HOULTON, Maine — After 39 years with Smith & Wesson, plant manager Terry Wade is ready for the next phase in his life.
Wade officially retired from his position on May 5, but will remain with the company as a consultant. Scott Allen, the current operations manager, will take over as the new plant manager.
Wade’s first day on the job was April 10, 1972, as a 28-year-old rookie. He started as a laborer working on locks and later handcuffs. At that time, Smith & Wesson was located on Bangor Road.
“I have a lot of guys who work here that weren’t even born then,” Wade said. “At the time I had been working for some farmers, but I heard Smith & Wesson was looking for some help, so I applied. I spoke with John Fitzpatrick [plant manager] and was thrilled to learn the job had holidays and paid vacation.”
Smith & Wesson opened a manufacturing facility on Bangor Road in 1966. In 1980, handcuff production began and the Houlton facility shipped its first finished products. The Model 422 .22-caliber pistol launched production in 1986, and in 1992, the Model 41 target pistol came to Houlton.
By 1975, Wade had graduated to the quality control division at the plant, inspecting products. In 1979, Smith & Wesson moved to its current home at Houlton’s Industrial Park and Wade became a setup person responsible for more managerial aspects of the business.
On Jan. 21, 1997, Wade took over as plant manager when Fitzpatrick died unexpectedly.
“I asked them to give me a chance and if they didn’t like what they saw, they could send me down the road,” he said. “I guess they liked what they saw.”
On his retiring, Wade said the decision did not come easily, but the time was right.
“My health is still good, so I thought the time was right for me to start doing some other things,” Wade said. “I have put a lot of time in here because I loved it, but it’s time to scale back a bit and do some things that I enjoy — like fishing and hunting. I also want to do some traveling.”
In 2010, the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce honored Smith & Wesson as its Business of the Year. At that ceremony, Wade spoke about how the business has evolved.
“When we moved out to the new building in 1979, we had 29 employees [whose] average pay was around $2.80 an hour,” Wade said. “That was a good wage back then. Today, we have 160-plus employees. Our products, whether they are handcuffs or guns, have Houlton, Maine, stamped or engraved on them. What better advertising [for the town] could you ask for?”
The facility runs three shifts, seven days a week. Some operations are performed on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule. With the increased production came the need for greater space and in 1994, the plant was doubled in size to 36,000 square feet. The Walther PPK handgun began production in Houlton in 2001 and in 2008, production began on the “Metal Pistol” line that includes 1911 .45 ACP pistols, as well as the 9 mm, .40 Smith & Wesson and .45 ACP pistols that are used by the New York Police Department, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the California Highway Patrol.
Wade, who also serves as a selectman for the town of Monticello, said Smith & Wesson has invested $3.3 million in the past three years in its Houlton plant and the payroll for the company has grown to $4.2 million, compared to $250,000 in the 1970s.
“The success and growth of Smith & Wesson is due largely to the can-do attitude of its people and the availability of a quality work force,” Wade said. “The support of the town and educational system is a key factor in the continued success of Smith & Wesson.”
Wade said he will miss working with the staff at the Houlton plant.
“We have a lot of great people here,” he said. “I enjoy working on projects and problems. For having absolutely no experience in metalwork, it was a challenge. But it was something I was able to pick up on really fast.”
In recent years, the assembly production has become more mechanized, but Wade said he’s proud of the fact that he could do almost any job at the plant.
“I never believed in asking somebody to do something unless I could do it myself,” he said. “We have come a long way. The job has changed so much. Regulations have become far more sophisticated to keep people from getting hurt.”
Security at the Houlton plant has evolved considerably over the years as well. Today, individuals must provide photo identification and pass through a high-powered X-ray device before they may enter or leave the building.
“I think it’s tougher to get into here than it is to get on an airplane,” Wade said.
An automobile buff, Wade’s pride and joy is his 1968 Chevrolet Corvette. He also owns a 2008 Steve McQueen Mustang. His fondest memories during his nearly four decades at the plant are working with Fitzpatrick.
“John had a golden tongue,” Wade said. “He could sell ice cubes to the Eskimos. We had a great working relationship.
Houlton Town Manager Doug Hazlett said Wade was a key component in Smith & Wesson’s long and prosperous history in the town.
“Not only is Smith & Wesson a tremendous economic benefit for the town, they are a phenomenal corporate citizen and Terry has been very much a part of that history,” Hazlett said. “He will be sorely missed, and I wish him well in his retirement.”
Wade said he could not recall a single day that he wished he were not working at the plant.
“I can never remember a day here at work where I looked at the clock and wondered when I was going to go home,” he said.