Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some Things Worth Preserving

My dad used to say he hated Victorian houses.  He disliked the overstuffed furniture, the heavy draperies and rugs, the endless clutter and bricabrac, the dust and darkness that he remembered as a child. Looking at old photos of the interiors of Victorian houses, I can understand his displeasure.  The furnishings are rather overwhelming. I shudder to think what it would have been like to clean these rooms without modern appliances like vacuum cleaners or floor buffers.

Nevertheless, Dad got worked up when, in 1960, US Steel decided to move their superintendent out of the old house next to the library, relocate his family in a fashionable suburb, and demolish the house.  Despite the local outcry, the company quickly reduced the fabulous stone Romanesque Revival residence to rubble without bothering to salvage anything.  Apparently, they didn't want anyone to be reminded of the history  associated with the inhabitants of the house. ( I should add that the daughter of the superintendent at that time, Jill Hagen, who was in my class at Munhall High School, was not happy at being forced to move to Mount Lebanon.)

The company allowed the other, less spectacular superintendents' houses to stand for several years more. I suppose they weren't fancy enough for the company to worry about its image. Shortly after the demolition of the main house, three of my friends--Barbara, Joyce, Mary Ann--and I decided to sneak into the vacant houses and take a look before they were wrecked.  We were scared to death of the police catching us and charging us with B&E, but that didn't happen.  Once inside, however, we were disappointed. We had seen the extraordinary stained glass and cabinetry in the big house, and these were remarkably plain by comparison.
The General Superintendent's House, Munhall c. 1901

Dad's outrage at the destruction of the house marked the beginning of my interest in historic preservation. And thus began my fascination with old houses that culminated in 1976 with the purchase of a ramshackle 1885 Queen Anne house in Minneapolis.  It suffered from years of deferred maintenance, and has required thirty years of hard work to get it back to some semblance of its original appearance.

However, remembering Dad's aversion to the dreary interiors of his youth, I chose not to adopt an 1880's interior decorating style. Instead, its furnishings are an odd assemblage of antiques, family heirlooms, castoffs from the previous owner, plus a sofa, chair, tables and dining set from Katilius Furniture. The back parlor is my ancestral "shrine," hung with old images of my relatives, their houses, and the old Homestead Works.
Looking into the back parlor from the front parlor of my house.
When I was recreating the streets and houses of 1891-92 Homestead in the book, I turned to contemporary descriptions, notably those from Hamlin Garland's famous 1894 visit: "The town was as as squalid and unlovely as could well be imagined, and the people were mainly of the discouraged and sullen type to be found everywhere where labor passes into the brutalizing stage of severity." Garland goes on to describe the muddy streets, broken sidewalks, wretched tenements, shabby houses, and filthy people of the town.

Sixty years later, as I remember it, the Homestead area was still smoky and dirty. If you went outside wearing a white shirt, in no time it would be flecked with soot and grit. Even at a distance of over two miles from the mill, at our house in Munhall my mother had to wash the kitchen curtains every couple weeks in warm weather.  Our next-door neighbors, the Sokolowskis, destroyed the furnishings of their house via nonstop cleaning.  Their curtains and upholstery were in tatters, but they were clean, dammit.

Laundry drying on lines in Whitacre, overlooking the Monongehela River, 1976

In Darkness Visible I have tried to recreate the noise and filth of 1892 Homestead, but I don't think it's possible to capture the extremity of the nastiness of the town.  The slums were sunken into open cesspools; smoke billowing from the mill stacks blocked out the sun and stars.  Even the mill superintendents lived and worked right across the tracks from the mill in Munhall. It must have been a nightmare of contagion and pollution.

Dad was one of the fortunate residents of Homestead-Munhall. The four houses he called home were all in Munhall, ever farther up the hill from the mill and ever newer: Hayes Street (where he was born), West 21st Street (1912), East James Street (1942), and Wayne Road (1959)--the last two being my first homes. He didn't care much for the dark, grimy dwellings of his youth, but when all is said and done, he was a preservationist. I think he would agree that although not all buildings are worth preserving, the legacy of our forebears is.
3612 Wayne Road, Munhall, 1976

To this end, I have retold the story of the 1892 Battle of Homestead --according to the PBS television series, one of the "Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America."  And that's no exaggeration.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Remembrance of Things Past

Last week my friend Joyce sent me a clipping from The Valley Mirror, a community tabloid with offices on Main Street in Munhall.  In his commentary "The Governor's Drama," Ernie Spisak gives a brief history of organized labor and its struggles throughout the last two centuries.  Of course, he mentions the Strike of '92 and the Battle of Homestead.  In conclusion, Spisak urges readers to "listen to the history of organized labor. Realize what it provided to you, even if you do not carry a union card. You have an eight-hour work day, paid vacation, paid holidays, paid sick days, and partially paid medical leave."

