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Carrie Furnaces just outside of Pittsburgh, once part of U.S. Steel // Photograph/Ron Baraff/Rivers of Steel

‘Pieces of their lives’

Families of former industrial workers share historical snapshots through donated items


By Kecia Bal

Hulking machinery. Stacks of proudly made products. Vast, sprawling campuses.

The fossil record of an industrial past is often shaped by its collective outcomes, but the individual level — and the everyday level — can be just as compelling, as a number of Pennsylvania museums illustrate through ephemera and other items donated by family members and former workers themselves.

In the Pittsburgh region’s Homestead Borough, the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area’s “From the Vault: Staff Picks from the Rivers of Steel Archives” highlights many individually donated items with personal stories behind them.

“Most of the things I picked were because of what it meant to the donor, that emotional attachment to place and to your history,” said Ron Baraff, the organization’s director of historic resources and facilities.

The exhibit is open through Aug. 31 at the Bost Building, which serves as the organization’s visitors’ center. Admission to the Bost Building is free through the end of 2021.

From Industrial League teams in the first half of the 20th century to competitions that were popular through the end of the Big Steel era in the ‘80s, sports were an important avenue to build a sense of community among factory and mill workers. This 1983-1984 Irvin Works Bowling Champs Trophy was donated by former USS Clairton Works employee Tom Franko of McKeesport, Pa. It is currently on display alongside a 1971 Homestead Works Metallurgy Department Playoff trophy at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area’s Bost Building in Homestead, Pa. (Frank Smith)

“Our collections are coming generally from the people who have these pieces of their lives, their family’s lives — their father, uncle, grandmother, whoever — that they saved all these years,” he said.

Many of the family-donated collections are one or two items, taken from garages or attics. Shape books — small manuals with specs and dimensions for specific products — are a frequent donation, brought in with a loved one’s meticulous notes, a record of decades of work and devotion.

Others, such as trophies for mill-sponsored teams, demonstrate a sense of community that often came with working at places such as Homestead Works or Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. Another favorite of Baraff’s, donated by third-generation steelworker and author Ken Kobus, represents a way of living: an apron his mother wore every day while she was making dinner, in the moments before his father came home from work.

Third-generation steelworker Ken Kobus donated this apron, worn by his mother every night as she was making dinner before his father came home from work in the steel mills. Kobus, of Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood, has also donated a number of other items, including hard hats, an 1880 lithograph of American Iron Works, and a photograph of Monongahela Connecting Railroad engines transporting the last bottle cars of molten iron from the Eliza Furnaces to the Open Hearth furnaces in the South Side. All are currently on display at the Bost Building National Historic Landmark in Homestead, Pa. (Frank Smith)

Hard hats are a frequently donated item to museums across the region, and many are accepted because they tell a personal story. Most include a nickname, and some feature safety stickers or stickers workers received from unions and other organizations. The hats (above, left) were donated by a father and son. In the case of Steve Petrusic’s (above, right), donated to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, they are a token of friendships and memories made in the mills. (Photograh // Above, left photograph/Emily Marchello/NMIH // Above, right photograph provided by Johnstown Area Heritage Association

Similarly, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association has collected uniforms, hard hats and lunchboxes from those who worked in the four divisions of the former Bethlehem Steel Johnstown Plant.

Mementos such as the sample pieces for final furnace firings are other typical items that family members now entrust to the keepers of history, JAHA Executive Director Richard Burkett said. Many of those donated artifacts will be weaved into an upcoming exhibit to complement the association’s Iron & Steel Gallery.

A few hours’ drive away, in Bethlehem, Pa., the National Museum of Industrial History, housed in the former Electric Repair Shop of the Bethlehem Steel plant site, incorporates personal artifacts from workers in a swath of different industries, from iron and steel to silk and textiles.

Donated to the National Museum of Industrial History by Brenda and Jim Stetler (pictured), this Western Union telegram belonged to Brenda’s father, Garvin Kram. It was shipped after Charles Lindbergh's historic trans-Atlantic flight as a special thank you because part of the engine was made from material from Bethlehem Steel. “FOR THIRTY THREE AND ONE HALF HOURS CAPTAIN LINDBERGHS LIFE DEPENDED ON THE QUALITY OF STEEL IN YOUR FORGINGS AND THEY DID NOT FAIL HIM,” it reads, in part. Kram, whose obituary indicates he worked for 31 years in the sales department for Casting and Forgings at Bethlehem Steel, kept the framed telegram in his basement for more than 20 years before he died in 2009. // Photograph by Glenn Koehler/NMIH

Uniforms (above, left) are among the more personal items donated to Johnstown Area Heritage Association. Factories that were meeting production benchmarks for war equipment during World War II were sometimes recognized with an Army-Navy “E” Award (above, right). // Above, left photograph provided by Johnstown Area Heritage Association // Above, right photograph/Emily Marchello/NMIH

When the Bethlehem plant site’s assets were dispersed in 2003, not everything was cleared away. Many items ended up in garbage bins — and residents of what was once very much a company town were quick to nab them up in what the museum’s Curator of Collections Andria Zaia called a “crowdsourced” salvage initiative.

Now the museum fields calls almost weekly from family members interested in donating those tokens of life as it used to be. Tools, employee ID badges, awards for meeting production goals, and, of course, hard hats by the dozen, most inscribed with workers’ nicknames, all help paint a collective, but at the same time deeply personal, picture.

Zaia said the collection and curation of each of the hundreds of thousands of items in the museum’s archives requires a keen focus on storytelling.

“What we are mostly attracted to are those personal stories, where we can interject a human story in this wider industrial landscape,” she said.

Kecia Bal is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter covering communities in western Pennsylvania.

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