RECORDLANDIA: THE TOWN THAT COLUMBIA HOUSE BUILT
Up until the end of the 1990s, children grew up corresponding with two seemingly fantastical postal addresses: little kids sent letters to Santa at the North Pole, and teenagers joined Columbia House and sent letters to Terre Haute, Indiana. Specifically, a magical building on North Fruitridge Street. When you joined, you picked out your eight records or 10 tapes or 12 compact discs or whatever the promotion was that year, and you mailed that sucker off to North Fruitridge, where Columbia House's elves would read over your list, see if you'd been naughty or nice, and reward you with your XTC and Jethro Tull cassettes that you so desperately wanted.
The Santa-like aura faded, of course, once you started having to send those magical packages back when the club tried to make you pay for Record of the Month selections you never ordered — but many of us still wondered what this fabled land of records must be like.
Sorry to disappoint you: the real Terre Haute, Indiana, is a company town that rode the boom-and-bust roller-coaster fortunes of a massive corporation. In the 1950s, Terre Haute was chosen by what would eventually become Columbia House Record Club as the perfect town: already the site of a CBS Records vinyl plant, it was perched at an important juncture of several key train lines, making nationwide record distribution easy.
The rest, as they say, is history: generations of families put food on the table by punching in at a massive manufacturing and shipping factory built on North Fruitridge. The complex eventually sprawled across more than a million square feet of Terre Haute's south side; in the mid-1960s, it took over a converted supermarket on Lafayette Avenue to handle the manufacturing of 8-tracks, then cassettes.
Even in boom years, record manufacturing was hot, loud, and noxious with the fumes of molten black vinyl. And that was when there was work. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the music industry slumped, thousands of employees were pink-slipped. In 1986, the dawn of the CD age revived the town; by 1999, some 3500 Terre Haute employees fulfilled the CD- and video-club orders of a staggering 16 million club members worldwide.
We all know what happened next, as the shrinking of the music industry in the 2000s gutted not only Columbia House but its Indianapolis-based rival, BMG Music Service. The two consolidated in 2005, at which point the combined workforce still plugging away in Terre Haute was reduced to a mere 500 — and on and on until the plant's 2009 shuttering.
Terre Haute is still a hub for CD manufacturing — though at a drastically reduced scale. These days it's home to the only Sony CD-manufacturing plant east of the Mississippi, where 150 employees labor — a shadow of the thousands who pressed wax here for generations.
Jason W. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that by 1994, Columbia House had become a $500-billion-a-year industry. It was making $500 million per year.