Frankly, I was surprised that the paper ran this commentary.  In almost every issue one of their columnists rants about how left-wingers are destroying the town, state, and nation.  Curious about local reaction to his piece, I contacted Spisak.  He said that his article had received some negative comments (not unusual for any commentary).  What took him aback is that these Steel Valley anti-unionists were all thirty-somethings.  Why couldn't they see the connection between their grandparents' fight for better pay and working conditions and their enjoyment of these fruits today?

To answer this question, I called my thirty-something daughter Ceridwen, with whom I see pretty much eye-to-eye on political and social issues.  We decided that every generation has to learn anew what previous generations figured out.  If one enjoys decent pay, safe working conditions, and other benefits, one has little motivation to buck the system.   It was always like this, wasn't it?

However, since the rise of Neo-Cons and Tea Partiers to positions of power, these hard-won gains have been increasingly eroded.  Gone is the kind of job security enjoyed by workers fifty years ago. The union-busting currently under way in Wisconsin and other states is the inevitable result of the wealthiest Americans ever-tighter grip on government and the media.

Take Rudolph Murdock, for example, who controls a significant portion of the "news" in both print and television.  Murdoch, the 36th wealthiest person in the US, owns not only the Fox News Channel and his News Corp, but also The Wall Street Journal, Direct TV, Intermix Media (MySpace), Sky TV, Star TV, and many other media outlets worldwide. The 2004 documentary Outfoxed estimated that Murdock's media reaches approximately three-quarters of the world's population. Pretty impressive.

On the other hand, the continuing efforts of Scott Walker to reduce workers' rights while keeping tax cuts for the rich, has generated significant resistance.  The Wisconsin state workers who sat through the last election in blissful oblivion suddenly woke up to the fact that It Can Happen Here. It brings to mind a favorite saying of Matt Stark, emeritus director of the ACLU-MN, "If you don't stand up for your rights, no one can do it for you."

Twenty-one years ago this spring, Henry Clay Frick's Pittsburgh estate Clayton was opened to the public after four years of restoration work.  My parents and I went on one of the first tours of the chateau-style mansion.  When we reached the master bedroom (see photo below), the docent noted that there Frick had recovered from wounds received in an assassination attempt "after the Homestead Strike of 1893."  My hand went up. "The strike was in 1892," I said. The docent shook his head. "I'm sure it was '93," he replied. To that, I said,"Well, we're from Homestead and I'm sure it was '92."

To my surprise, the effect on the group was electric. Their terrified stares telegraphed the message: "Here, right in Frick's own bedroom, are people from Homestead!  Run!"  The frightened docent acknowledged the correction, and quickly ushered us into another room.

When I told my architect friend John Martine this story, he told me that when he was working as a consultant on the Clayton restoration, those responsible for the project had received anonymous death threats.  Maybe the docent and tour-goers weren't overreacting, I mused.  But that was two decades ago. Many people in Pittsburgh are too young to remember Frick and his role in union-busting. For this and many other reasons, I think that the story of the Strike of '92 needs to be retold.

Case in point: In 1984, as US Steel was winding down operations at the Homestead Works in preparation for closing it, my friend Joyce's brother, Ken Bergert, was within a week of reaching enough service with the company to be eligible for a pension. They laid him off. (Frick would have been proud.) His co-workers offered to take a week's vacation so he could work, but the company refused to bargain. He was out, with nothing. The union stepped in, and after a protracted legal battle, got him his pension.  Without the union, he would have been, as my mother used to say, SOL.

Twenty- and thirty-somethings, take heed. In 2011, as in 1892, if you don't stand up for yourself, no one can do it for you.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How the Other One Percent Lives

As of last year, reports show that 1% of the American population owns 35% of the nation's privately-held wealth.  The bottom 80% (salaried workers) hold 14%.

Two weekends ago, a Minneapolis newspaper article revealed that Ameriprise Financial CEO James Cracciolo receives $715,000 in perks and another $18 million in salary.  I looked at those figures and blinked.  My investments are with Ameriprise.  How much of the fees I pay the company go to him, I wondered.  When I complained to my Ameriprise financial adviser, she told me that the article had touched off a firestorm of outrage among both clients and Ameriprise employees.  Will Jimmy C. repent his greedy ways and accept less? Not on your life. He and the boards of directors of these big corporations have the system wired so that, throwing their shareholders a bone now and then, they keep the big bucks flowing right into their growing coffers.

