25 years from high school. Last night’s “Hold That Tiger” still reverberates — we stood and ridiculously sang before the buffet, and then again at midnight. I can’t decipher the Erie Street Cemetery map, so follow a hillbilly Virgil — a kid with an orange mustache, with a twang I got knocked out of me when I was ten. We keep ’er up by selling graves, he says. What if you run out of plots? I say. He waves toward a new section across the street — fresh dead maintaining the old, the infallible formula of Social Security. Section 4, he says, is the only place where the fill has sunk. The foreign side, he says, kicking at one of the mounds. They came from Italy, from Greece, from Slovakia, from Spain. They came up from West Virginia (my mom said, Don’t let on that’s where your Dad’s from). They came from the South, though blacks had to settle in “The Bottoms.” The mill. The mill. Blood brothers, they married the mill. Marry in red, wish yourself — Battalions of smokestacks keeping them true, big shotguns on end. Marry in blue — Veil of ash, of unremitting heat, acres of soot: gritty wedding-cake basilica. A promise big as a city, brick, looming, separated by a moat — the Tuscarawas River — from the “good side of town.” Some days the sun cut red through the haze. And some days she didn't bother. O, but it was a dream — in 1937, they fisticuffed for $5/day, a 40-hour week. By 1986, $600/ week, time-and-a-half overtime. If —§
Interview with Uncle Bob:
Of course, you had your foreigners that did the rough jobs down there, like chipping and scarfing, which is real bad for your health. They lived on the other side of town, over in Columbia Heights. They’d come in by the hundreds, and there’d be 20, 25 of ’em living in one house this size. They’d have bunks in the basement and little cupboards for their bread, and they’d save every dime and send it back to Italy. Then when they’d made enough money, they’d go home — without any teeth! They’d all lose their teeth from the acid fumes in the soaking pits. If they didn’t quit young, they were dead — ’cause it killed ’em, sure as you’re a foot tall.
I got to know all the whores up there. I was a salesman for the local light company. Every year we put out a package real cheap that promoted electricity. So I’d go up to The Heights and I’d sell these girls 5, 6 packages apiece. They’d send them back to West Virginia, Carolina, wherever their families were ’cause they had money they didn’t know what to do with. I won the contest every year. Nice kids. During the day when I was doing business with them, they were just like talking to you. Take it from your Uncle Bob, they weren’t any different at all.
In ’37, Republic went out on strike, so the cops went up into Columbia Heights and shot off a bunch of bullets. A shame — we got bad national publicity out of the thing. And it sort of stuck with us that this was a radical union town. The mill wanted the strike broke and they — well, they hired everything. Even an armored car from the Canton Police. Major Curley, he was in charge of the whole doggone thing. His son was strong in the union. It was bad, him on one side of the fence and his son on the other.
When they came across the viaduct, it was more than just the city police. Some said there was coal and iron police. But they had the plant protection guarding the guys that were working. See, they brought over a whole bunch of Arabs and they were living in box cars down in the plant.
There were Arabs here?
They called them A-rabs. They were from Arabia or India or wherever they came from, but they ...
Republic brought Arabs in to work?
Yeah, Republic Steel brought in strike breakers and they brought ’em in railroad cars. So nobody knew they were in there. ’Course, the A-rabs didn't know anything about steel mills, so they didn’t get a damn thing done. They were finally accepted. I mean, it was a known fact they didn’t know what the hell they were brought in for. They didn't know anything about a strike. So afterwards, they migrated from the box cars and settled up in Columbia Heights.
Sue D. Burton | Steel Town Contents | Mudlark No. 60 (2016)