Beaverton, Mich. — When Fred Robinson left Dow Chemical Co. to start his own plastics business in 1947, packaged beads of artificial snow proved a popular product until a truly cool business prospect came along.
General Electric Co. wanted to improve upon its refrigerator as the appliance headed for mass production following World War II. Robinson Industries Inc. was asked to create a door liner that would not only keep food cold but could be easily cleaned.
Fred Robinson, an early innovator who had been experimenting with a building product called Styrofoam — invented while he was at Dow — called upon some talented neighbors for help on the GE request. Even though Beaverton only had about 800 residents at the time, Robinson was in good company when it came to plastics pioneers.
There was the mechanically minded Gaylord Brown, who would become the founder of Brown Machine LLC; materials master Miles Kalahar, also a former Dow employee, who would go on to start Kal Plastics in 1955; and production visionary Bill Oberloier, whose first two businesses became Lyle Industries and Beaverton Plastics, which later was sold to Spartech Corp.
The collaborative effort of those four men on the challenge from GE solved a problem for one of the world's largest companies, and it illustrates one of the many ways a small town in rural central Michigan distinguished itself as the thermoforming capital of the world.
Seventy years and generations of polymer professionals later, Beaverton now has 1,100 residents and remains home to Brown Machines, Lyle Industries and Robinson Industries, which is the No. 51 thermoformer with estimated thermoforming sales of $25 million, according to Plastics News' new ranking. Modern Machinery, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastic, Advanced Engineering Co., and East Jordan Plastic Inc., are some of the other polymer businesses located in the town.
A passionate group of community leaders also calls Beaverton home. They are celebrating their plastics heritage with the opening of a museum of sorts called the Catalyst Boardroom in the new $1.3 million Beaverton Activity Center. Funded by donations, the center is another point of pride. It fills a former school built in 1935. There's one business tenant, Mid-Michigan Community Health Services, and a slew of programs for young and old, such as a preschool, library with computer stations and a coffee shop, exercise classes and meeting rooms that can be used for free for everything from Boy Scouts to birthday parties.
In addition to giving a nod to its rich past, the Catalyst Boardroom is a place where local leaders are trying to solidify the industry's future. Educational programs for children are in development with Beaverton Rural Schools and Mid Michigan Community College, where students can earn an associate's degree in plastics engineering technology.
Thermoforming kept Beaverton on the map — even as plastics business moved overseas and across the border to Mexico — and its industrious residents and business owners aim to keep it the unofficial thermoforming capital.
Catalysts of change