It was ever thus. No matter what you call them--kings or corporate heads--these privileged few get the huge cuts of the pie.  Take, for example, Carnegie Steel in 1891.  Workers at the Homestead mill made between $1-2 a day for laborers to nearly $8 a day for the few top skilled workers (such as melters).  To earn this pay, they worked in extremely dangerous conditions for 10-12 hours a day, six days a week.  The infamous strike of '92 came about because the company (that is, Carnegie and Frick) decided that the skilled workers, members of the Amalgamated, were making too much.  When the union contract ran out, the company declared that it would henceforth negotiate wages only with individuals.  Translation:  Goodbye, collective bargaining.  After that, it was literally every man for himself.

To make matters worse for the workers, in 1893 a "panic," brought on by the overbuilding of railroads, resulted in a series of bank failures. Guess who lost their jobs. For the next decade, the unemployment rate in the U.S. stayed around 10%.  Greed fuels bad decisions by corporations and banks. These trigger an economic crisis, and millions lose their jobs. 'Sound familiar?

While my dad was alive, my mother kept her views of the Strike to herself. My father had definite opinions about the Strike (after all, he had written his senior paper at Pitt on the subject), and Mum had no desire throw in her two cents' worth. While she had no direct connection with US Steel, she and her family relied on it for their livelihood.  As in the 1890s,  the town economy was completely dependent upon the mill throughout most of the 20th century.

However, after Dad's death, Mum broke her silence.  We were discussing one of the books about the Strike (see sidebar), and I commented that I was appalled at how strikers attacked the Pinkertons during and after the battle.  Her immediate response was to cry: "They were fighting for their lives!"  If she had been there, she probably would have been one of the women who ran to the riverbank to stop the Pinkertons from coming ashore.
On another occasion, we were looking at my Grandfather Busch's pocket watches, which Dad, being the only son, had inherited.  The sturdy watch with a nickel case is the one he took to the machine shop daily; the other, smaller one has a 14-karat case.  Mum opened the gold watch and showed me the inscription inside: from the men of the Homestead Machine Shop to G. W. Busch on his retirement in 1937.

"Can you believe this?" Mum asked indignantly. "He worked nearly 50 years, most of these as a superintendent, and the men, not the company, give him his retirement watch. The only thing US Steel gave him was a small pension--and he was one of their top bosses!"  (One can easily extrapolate that the other workers were treated even more shabbily.)

Antique watch specialist Marshall Ferster told me that the gold watch was made in NY in 1922. Ferster says that as was the custom, the watch likely was bought used (from Katilius?) in 1937 with money collected from the men of the machine shop.  They had it engraved and presented it to him as their thanks for his service. (Ferster restored the nickel watch, and I keep it by my laptop, where it cheerfully keeps ticking away as I work.)

Well, all that's ancient history, as Dad used to stay.  US Steel's Homestead Works is gone, as are many of the thousands of people who once worked there.  Still, sometimes a turn of the page in the Business section of a newspaper will bring into sharp focus a fact that hasn't changed in many decades:  The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

If this be treason, make the most of it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reconstructing Spaces

I never was inside the Homestead Works, despite the fact that I lived in the shadow of its smoke for the first 18 years of my life. Very few people who didn't work there got into the mill. It was just too dangerous. If you had political connections, you might have gone on one of the tours they occasionally offered. The rest of us saw it while shopping on the Avenue, or from passing cars, or from the steps of Munhall High School or the Carnegie Library, or from one of the hundreds of residences perched on the hillside.

Even out of view, the mill was constantly in the periphery of our awareness, manifest in the clouds of smoke hovering over the area, or the loud booms and crashes reverberating through the valley, or the steam whistles that thrice daily marked the turns of shift--audible for miles. At night, the sky would pulse with the glow of molten steel, punctuated by fireworks from the blast furnaces and more dramatically, the old Bessemer converters.

In telling the story of the Strike, I had to reconstruct the inside of the mill. Emlyn Phillips, the novel's protagonist, was going to be working there. Not having been in the twentieth-century mill, how was I going to describe it in the 1890s? I found a couple accounts of work inside steel mills of the early 1900s. In those days, working in a steel mill was extraordinarily dangerous. Every day, workers were hurt; every week or so someone was killed. They hadn't yet posted the sign at the mill gate: "This plant has worked ___ days without a disabling injury."  If you were one of the injured, tough for you. No workers comp. No health insurance. No OSHA regulations. If you were a dependent of a killed worker, tough for you. No Social Security. No big company payout for your future care.

