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McKee Engineering closes after 53 years

Joyce and Joe Toman at the shop Tuesday afternoon. Joyce and Joe Toman at the shop Tuesday afternoon. JACKSON COUNTY TIMES photo — Bo McMullian

Joe and Joyce Toman are closing McKee Engineering at Marianna’s Industrial Park and moving to Tallahassee.  All seven employees have found new jobs elsewhere, Joe said in a Tuesday afternoon interview at the shop, but the closing is necessary due to lack of business. That’s because of the economic situation in the US and the exodus of manufacturing jobs to overseas locations, he explained.

“We lost our anchor companies,” Toman said, “and there is not enough to maintain business.  The horizon is not good.”  A tool and die manufacturer that employs both machinists and engineers, McKee Engineering is noted for manufacturing machine parts that enable producers to make products, such as the big contract they had with the Mars Company, maker of the “Combos” snack. The pretzel/cheese Combos snack is made from McKee parts. Joyce just happened to have a bag during part of their Tuesday interview in their Walnut Lane home.   

McKee’s reliable “anchor” company Honeywell International Inc., the worldwide firm that had a location in nearby Lynn Haven, recently moved its plants to Brazil, Toman explained.  The Federal-Mogul Corporation of South Carolina closed two years ago and moved its plants to Mexico. “The declining economy and the world trade policies have sent most manufacturing abroad,” he said.  “McKee could no longer depend on significant stateside business.”

The situation was quite different in 1963.  Manufacturers were looking for plant sites in the South to get away from the unions up north.  The oft told story of McKee Engineering goes like this:  Murray McKee, a pilot as well as an engineer in Indiana, had stopped over at the Marianna Airport in 1963.  He was in the South looking for a good second location but the weather was so bad, he was stuck in Marianna for three days—“weathered in,” as the Tomans tell it.  While Murray was here, he thought he’d check in with the chamber of commerce in town and the rest is history. He ended up leasing two buildings at the Industrial Park adjacent to the airport.  Joe was married to Murray’s daughter Joyce and living in Ohio.  They were reluctant to leave the North, Joyce explained Tuesday, but Joe jumped at the chance to “become part of a smaller company that he might someday own,” Joe added. He became the owner of the Marianna plant when Murray McKee retired. 

McKee Engineering’s second location was successful.  Their contractors over the years included Lehigh Furniture and UniMac. Before 9-11-01, the firm employed 22 persons.  But after 9-11, companies stopped using tool and die operations with the previous level of frequency. The economy contracted after the terrorist attack and the industry never recovered, Joe explained. In 2013, the total number of employees at McKee-Marianna was down to eight.   

Joe, now 78, will soon leave town with Joyce to live in Tallahassee near their son John and the two girls, the grandchildren.  One of them, Lucy Toman, is an engineering student at the University of Florida—“the third generation engineer in the family,” Joyce said.  Joe and Joyce, who have attended the First United Methodist Church in Marianna for all of their 53 years here, will soon take up residence at the Westminster Oaks Retirement Community. They have been married 55 years. “We will miss all our significant connections to Marianna,” Joe said.  

A key employee at McKee Engineering, Paul Michels, is married to the Tomans’ daughter Jane. He’s been with the company for the past 16 years.  Michels has accepted a position with Williams International in Ogden, Utah, so they will be moving the two boy grandchildren with them.  

“Marianna is a great place,” Joe said, “a wonderful place to raise a family.  We have a lot of close friends here.  It’s unfortunate that manufacturing has suffered so much. The situation in Marianna might have become a lot different if not for that.”  McKee Engineering was 71 years old when it closed on June 30, Toman said.  The Marianna plant, in operation since 1963, is still working on its last two contracts but when that ends soon, the city-owned 16,000 square foot building at the Airport/Industrial Park, originally a fire station, will be available for lease.  McKee Engineering added several thousand feet in the 1980s, Joe said.

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