Published 11:26 pm Monday, July 12, 2010

What should have been a homecoming of sorts for Carter Brothers Manufacturing Company turned to heartbreak early Monday morning when fire swept through the plant at Hamilton Crossroads causing extensive damage and sending a wave of uncertainty through the community.

Firefighters worked to battle the blaze that broke out around 3:30 a.m. for nearly 12 hours, but in the end the fire left the community business damaged throughout, said Glen Adkins, vice president of the Pike County Volunteer Firefighters Association and the first to arrive on scene.

Jonathan Arn, company CEO and vice president, said Carter Brothers has closed its joint venture in China and was in the process of moving all manufacturing operations back to Hamilton Crossroads.

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He called the fire “devastating” but stopped short of saying the fire could bring to an end the manufacturing company that has been the heart of the Hamilton Crossroads community since 1936 when his grandfather, Woodrow Carter, and uncle, Charlie Carter, began manufacturing agricultural equipment, lawnmowers and personal gardening equipment.

In the late 1960s, the company diversified its operation and produced its first go-kart. Under the leadership of Woodrow Carter, who became the sole owner of the company in 1971, Carter Brothers has the distinction as the oldest manufacturer of go-karts and off-road buggies in the world and continues to be a leader in the industry today.

“Devastating,” was the word Arn chose to describe his feelings and perhaps those of the entire Hamilton Crossroads community. The company has provided jobs and financial security for the people of the community and outlying areas for as long as most people can remember.

“It’s unbelievable that something like this has happened again,” Arn said. “Tornadoes in 1989 and 2006. The fire in December 2000. It’s heart wrenching. It seems like every 10 years there is a tragedy that devastates the company and affects the entire community.”

Arn said so much time, planning and hard work has gone into bring the manufacturing operation back to the states and to have to stand and watch it all go up in smoke was almost unbearable.

“We’ve have to build back before … so many people depend on us, and I feel a responsibility to our employees and the community,” said Arn as he shook his head in disbelief. “We’ll come back. Maybe across the street and maybe in a smaller way…”

As the facility continued to burn, company president, June Carter Arn, watched from inside her car, which was parked a short distance away. She had been there since before dawn.

“Shocked, numb,” she said. “I don’t know the words to describe what I’m feeling. It’s just heartbreaking .. for all of us. Three times. Now four. Building back is so hard. We’ve done it before. People depend on us. Right now, I’m too much in shock to even think about that.”

Company employees stood watching, wondering.

“What now?” said Jane Johnson, who has work in sales for about 16 years. “Carter Brothers is part of our lives. What will we do, if?”

Johnson said she understands that there are times when things can’t be as one might wish.

“Our hope is that Carter Brothers will come back like it has before, stronger,” she said.

“That’s the hope of all of us, but we’re also realistic.”

Cathy Mitchell, office/payroll manager, said there were 43 employees on the last payroll. The company had been closed since July 1 for vacations and was scheduled to reopen on Monday.

Chuck Parrish, an employee of 17 years, watched as the smoke continued to billow around 9 a.m.

“I got the call around 4:30, and I just couldn’t believe that it was happening again,” he said.

“Here we go again. I guess that’s what most of us are thinking.”

The cause of the blaze was unknown but employees said the fire appeared to have started in the warehouse area. Adkins said the fire appeared to have started in the back of the warehouse, and by the time he arrived on scene the back portion of the business was already “fully engulfed.”

Several other area fire departments quickly joined Adkins on the scene — Goshen, Brundidge, Hamilton Crossroads, Banks, Saco, Pike County Fire and Rescue, Troy, Enterprise, Ozark, Louisville, Ariton, Marley Mills, Batten, Eufaula, Five Star, Clio and Blue Springs. Care Ambulance was also on scene, but no employees were inside when the fire broke out since the business had been closed for vacation.

State fire marshals will begin an investigation of the cause Tuesday, Adkins said.

But the cause was not the question on the minds of those who depend on Carter Brothers for their livelihood or as the cornerstone of the community.

“I was at a funeral at the church across the street when the other fire started (at Carter Brothers),” said Jerry Allen.

“When everybody came out of the church, they were asking each other what would happen if we lost Carter Brothers. I worked there for 52 years and still work some part time. And, I guess, that’s what everybody is thinking now. ‘What’s going to happen now?’ Carter Brothers has provided so many jobs over the years. So many people have depended on it. It would be a big blow to our community to lose it.”