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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Ben Ball, rear, who worked at American Can Co. from 1942-48, looks at exhibits with his grandson, Stephen Barker.

OGDEN — For 6 1/2 decades, it produced all kinds of metal containers, but on Wednesday the former American Can Co. building could hardly contain all the smiles, handshakes and memories.

About 130 former employees gathered to reminisce and see how Amer Sports Winter and Outdoor Americas had renovated the building — home to canmaking operations from 1915 to 1979 — for its North American headquarters.

ASWO initially expected perhaps 20 or 30 attendees, but its auditorium was filled with the former American Can workers and their memorabilia, including photos, newspaper articles, safety booklets, training certificates and even a few of the cans the factory turned out.

And turn out cans it did. American Can's Ogden operations started with 50 employees in 1915, but in its first nine months alone it cranked out 30 million cans.

"Where were all these women when I was working here?" one man jokes while viewing old photos of some of the workers. "All I saw was cans."

What they saw Wednesday was a complex that differed only slightly from the facility's heyday. Mike Dowse, ASWO's president and general manager, said the company kept changes to a minimum, even retaining longtime employee signatures on a basement wall. Amer nods to the plant's history in several ways, including the use of sheet metal in portions of the interior.

"I can't believe the building is still here," said Ralph Harding, who bagged cans in the company warehouse in 1952 at age 17. "I think it's wonderful. What they've done in here is marvelous. I wish I was in a position where maybe I could come down and be part of it."

"I'm so glad they fixed the building up and kept it. It's quite a landmark," said Ray Liptrot, who stacked cans as they came off conveyor belts in the early 1940s at age 16. "For a while, it was in disarray. All those windows on 20th Street, they threw rocks at them all. I don't think there was a window in this place when they (Amer) took it over."

Benjamin Ball, who worked at the plant from 1942 to 1949 except for two years in the U.S. Navy, did not seem too surprised that the structure is still standing, despite its age. "They would have had to dynamite it, it was built so strong,' Ball said.

But he acknowledged that he never thought in the 1940s that he would be around for a reunion in 2007. "I never thought I'd ever make it to 81, period," he said with a chuckle.

For some, Wednesday's reunion was a family affair. Of 10 children in one generation of the Mattsons, eight worked at American Can, including three sisters — Phyllis Mattson Handsaker, Gwen Mattson Wilson and Margaret Mattson Wheelwright — who attended Wednesday's get-together.

"I think it's remarkable. That's what it is,' Handsaker said of the building's contribution to the community and its new life. She worked three years in the early 1940s, manning the production line and refurbishing tin plates into lids.

"We come from way back, so I've seen both brothers and sisters hired in here and have a job for the summer. And we've really been humbled that all of us learned a trade without our father being our boss. He was boss at home and that was enough," she said.

Wilson worked from 1949 to 1952, primarily making paper bags that cans were placed in for shipment on rail cars. "Going through all this, it really helps you remember the history of this," she said, recalling how many young people got their start at American Can. "I have met up with lawyers, doctors, undertakers — you name it — and they said it was the best-paying job and it put them all through college."

Now about 100 ASWO people have jobs at the complex at 2030 Lincoln Ave. that houses the Suunto, Atomic and Salomon brands. Dowse said Ogden, Salt Lake City and Portland, Ore., had been considered for ASWO's North American base, but Ogden was selected last October. But before Amer could move into the American Can building in August, a lot of work had to be done to get the site ready.

"In February of this year, there were boards on most of the windows. Where there were no boards, there were no windows. It was broken out," Dowse told the crowd. "There were pigeons flying around everywhere, and other animals who had seen better days."

Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey said he was pressured for years to tear down the building because it was considered a fire hazard. Added to that was the challenge of finding a company to move into a building with a quarter-million square feet of space.

"But I think part of what makes Ogden unique is our history, the historic structures that remain here, and I think being able to restore those as part of the renovation of our town was really important. ... I love old buildings. I just love that aspect of Ogden, so to have a gem in our community saved is very, very rewarding to me, and to have a company like Amer coming here and doing this incredible restoration, I think we owe them a great debt of gratitude."

Wilson was glad to see the restoration on Wednesday and recalled that her fondness for the place never left, despite the years the building sat empty.

"I've always lived here and I was almost a protector of this building. If they had started tearing it down, I would have been the first one to stand in the doorway," she said. "The structure of the building was so solid. It makes you wonder why we keep tearing everything down."

E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com