People know about the racetrack, the amphibious Ducks, the gangster museum. It's somewhat less common knowledge that Hot Springs is also home to the biggest rubber-band manufacturer in the United States.
Alliance Rubber Company was founded in Alliance, Ohio, in 1923, by William H. Spencer, who moved the company to Hot Springs in 1944. Spencer's daughter, Bonnie Spencer Swayze, now the president of Alliance, remembers her father cutting rubber bands from old inner tubes. That's not the way it's done now, when the company turns out 14 to 15 million pounds of rubber bands a year, in a variety of sizes, colors and strengths. (A band 10 inches long unstretched is the biggest.)
Alliance buys its rubber from sellers in rubber-growing countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, where they still have rubber plantations like the kind that used to appear in old Bette Davis movies, and where the rubber is harvested in pretty much the same old way, called "tapping." An incision is made in the bark of the rubber tree. A fluid (latex) oozes out and is collected in a vessel attached to the tree. The latex is then refined into rubber ready for commercial processing.
At the Alliance plant here, the unprocessed rubber is in blocks that resemble big chunks of cheese. The rubber first goes into a device elevated on a platform, where it's heated and mixed with various chemicals — dyes, fillers, etc. When it's finished there, it drops down to a milling machine below, now looking very much like huge gobs of dough. It's cooled and squeezed flat, and after it leaves the milling machine, it's cut into strips. The strips are fed into an extruding machine that forces the rubber out in long, hollow tubes. The tubes are cut into bands of different sizes.
After the extrusion process is completed, the bands made into their different lengths and types, sample bands from each batch are subjected to a variety of tests. There's a machine, with a human operator, that stretches the bands. According to Jason Risner, Alliance's marketing manager, "Our band has the softest stretch." That means it will stretch a long way with little exertion. To tighten the stretch, one uses more filler and less rubber.
"Our maintenance people and engineers had to retrofit a lot of the machinery here," Risner said. "It's not manufactured specifically for these uses." Different plants have different processes. Most of the rubber-band manufacturing plants are overseas, and "I don't think any of our overseas competitors use the same process we do."
In competition with those low-wage, overseas factories, "We never have the lowest price," Risner said. But, he said, quality and service guarantee customers for Alliance. Would Alliance ever move overseas itself, as many American factories have done? "Not a chance," Risner said. "We take pride in American craftsmanship." The company's web site promotes production in America, and it's a nominee for a Martha Stewart "American-Made" award. The public can vote for Alliance at marthastewart.com/americanmade/nominee/80900. Voting runs through Sun., Sept. 22.
The plant has 150 employees. Sixty-two percent of them have been with the company longer than five years, Risner said. "We have very low turnover." The workers are not unionized.
Through independent distributors around the country, Alliance products are sold to the U.S. government, the Postal Service, and big retailers like Walmart and Hobby Lobby. Like everyone else, the rubber band business was affected by the high-tech revolution. Risner said Alliance saw some decrease in volume in the early 2000s. Sales to newspapers dropped sharply, for example. But sales picked up in other areas, he said, such as agriculture. Alliance now maintains an office in Salinas, Calif., the area where a huge share of American produce is grown, and Alliance bands go on asparagus, broccoli, celery, carrots ... While touring the plant, a reporter asked Risner what the bands in a particular container would be used for. He picked one up and read on the side. Cilantro.
One large and unusual looking band made here is cut in such a way that it goes on all four corners of a file folder or a stack of papers, keeping everything together in one neat bundle. Very catching, but a reporter who removed the band from an Alliance press kit found that he couldn't get it back on, at least not in the way that it was supposed to fit. It's humbling to be outsmarted by a rubber band.
The press kit includes tips on ways to use rubber bands that the average consumer might not have thought of. "Baseball Bat — Simply place two rubber bands onto the barrel of the bat about three inches apart centered on 'the sweet spot.' The rubber bands will serve as a visual cue to help the hitter keep the sweet spot in the hitting zone." "Jar Opener — Place a band around the lid and/or around the body of the jar. The band around the lid will improve your grip and help you open the jar easily. The band around the jar body helps you keep a grip on the jar, especially when your hands are wet."
The kit also identifies "Great moments in rubber band history," such as, "The word rubber was born in 1770, when an English chemist named Joseph Priestley discovered that hardened pieces of rubber would rub out pencil marks."
One of the advances in the rubber band industry is that digital images can now be put on the bands. When a couple of visitors drop by Bonnie Swayze's office, the company president gives them rubber wristbands with color images of the American flag, particularly appropriate since the visit was on 9/11.
Alliance is a privately owned company, and one of the few in which women own a majority of the stock. Swayze and her mother, the widow of William H. Spencer, are the principal stockholders. Mrs. Spencer lives in Hot Springs also.
In Swayze's office, the visitors notice pictures of a wrestler. Some champion who had a secret rubber-band hold? No, Swayze says, that is her husband, "Beautiful Bruce Swayze," who wrestled professionally for some 30 years, at Barton Coliseum among other venues. Now 74, he's left the ring.