Near the east edge of town along Mud Creek Road, just past the bowling alley, is a neglected sign welcoming visitors to the hamlet of Mount Morris. It doesn’t do much welcoming anymore. All that’s left is a collection of civic club logos, some of which have been painted over. The most intact part of the wooden structure is a plank proclaiming Mount Morris a “Home of printing, publishing and circulation.” Those days, however, are coming to an end.

Near the east edge of town along Mud Creek Road, just past the bowling alley, is a neglected sign welcoming visitors to the hamlet. 

It doesn’t do much welcoming anymore. All that’s left is a collection of civic club logos, some of which have been painted over. The most intact part of the wooden structure is a plank proclaiming Mount Morris a “Home of printing, publishing and circulation.”

Those days, however, are coming to an end. Of the town’s three bedrock companies, one, Watt Publishing, shuttered last year, taking its 70 jobs to Rockford. The largest, Quebecor World, is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings.

The third, and most historically significant, is Kable News. A village stalwart since 1932 that takes subscriptions and distributes magazines, its parent company is moving the operations to Palm Coast, Fla. Of the 400-plus employees at Kable, 32 were let go Friday, the start of an 18-month shutdown.

The village west of Oregon is facing perhaps the biggest identity crisis in its 161-year history. No one is sure what is in store for Mount Morris’ 3,000 residents when it’s all over, but most are fairly certain that the tough times are about to get tougher.

“It’s going to be a ghost town,” said Fred Young, owner of Fred’s Auto Rehab. “If there’s no economy here, no work here for the people, then what’s going to happen? They’re going to have to bring other businesses here somehow. Have you ever tried to bring a business to a small town?”

The Kable name

The former Rock River Seminary buildings occupy space in the center of town, on the village green where you might expect to find a courthouse or city hall. Two of those buildings housed Watt Publishing; they’re up for sale. A third houses Kable.

In Mount Morris history, the Kable name stretches back to 1898, when twins Harvey J. and Harry G. Kable bought a manual printing press and started the Kable Brothers Co. That part of the Kable company is now owned by Canada-based Quebecor World, which has a 700,000-square-foot printing plant on the northern edge of town. At its peak, it employed 700; now, it’s down to about 500. Quebecor prints books, catalogs, direct mail, directories, magazines and retail inserts for such clients as McGraw-Hill, Time, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart.

“The Kable brothers were practically the founding fathers of the village,” said Becky McCanse, director of Mount Morris Public Library. “Quebecor used to be Kable Printing, so the two biggest industries in town were related to the Kables. It’s big.”

“It’s a big focal point for Mount Morris,” resident Ron Johnson said. “You say Kable’s closing, they say the town’s closing.”

‘A peaceful, quiet town’

Not so, Village President Greg Unger said. Although Quebecor is in bankruptcy, Unger said company officials tell him the local facility is getting new equipment and new business. Kable also is in talks to leave a core group of employees in Mount Morris to do some of the company’s fulfillment work, although the majority of employees will still be laid off.

No, Unger said, the town won’t be the publishing capital it once was. But it won’t be a ghost town, either.

“What are we going to become known as? A peaceful, quiet town of fair size that has some local employment but a commute,” he said. “Right now, we have a tremendous commute that leaves town and goes toward Rockford, DeKalb and to the east. Unless we become very lucky, we’re not going to be known as a major industry center.”

York, 51, moved to Mount Morris from Rockford three years ago and opened his auto body shop just a block from the downtown square.

“It has really great people. I didn’t know anybody, and they started coming,” he said. “They’d do anything in the world for you. I mean, I’ve got no parking here, and I’ve got cars parked all the way up and down the street, they don’t say anything. They’re very supportive.”

McCanse doesn’t live in town, but has been the library’s director for 23 years. She greets most of her patrons by their first name.

“Everyone’s so friendly, you don’t have to worry about your car being stolen, your house broken into,” he said. “It’s just that kind of place.”

Even with Kable leaving, the town isn’t void of growth. Pinecrest, a local retirement village and nursing home, is in the midst of a $20 million expansion. Local real-estate developers are marketing the former Watt buildings as condos, and housing continues to be bought and built in town.

“I tell people to quit looking down on Mount Morris,” Unger said. “We’re working on exciting things. Every town has problems. We have our stores that are empty in downtown, but so does Rockford. Every area is full of plusses and minuses. I’m real excited, but it is going to be a change.”

Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at (815) 987-1346 or sdriscoll@rrstar.com.