How a Bethlehem Steel meeting became an ‘exploration of all things STEEL’

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It is billed as an “Exploration of all things STEEL!” …and that’s not hyperbole.

The annual Steel Weekend & Steelworkers Reunion returns to South Bethlehem on October 15-16 with a host of programs and activities that offer something for anyone who wants to relive or learn more about a time when steelmaking was king in Bethlehem and beyond.

At the heart of the two-day celebration will be former steelworkers who at one point numbered more than 30,000 at the local Bethlehem Steel plant.

“We’ll have an open mic (for steelworkers to tell their personal stories), and I’m sure the stories will be even longer this year,” said Joe Mayer, a former Bethlehem Steel employee who is Steelworkers’ president. Archives.

The National Museum of Industrial History, housed in the former electrical repair shop of Bethlehem Steel, and the Steelworkers Archives are working together to organize the event in conjunction with many community partners.

The first Steel Weekend was held in 2020 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the last year of the hot end of the local steelworks. On November 18, 1995, Bethlehem Steel’s last operating blast furnace was shut down to conclude 135 years of hot metal production on the Southside.

“After organizing the first one, we realized that there was a real interest from steelworkers and their families to come together for a reunion (every year),” said Andria Zaia, curator of collections at NMIH.

Planning Steel Weekend is a year-round endeavor, Zaia said. Monthly meetings are held with representatives from the event’s community partners on how to make the following year’s gathering even better.

And for Zaia, Mayer, and most of those involved with Steel Weekend, it’s a labor of love.

“What’s been special is working with the steelworkers,” Zaia said. “My father was an employee of Bethlehem Steel. It was really fun to tell their stories and share them with a new generation.

Mayer, 72, was a third-generation employee of Bethlehem Steel who grew up a few blocks south of the plant on East Fourth Street near St. Michael’s Cemetery.

“My grandfather worked there for 50 years and was a crane operator. My father worked there for 36 years and was a respected trade unionist. I worked there for 22 years,” Mayer said. “I was part of the last big wave of hires in 1974. I graduated from the loop program and was a supervisor in middle management.”

If you go there, you might even meet Mayer who will be one of the former steelworkers serving as a tour guide at the Bethlehem factory.

“When people ask me why I do it, I say ‘it’s coming home,’ even though I’ve never left the house,” said Mayer, who also serves as a tour guide to the former steel grounds throughout. of the year. “I say that when I talk about the past, I’m talking about the story of my life. I don’t need a script. It’s one of my passions.”

The fun starts both days at 10.15am with a riveting workshop demonstration. It will be repeated at 1:30 p.m.

“You will be able to see how rivets were made and used in the construction of bridges, buildings and in shipbuilding,” Zaia said.

At 11 a.m. each day, Bethlehem resident Larry Guzzo will discuss and explain the innovative, award-winning 59-inch rolling mill that was installed to help modernize the local mill and make the company more competitive. Guzzo will have as a visual aid the actual training mill which has been built to scale. The replica resided in a warehouse in West Bethlehem before being recently reassembled at the NMIH Education Center. “To make sure our process and design was correct, we built an exact plastic grinder so we could check our designs of the machine,” said Guzzo, who worked at the Bethlehem plant as an engineer. of business.

In the 1980s, Bethlehem Steel engineers created an exact plastic replica of the innovative 59-inch rolling mill to verify their designs. Recently, the training mill was taken out of storage and reassembled in the National Museum of Industrial History. Working on his assembly are, left to right, Don S. Young, Larry Guzzo, Joe Hagemeyer and Pat Herrity. Guzzo will be using the model as part of its presentation on the 59-inch grinder. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Industrial History

Each day at noon in NMIH Square, “Foods of Steel” will highlight the foods of the many ethnic groups who lived in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel and sent their family members to the factory seven days a week, 365 days per year.

“Each ethnic group had its own neighborhood and its own church,” Mayer said. “At one time there were 35 churches in South Bethlehem. There were 62 different nationalities working at Steel.

Steelworkers will be able to have their picture taken by renowned photographer Ed Leskin throughout the weekend. And they will be able to tell their personal stories at the open microphone in the museum square.

“It’s new this year,” Zaia said. “After last year’s opening ceremonies, some workers wanted to say a few words. We market it as “tell us your experiences”. It should be fun.”

The weekend will include multi-generational and hands-on activities. There is a locomotive engineer experience in which participants can take control of a 1941 diesel locomotive owned by Bethlehem Steel. The nearby Banana Factory is the site of an art exhibition on studies in industry, and there will be a display of sculptures at the South Bethlehem Visitor Center.

The main topic of the weekend will be Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant near Baltimore, which was at one time the largest steel mill in the world. Sparrows Point supplied materials for the nearby Sparrows Point shipyard, also owned by Bethlehem Steel.

During World War II, Bethlehem Steel built 1,127 ships when CEO Eugene Grace promised President Franklin Roosevelt “one ship a day and more” and exceeded that promise by 15 ships.

“This year we’re focusing on Sparrows Point because it’s been 10 years since it closed in 2012,” Zaia said. “We will discuss its closure, how it happened, what the response was and how it affected workers and their families. We invited retirees from Sparrows Point to participate in the weekend.

At 2 p.m. Saturday at the Education Center, Bob Bilheimer will give a talk titled “The World’s Greatest Shipbuilder – The Biggest Bethlehem Steel Story You Probably Don’t Know.”

Entertainment will be provided by Start Tomorrow on Saturday and country artist Kendal Conrad on Sunday.

“Our main mission is to inspire the visionaries of tomorrow,” said Zaia. “We want to keep these stories alive to help provide solutions for the visionaries of tomorrow.”

“We don’t want steelworkers and steelworkers to be forgotten,” Mayer added. “We want to perpetuate the legacy of steelworkers.

For a complete list of Steel Weekend activities, times and locations, visit the NMIH website at www.nmih.org.

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