In 1892 the Homestead Works had state-of-the-art equipment, a technology that didn't change much as the decades passed. By the 1940s, government regulations made the working in the mill much safer, but the process was basically unchanged. From the contemporary narratives and interviews with my cousin's husband Phil Krepps I managed to put together a vision of how the open hearths and other parts of the mill operated.
At Rivers of Steel, I saw an old film of men making back wall at an open hearth furnace, and it amazed me how casually the men went at this scary task.  Of course, I incorporated that insight into my narrative.

Here is an excerpt describing Emlyn's second day on the job at the open hearth. He and Virgil, an American worker, are assisting with the tapping of the molten steel:

Emlyn took the small, flat shovel and went around to the rear of the furnace near the tap-spout. He looked down into the pit where the giant ladles were kept. There some workers, the clean-up men, painstakingly were gathering up all the fragments of spilled or sprayed metal to save for another melting. They suddenly left the pit.

"Yeow!" shouted the senior melter, and Frank, the second helper, came up to the tap-spout with a pointed rod and poked it into the material at the spout.

"Now he’s gonna ravel ’er out. Pay attention," admonished Virgil. Frank suddenly leaped away as if chased by demons and the molten steel spilled out, terrible and red. Spitting flame, the concoction fell into the ladle with a great hissing and plopping sound. The first helper and Frank staggered up to the ladle with huge bags of a fine black material and dropped it into the contents of the ladle, with very dramatic results.

Emlyn gasped as flames erupted from the cauldron, shooting up to the roof of the pit, curling viciously along the platform on which they stood.

"They’re putting in fine anthracite,” said Virgil. "’Know what that is?"

"Of course. I’m from Wales, where they dig up a lot of it."

"Hmph," responded Virgil.

Frank and the first helper kept dumping in bagsful of the coal until they had an enormous conflagration going. Then they stepped back.

"Get ready,” said Virgil. “When he gives the signal, we’re goin’ to shovel manganese—fast!"

Emlyn gripped the handle of his shovel tightly.

The melter gave the cue and Virgil, followed by Emlyn, ran along the gallery to the side of the spout where the molten metal was coming out. He thrust his shovel into the pile of manganese and started tossing it into the ladle. 

Today, much of the process of steel-making is automated, controlled by computers.  Workers don't have to stand just a few feet from the zillion-degree tap stream shoveling manganese as the steel is is shifted from furnace to ladle. That's certainly to be desired--but I don't think it would make a very dramatic scene in a novel.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Memory, Oral History, and Scholarly Research

Homestead Works, 1976. Photo by G. Edward Busch

As I child, I listened with fascination to my father's story of his grandfather's death at the hands of Irish unionist saboteurs in September 1892.  Grandpa John Paul was trying to restart one of the numerous furnaces that had been shut down during the lockout, when it exploded.  He and three other men were killed. A couple of months later, my grandfather, George W., went to work in the mill's machine shop.  By 1900, he had worked his way up to the lofty heights of machine shop superintendent.
Machine Shop, Homestead Works, 1936. George W. Busch, Superintendent (in center with white shirt)

Over the years, as I went through college and grad school, I repeatedly wondered what the whole story was about regarding the infamous strike and battle of July 6, 1892. I didn't dare plunge into retelling the story via a novel until after my father's death.  Understandably, he took a proprietary interest in the Strike story (as of course I do as well), and I didn't want to have to negotiate my way with him through my version of the story.

At the time, I thought it strange that Homestead-Munhall  locals didn't talk about the Strike, at least from a personal perspective.  Only after I began researching this book did I realize that the entire community, the descendants of scabs, is wracked with a kind of "survivors' guilt."  The consensus was that Frick was the main Evildoer, a ruthless bastard who engineered union busting first in his coke production plants, then in Carnegie's steel mills. Views on Carnegie were mixed, ranging from Good Guy who built our fabulous library, to sneaky coward who fiddled in Scotland while Homestead burned.

In 2000, I began research in earnest.  Over the next 14 months, I worked my way through everything on the Strike from books to TV programs to scholarly articles. (See list of recommended books.) When I found a particularly good resource, I'd pass it on to my mother and then discuss it with her.  I interviewed her, classmates, neighbors, cousins--anyone who had some story to tell about immigration, work in the mill, and life in Homestead.  Some of my classmates obligingly sent stories about their families via e-mail; my cousin's husband, Phil Krepps, was invaluable in developing a sense of what.was involved in steel production--and what the Homestead Works was like from the inside.  I hied myself to the Bost Building on 8th Avenue, union HQ during the Strike and now the home of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Ron Baraff and his staff were very helpful in leading me through primary documents related to the Strike (e.g. letters by one of soldiers posted to Homestead).  I had a grand old time.

