The town had just been rocked by news that the Hershey's chocolate plant, which opened in 1965, was closing and moving its operations to Mexico. Nearly 600 union jobs vanished. I went to see how people were reacting to the loss of not just a major employer, but a company that in many ways had defined the place.
Back then, there was anger at Hershey's, almost the way a jilted lover feels. And plenty of fear about the future. And that was before the bottom fell out of the economy.
I returned to Oakdale earlier this month to see how the town was faring. It's a very friendly and unpretentious place, where regular customers gather in cafes to chat about life. Local farmers bring free boxes of peaches, lemons and other fruit to the local senior center or even into local saloons.
My take: By and large, Oakdale and its 21,000 residents have moved on. A few years ago another candy company, Oakland-based Sconza, moved into the Hershey plant, hiring about 25 of the 600 or so laid-off workers. Others got hired by the local tomato canning plant.
Still, eight years after Hershey's left town it's not hard to find bittersweet feelings. Some miss the smell of chocolate that wafted over Oakdale when the wind shifted just right. Others remember touring the factory when they were kids, and the free candy bar they got at the end.
At Norm's family barbershop on W. F. Street in Oakdale, three generations of men cut hair. Norm Morgan is 82 and says he'll retire when he dies. His son, Randy, joined the family business when he was laid off after 27 years at Hershey's.
"My dad was the one that always told me 'stay at Hershey's. It’s a good place to work. You got a 401(k). You got good benefits, you got good insurance.' So I did," Morgan says.
Until he didn't.
Morgan seems to fondly remember the days when Hershey's put Oakdale on the map. "Anytime someone said, 'where do you live?' I'd say Oakdale. If they said where’s that, I'd say you know where the Hershey plant is? 'Oh yeah, I know where that is.' "
Sitting in his barber chair is retiree Neil Wolfe. Talking about Hershey's move to Mexico, he echoes Donald Trump's criticism of trade deals.
"No unions, no benefits, lower wages," Wolfe says of Hershey's workforce in Mexico. "There’s too much give and no take from a lot of these countries. We’re giving a lot out, and we’re not getting anything back."
All over Oakdale people share rumors or stories they've heard about Hershey's move to Mexico.
"I hear they want to come back here," says one person.
"I hear they have a hard time getting their chocolate across the border with anything left in the truck," someone else says, implying the drivers are held up by bandits.
At the H-B Saloon, 56-year-old Ramona Brown says she won't buy Hershey's chocolate. "You have kids working in them factories down there?" Brown asks. "We don’t know. We have laws here that don’t allow that. They don’t have those laws." Her point: unfair advantages across the border and the possible exploitation of children.
Brown worries about what might happen to union protection in this country if Donald Trump gets elected.
"Trump doesn’t care about anybody but himself," Brown says, nursing a cocktail at the bar. "And Trump doesn’t believe in unions. And unions is what holds a lot of jobs together."
Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer says the town has bounced back.
"There are still some scars from that move," Whitemyer said. "But Oakdale is a resilient community that has continued to progress and build from that experience, and I think today we’re even better off than when Hershey was here."