By Thomas Hellauer
HIGBEE, Mo.— Jack Zike first walked through the doors of Oak Cooperage 26 years ago. Now, he’s the second-longest tenured employee still working there. “I’ve seen people come and go,” Zike said.
What keeps him coming back? “I like working with wood and my hands,” Zike said. And, he feels he’s never worked a day in his life. This attachment to the Cooperage is obvious to see in the team working inside the cluster of warehouses.
Echoes of buzzsaws and sawdust preside as workers roll numerous barrels onto different machines. Each smack of the mallet spouts a tiny volcano of sawdust into the air at one station. Barrels over the fire release the savory smell of oak, evoking fond memories of campfires. Zike even stops the tour to make sure we each get a sniff of our own inside a newly toasted barrel.
Nearly all of the twelve-man crew it takes to run the Cooperage are Higbee residents. Even the ones that drive in, however, are no strangers to Zike. He knows where each of them lives and just about how long their respective commutes are. This connection is part of his contribution to the cooperage culture that benefited him when he started two and a half decades ago.
When Zike started fresh out of high school in 1990, “the Cooperage was just about the only business in town, pretty much.” He knew of older classmates who had begun working there themselves, offering strong recommendations. He feels it was a good way for area youth to stay out of trouble, gain experience and earn money. Still a major employer for Higbee, Zike hopes to see this community mentoring continue.
“We have one university student. He only works three days a week though to make a little money on the side,” Zike said. He encourages local Higbee youth to work there as well, as the workers at the Cooperage did for him so many years ago. Much of the workers have little training before starting and learn through the demonstration and patience of others.
“Whether is just for the school summer or whatever, we want them to have that opportunity,” Zike said.