The solenoid valve is a largely unknown but ubiquitous gadget. Hidden away in the guts of an appliance, when activated, the electromechanical valve opens to allow water into a washing machine or dishwasher, while monitoring temperature and volume. It’s the unseen traffic director for the water flowing through our soft drink fountains, cappuccino machines, and just about anything that dispenses water with the touch of a button.
For decades, the majority of the world’s supply of solenoid valves came not from Chicago or China, but from a little factory in the northwestern corner of Illinois. Hanover, population 850, covers about a square mile, a postcard-picture town nestled among rolling hills between the nearby Upper Mississippi River and the Wisconsin border. The village is cut through by the Apple River, which is as pretty as it sounds, and a favorite of area fishermen. Hanover has produced food, fabric, and gadgets next to the river’s 11-foot rock fall since 1828, when the rushing water powered a sawmill and a gristmill. Later, in the early 20th century, the site was home to a woolen mill, where until 1949 wool from the West was brought here to be washed, carded, spun, woven, and sent to clothing manufacturers in Chicago, New York, and Boston.
Since 1965, assemblers, most of them women, have finger-tinkered together all manner of valves out of tiny components molded and fabricated in that same factory building. During the 50 years of the plant’s existence, even as it supplied most of the appliance world with these little widgets, rumors circulated that the plant was in trouble, said Bob Gable, a retired 37-year veteran manager at the plant. That, in part, was what drove the little factory to lower its defect rate to (what I’m told are) near-perfect levels, and earned it a sparkling reputation for price and quality among big appliance makers like General Electric, Whirlpool, and Maytag—something Kirk King, a former Maytag buyer, confirmed for me.