncertain when exactly the plant will close.

The announcement did not come as a surprise to many of the plant's employees, Mr. Hammond said. Rumors had been circulating for weeks that bleak news was headed for the facility, which has been sold several times over the years.

"I think everyone was bracing for the worst," Mr. Hammond said.

Mr. Nolan told union representatives that a few parties have expressed an interest in purchasing the facility, though nothing is far enough along to be announced.

The news was extremely disappointing for the plant's most senior employee, Gordon E. Childs, who began working there in 1963.

Longevity at the plant runs in the Childs family. Mr. Childs's grandfather worked there, and his 102-year-old father retired from a 47-year career at the plant in 1973. All four of Mr. Childs's sons worked at the plant at one point. An employee in the plant's maintenance division, Mr. Childs even got to train his sons himself.

About 10 years ago, the plant held a celebration with cake and ice cream for the Childs family, thanking them for putting in more than 1 million hours of service at the facility. Mr. Childs, 65, had been hoping to retire from the plant once he hit his 50th anniversary in 2013.

"It's been a great job for me and my family," Mr. Childs said. "I'm going to miss it there for sure."

Memories of the summer picnics and holiday parties sponsored by the company came flooding back Monday night.

"Everybody got real close to each other and knew each other real well," Mr. Childs said.

Warren A. Dyke, assessor for the town of Lawrence, said the plant was assessed at $3.6 million after an environmental facility was constructed at it several years ago. Its taxable assessed value is $2.5 million. The dairy plant has been the major player in North Lawrence's economy since the 19th century, when milk was being brought to the facility by horse and buggy or train.

Mr. Dyke said he has seen major changes in the dairy industry in the town of Lawrence over the years.

"We've probably lost two-thirds of our dairy farms over the last 10 years," he said. "We're down to one dairy farm, Stauffer's, shipping milk on a regular basis."

Town Supervisor Victor R. Burnett called the news a blow to the community.

"It isn't just the fact that these poor people are losing their jobs," Mr. Burnett said. "There's nothing else around here."

At the nearby Grapevine Cafe, co-owner Duane E. Black wondered how his business would continue without the plant down the road. He estimated he was on a first-name basis with half of the company's employees, many of whom purchase sandwiches, gas or cigarettes from his store.

Mr. Black has a hard time picturing his business without the plant's employees.

"It's going to affect the town a whole lot," Mr. Black said. "Every little business in town here, they're all going to be hurting."

Johnson Newspapers writer Ryne M. Martin contributed this report.

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