Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Still working faster than a camera's shutter, Sandra Bivins started making pencils in 1965 at what's now Moon Products on 5th Avenue North.

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

Some 100-150 million pencils are made annually at Moon Products in Lewisburg, company officials said this week as they're opening the factory's doors for an open house Thursday to mark 50 years of pencil manufacturing by the firm.

"This is a milestone that should not go unobserved," according to Michael White, national sales manager and Moon Products' man in charge of educational and vending markets. The celebration is from 2 to 4 p.m. in the blue metal building at 1150 5th Ave. North.

This week, Moon Products has 52 employees, Production Manager Marty Hawkins reports. The number had been up to 85 this year because during the summer production is the busy season in preparation for the back-to-school market.

Neither White or Hawkins knew exactly how many people are former employees, or how many people will come to the open house, but they ventured a guess that there were a thousand and probably more. Nor did they know how many residents - or Marshall Tribune readers for that matter - might accept the company's public invitation to a two-hour reception at the factory Thursday.

Tom Pritchard is coming from corporate headquarters in Californa to attend the reception.

Another notable for the company is Sandra Bivins who started making pencils in 1965 at what's now Moon Products. She was unassuming and quiet at her work-station during a factory tour early this week.

"This is a good place to work," she said. "If it weren't, I wouldn't still be working here."

White took extra care to emphasize that while Bivins has been working at the plant longer than anybody else, she is not the oldest employee.

She currently works a shift starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m.

"I first started in July of 1965 and was laid off in October," she said. "I came back in January of 1966 and have been here ever since."

She and her husband, Bobby, have three children and four grandchildren.

"Bobby used to work here," Bivins said.

So did two of their children: LeAnn Rogers and Lori Adcox. Her son, Chris, did not.

Longevity in employment and her family life are among her traits. Speaking about her husband, she said, "We started liking each other in the 7th grade" when children are usually about 13 years old.

Moon Products' origins hark back to a day when, it seems, virtually all important decisions grew from conversations on the Lewisburg public square.

Just down the street from the courthouse was the medical clinic of Dr. J.C. Leonard, a noted Lewisburg physician. White explains that the doctor and James R. Moon co-founded the company. It grew from a "by-chance meeting" they had at the center of the town, White said.

Leonard remained a co-founder, but it was Moon who became more of a public figure. He was a state senator from 1951-52, and was a principal, teacher and coach in Cornersville. He'd worked for Florence Stove Co., and Linton Pencil. He founded Eraser products and Moon Enterprises.

"He was the consummate Southern gentleman," White said.

There have been other pencil companies in Lewisburg and nearby towns, and Moon was combined with the eraser company. An investment group purchased the company based in Chicago and the business then acquired the Moon Products name.

But under the investment group, the business faltered and the group's assets were purchased by Rose Art in 2003. In 2005, MEGA Bloks bought Rose Art and the new parent company became Mega Brands. That's what's seen on the pencil packages now.

The fact that its pencils are made here in the United States of America is a selling point for the products White markets to distributors. The American Flag is printed on the front of the package of No. 2 lead pencils that are pre-sharpened and suitable for students, teachers, parents and anybody else.

Specialty pencils are also made at Moon Products' factory here. A good example is what White calls the incentive pencil, a product designed for classroom use.

A motivational message providing positive reinforcement for good students is printed on the side. "Do your best on your test," is one message. The pencils are produced for the STARR program in Texas for its state achievement tests administered in public schools there.

Lewisburg residents are well aware that Sanford closed its pencil factory here, and while White says there might be a very few Sanford employees at that old property, Hawkins doubts it. Sanford reduced pencil production in Tennessee and continued - perhaps even increased - its production of art pencils in South America.

"Sanford did not compete with us in the decorative pencil business," White said, returning to his selling point that Moon Products are made in the USA.

Technically, it starts and ends in this country, White and Hawkins said. Wood is shipped from California to China where it's cut into slats about half the thickness of a pencil, just as long and several pencils wide. Those slats are received here and are the origins of the sticks loaded with lead. Topped with an eraser and "pointed" ready for use.

The factory is an unassuming metal building that's as utilitarian as the product. The celebration probably won't include factory tours, but for the people there, those who've worked there and those who want to know more, the business is a long-time fact of life in Lewisburg.

It's one that's endured and one that's celebrated Thursday.