The Business JournalJul 11, 2005 8:05 a.m.
By Dan O’Brien
Two years ago, The Youngstown Historical Center -- best known to residents as the Steel Museum -- came dangerously close to suffering the same fate as the Mahoning Valley’s steel industry.
Instead of closing its doors, however, the facility is experiencing a new lease on life. Earlier this year the museum unveiled a new exhibit and officials expect that state funding for the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus – which operates the Youngstown center – will remain stable for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, Columbus has earmarked more funding to promote the facility and adopted a policy that allows sites to raise money independently to help pay for their operations and educational programs.
“The Historical Society is trying to make the sites more entrepreneurial,” says Nancy Haraburda, site manager at the Youngstown Historical Center. Before, any private contributions went into the society’s general fund and then were meted out among the 60 different sites throughout the state. “Now, people can make donations to a specific site, such as this one,” she says.
Stronger local support is precisely what the museum needs, Haraburda states. One of the biggest peeves she and others share is the overwhelming number of people in the community who have never visited the center and, consequently, have so many misconceptions about what it offers.
The rise and fall of steel in the Mahoning Valley is the focus of the center, Haraburda says, but it’s more useful to interpret the industry as a backdrop against a much more compelling story.
That story is the odyssey of the industrial worker during the 20th century, a theme evident as soon as the visitor steps inside the museum’s permanent collection, “By the Sweat of Their Brow: Forging the Steel Valley.” As the visitor walks in, he is greeted by a life-size mannequin of a steel worker fitted with protective glasses, a hard hat and industrial coveralls.
“We wanted to make sure that people know he is the most important part of the exhibit,” Haraburda says.
The collection occupies two floors filled with thousands of articles and artifacts related to industrial production – some from outside the Mahoning Valley. Tools forged from early iron manufacturing processes of the 18th century and early 19th centuries are on display, while methods of steel making during the 20th century are exhibited through videos and models. A pulpit from which workers monitored steel production was donated by LTV Steel.
A third floor is dedicated to archives on labor and industry. They consist of a library, company records, transcribed oral histories and microfilmed copies of local newspapers and workers publications.
In between is a tale of a sleepy frontier community that grew as Americans moved west and, in the 19th century, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, England, Scotland and Wales settled here as the iron and steel industry took root. By the first two decades of the 20th century, as immigrants from southern and eastern Europe joined the ranks of industrial workers, the Mahoning and nearby Shenango Valley emerged as the fifth-largest steel producing region in the world.
Smoke and soot was so ubiquitous that socialist labor leader Frank Bohn was prompted to write in 1915: “Everybody breathing dirt, eating dirt – they call it ‘pay dirt.’ For Youngstown, clean would be Youngstown out of work.” The quote, so prophetic in hindsight, is among several sayings interspersed throughout the exhibit.
Through the lens of Youngstown, visitors get a glimpse of the American urban and industrial experience, and can grasp firsthand the relationship between big business and community, Haraburda relates.
Featured among the displays is a mock-up of a sparsely furnished company house, circa 1931. The structures were usually constructed by a development arm of the corporation, such as the Buckeye Land Co., a subsidiary of The Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co., and then rented or sold to mill workers. Large employers exerted even more control over their work forces by establishing company stores, which they owned and operated.
Huge photographs picture pivotal moments in the community’s history, such as the 1916 riots in East Youngstown, today Campbell. That year, workers demanding a pay increase to 25 cents an hour at Sheet & Tube attempted to strike. After an altercation with company guards, workers vented their frustrations on the city, torching most of the business district. A contingent of the Ohio National Guard was called in to quell the disorder; three people were killed and 27 more were wounded.
Another huge photo depicts men posing for the camera at a nearby hospital, their feet, hands and faces wrapped in gauze to treat serious burns they suffered working in the mill.
“If a worker fell into a vat of molten metal,” Haraburda continues, “there was nothing you could do for him.” Instead, she relates, the company estimated the weight of the average steel worker to be 110 pounds. When such an accident occurred, 110 pounds of steel would be lopped off, cooled and then buried in place of the lost worker. The practice continued until the Second World War, when every ounce of steel was needed for the war effort.
A small exhibit is also devoted to the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, who called the 1937 “Little Steel” strike against the Republic Steel Co. and Sheet & Tube in Youngstown and Warren. That committee formed the basis of what is today the United Steelworkers of America.
There are short biographies of leading industrialists of the era: Andrew Carnegie, Joseph G. Butler and James Campbell. Aºnother display featuring patterns sculpted from wood used to form molds for intricate machine parts highlight the exquisite craftsmanship many of the steel workers possessed.
Small video screens are also spread throughout the exhibit. One in particular reflects on “Black Monday” – Sept. 19, 1977 – the day Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced it would close its Campbell Works, immediately displacing more than 5,000 workers. The short video touches upon the efforts of the community to save the mills, highlighting the attempts of the Ecumenical Coalition to buy Sheet & Tube’s Brier Hill Works and operate it under community ownership.
The museum hosts events and lectures, and receives many tour groups from local schools, Haraburda notes. This month, Youngstown State University’s Center for Working Class Studies is sponsoring a photo essay, “The Bittersweet Living,” which features the photography of Guy Saldanha. The exhibit spotlights the everyday life of working Americans.
The Youngstown Historical Center earlier this year unveiled a new exhibit, “Kilroy Was Here,” which depicts life in America during the 1940s. The exhibit was first displayed at the Historical Society in Columbus, then scaled down and moved to Youngstown in January.
Haraburda says traffic through the museum usually picks up at the end of May when more school groups are scheduled to visit. “We were very busy in January and February,” she reports. “We’ll have about 500 kids coming through this month [May].”
Harry Meshel, former state senator and majority leader during the 1980s, successfully lobbied for funds to construct the museum. He’s encouraged with the direction the facility is headed, he says. “At first, we had a devil of a time getting promotion from the historical society,” he recalls.
Meshel advocates establishing a local advisory board to support the museum, patterned along the same lines as other organized groups that contribute to the Butler Museum of American Art and the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. “Everyone who’s been through thinks it’s phenomenal,” Meshel says, adding officials in Cleveland are exploring a similar museum for that city.
Kathy Hoke, spokeswoman for the Ohio Historical Society, says state budget cuts make it hard to spend much money for marketing. “We rely on state funding very much,” she begins. “On the other hand, we want to work with local communities. In terms of enhancing the programs and services we have to offer, we’d like to have a strong local group at every site.”
A new brochure prominently features the Youngstown Historical Center as one of the Ohio Historical Society’s major sites, Hoke says.
Last year, 70% of the historical society’s $21.9 million budget came from the state, Hoke reports. Two years ago, state budget cuts nearly forced the Youngstown center to close, but at the last minute the Legislature found enough money to save the site. Funding for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, looks stable, she says.
“We’re doing the best we can with limited resources,” Hoke adds.