But alas, if one wants to write, one must put aside research and pick up the laptop. I had a vague idea about the main characters: an older doctor (who could get into the best and worst of Homestead residences) and a young man from Wales.  In 2003, on a visit to Wales, Welsh-speaker Emyr Morris kindly took me around to the sites I envisioned my character inhabiting: Treorchy in the Rhondda, Ton du.  I interviewed Vivian Jones, a retired minister who had served in Minneapolis.  He gave me the names of scholars who could answer my questions about Welsh Congregationalism in the late 1800s.
Treorchy, South Wales. 2003.  Photo by Trilby Busch

Then I plunged into writing.  From 2003 until 2007, it was slow going.  I was teaching all but six weeks out of the year.  The various drafts became hard to manage, and I resorted to e-mailing dated copies to myself to keep track.  During the months preceding and following my mother's death in July of 2008, I, an only child, focused my attention on her care, and afterward, on settling the estate.  It was a sad day in September of 2009 when I pulled out of the driveway of my parents' former house on Wayne Road in Munhall, knowing that I would never have a physical "home" there again.

Since that day, as I toiled in exile, I managed to put together the whole story, starting with exposition in November of 1891, and ending with the protagonist, Emlyn Phillips, leaving Homestead in December of 1892.  As so many writers have described the process, once I got going, the characters wrote their own stories.

At the suggestion of an editor, I added characters based on my Busch ancestors, incorporating my dad's narratives (like Grandpap Busch's childhood friendship with Honus Wagner) into the story.  To this I added my memories of my grandfather in retirement: an avid gardener and Pirates fan, a hymn-singer, lover of watermelons, and fount of folk expressions (e.g., "How's your liver?").
George W. Busch c.1955 (Photo by Ed Busch)

The quotations from contemporary accounts seemed very stilted, so I used my recollection of the rhythms and metaphors of his speech in constructing the dialogue of the American characters. (Also, I should thank Harry Sinclair Lewis for some help with that, too.)  I was unable to faithfully reproduce the inflections of Welsh-speakers in English (as Llewellyn does in "How Green Was My Valley"), so I settled on simple word order changes in the speech of the Welsh characters.  To that, I added bits of dialogue in the Welsh language, contributed by Emyr's mother, Ann Morris.

It's been quite a ride writing out this story.  I've learned a lot (more about what I learned in other posts) and cried a lot.  It's not a pretty story, any way you look at it.  I tried to tell the story without editorializing. But I really didn't have to, as the truth is self-evident. Even anti-unionists will have to admit that the only winners in this tragic event were the owners of the mills.  Everybody else, from management on down, lost something--their jobs, their livelihoods, and some their lives.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Some Things Never Change

Homestead Works Mill Gate, 1983. Photo by Trilby Busch

As a native of the steel town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, I've witnessed the decline and fall of the American steel industry.  I remember the smoky town of the '40s, '50s, and '60s, US Steel's flagship mill belching toxic fumes and raining grit onto its inhabitants. I remember my mother's family store, Katilius Furniture, and their customers, honest, hardworking millworkers and their families.
Franklin Elementary School, Munhall. Sixth grade class. 1955

Today, that huge three-mile long riverfront site is inhabited by a gigantic shopping mall, featuring national and international corporate stores and restaurants. Gone are Katilius Furniture, Levine's Hardware, the H&H Restaurant, and just about every other small, locally owned business (with the notable exception of Mantsch's Blue Bonnet Bakery). Many of the younger folk who work in the stores at the Waterfront have no idea that an enormous, sprawling mill once stood there, turning out beams, girders, slabs, and other finished steel products.

I became obsessed with the '92 Strike through my father's stories of his grandfather's death--and father's rise to become boss of the mill Machine Shop. In 1999, the year after my father's death, I began this fictional recreation of Homestead in 1892.  For many hours of many days I "lived" in Homestead Past, using my memory of the town and mill during my childhood to reproduce the town my Grandfather Busch knew.

Coincidentally, the week after I declared a polished draft of the book finished, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Tea Party cohorts began their work of dismantling collective bargaining rights for state workers.  Soon after, Tea Partiers in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania (groan), and other states followed suit.

Some things never change.  Corporate greed always finds a way to reach into the pockets of the middle-class, be they white- or blue-collar workers. Sometimes it's done by wiring systems (like banking) to funnel profits their way; other times (as in Wisconsin) they buy elections to wire the legal and political systems.

Either way, the result is the same:  They win, we lose.