Families forged in steel mills

Valley natives preserve local ties to industry

Special to the Tribune Chronicle / Natalie Mancino Paul Grilli stands outside the former RG Steel in Warren. Grilli created the website “The Rust Jungle” to highlight and preserve what he can of the Mahoning Valley’s steel industry history.

Growing up against a backdrop of rusted steel mills can spark a lot of curiosity in a young boy’s mind, said one Mahoning Valley native familiar with the industry that was long considered the economic backbone of the Youngstown-Warren area.

One of Paul Grilli’s earliest childhood memories takes him back to the front window of his family’s Youngstown home, where he stood with his mother on April 28, 1982, watching the four remaining blast furnaces at U.S. Steel’s Ohio Works fall.

“You could feel the explosion shake the house,” said Grilli. “It’s always stuck with me.”

So much so that the lure of the local steel industry is one that continues to entice Grilli and others like him, drawing them to capture as much of its remnants as possible in their photographs, the artifacts they collect and the stories shared by the workers who were at the forefront, including several of Grilli’s relatives.

“There’s definitely a strong interest among residents or Valley natives, who might not have ever seen the mills when they were fully operating, but feel connected to the local steel industry because that’s where their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins or even older brothers worked,” said Bill Lawson, director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. “The Valley has had such a strong identity where steel is concerned. It’s an identity many people from the area have even if they never worked at a mill or had a job connected to a mill. Even after Black Monday … the closing of RG Steel … and downsizing at other plants, a lot of the area, decades and in some cases a generation later, still identifies with steel.”

Although Grilli wasn’t yet born, he still felt the impact of Black Monday — the day 40 years ago when Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. issued mass layoff notices for Campbell Works, followed by similar announcements at Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s Brier Hill Works, U.S. Steel’s district operations and Republic Steel Corp. in Youngstown. Many area residents describe that day, Sept. 19, 1977, as the beginning of the end of the Mahoning Valley’s steel industry.

Grilli’s steelworker grandfather had enough time in at Campbell Works to retire. But his father, John Grilli, was working for a trucking company that hauled slag out of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.’s Campbell Works when he was laid off. Grilli’s uncle, a steelworker, was also immediately laid off.

Grilli, a photographer, launched the website “The Rust Jungle,” which focuses on photographic preservation of the Valley’s steel industry. He said the effort is a tribute to his family and his hometown.

“I know there’s a lot of interest there with some younger people like Paul to preserve what they can of that past,” John Grilli said. “The interest surprises me sometimes. It’s good to have that. But I don’t think, unless you were there, working and living in the community, being part of it all, you can ever fully understand what it was like to have so many guys working at the mills, so much activity.

“When you go by some of those sites now, you can’t even tell there were any mills there. It’s history. It’s the past. You respect it, but you adjust, rebuild and move on.”

Travis Thorpe, whose father and grandfather worked at the former RG Steel mill in Warren, had hoped to continue the family tradition and carve out his own living as a steelworker. Realizing his plan to work at the mill wasn’t realistic, the Warren Township native moved to Florida. He returned to the area last year after learning the mill’s owner planned to deconstruct Trumbull Cliffs — the Valley’s last remaining blast furnace. Thorpe wanted to catch what he thought could be his final glimpse of the century-old structure. After years of decline, the plant was permanently idled in May 2012, costing some 1,200 jobs.

“Even when you leave the area, you can be gone for a time, but it still stays with you,” Thorpe said. “There’s just something about it. When you grow up with the humming of the mill as your life’s soundtrack, it’s part of who you are.”

Thorpe asked the mill’s owner for some artifacts from the blast furnace. He was given several items from the plant, including a nut and bolt from the blast furnace, a large spring and a firehose nozzle. Those pieces are part of a collection of memorabilia that includes a sign his father carried during a union rally in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s against foreign imports.

Lawson’s interest in history, in part, was kindled by his grandfather’s involvement in the Little Steel Strike that erupted May 26, 1937, spread across seven states and impacted tens of thousands of workers. Thousands of strikers were arrested, 300 were injured and 18 died, according to various news reports. The battle for union recognition included numerous conflicts between laborers in the Midwest, including the Mahoning Valley, and the small steel companies for which they worked.

Lawson’s grandfather, a member of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, worked at Republic Steel in Youngstown and participated in the local strike.

“Black Monday, the Little Steel Strike, these events in history have a lot of emotion tied to them,” Lawson said.

Jim Valesky, founder of Warren History Center, is also on the hunt for pictures and items connected to his family’s ties with steel and the unions that represented the workers. Valesky’s grandfather, an officer with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, worked for Newton Steel. The company was formed in 1919 in Youngstown and built its first sheet steel mill in Newton Falls. In the late 1920s, Newton Steel expanded its operations, opening a door for Valesky’s grandparents to relocate from the Mahoning Valley to Monroe, Mich., where workers also participated in the Little Steel Strike. Valesky said he hopes to preserve as much of that history as possible for himself and other area families with roots in steel.