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Forging a forgotten century

by Hal Jacobs

More Atlantic Steel history

At 94, Clyde Dunn is only three years younger than his former employer. And like the Atlantic Steel Co.'s mill in Midtown, his body is worn and broken.

In his 38 years at the steel mill, Dunn broke his back, caught a burning steel rod through his cheek and lost part of a finger. He stares straight ahead now with sharp brown eyes, but he can't move his neck. If it weren't for the loving attention of his 88-year-old wife, Verneeta, God only knows where he'd be. As it is, he and Verneeta still live in Home Park, just a few blocks from the mill, which is closing next month to make room for a massive real-estate development.

Meanwhile, Atlantic Steel is making steel like there's no tomorrow. But fewer than 300 employees are left - 2,000 less than the 1950 work force - and the once manicured, landscaped plant looks like a junkyard. You know the place - it's that grimy, industrial eyesore where I-75 and I-85 meet to form the Downtown Connector.

The steel hangars, smoke stacks, mill yards, rail lines, and scrap piles look like a set from a Turner Classic WWII movie. Any minute you expect to see the Yanks fly over and knock out the strategic manufacturing site.

But instead of B-17s, a large billboard for Ericsson mobile phones looms over the hangars. The yuppie female on the sign, with her little diamond earring and telephone - this phone goddess who watches over the steel mill - hints at the future. Because if Jacoby Development can pull off its dream, this 138-acre site will host the largest urban redevelopment in America: 5,000 new residential units, 1,000 hotel rooms, 7 million square feet of offices (including 1 million with special high-tech features) and 1.5 million square feet of shops, restaurants and theaters.

The developers have the blessings of politicians, neighbors, environmentalists, even steel workers. Everyone agrees that the project would be a major step toward curbing urban sprawl and reviving Atlanta as a real city, with homes, offices, shopping, entertainment and public transportation.

Nonetheless, when the last truck loaded with coiled steel drives out of the gates, when the flag pole that employees presented to the company in 1917 is knocked down, when media stores replace the rod mill, another rich swath of Atlanta history will have been paved over. Only a street name or obelisk is likely to mark the spot.

Soon it'll be hard to imagine this was once the stomping grounds of men nicknamed Wormy, Jugbutt, BottleAss, Sherlock, Sheephead, Graveyard, Bluebird and Dagwood. Men who celebrated each other's birthdays with a buckle line - they'd take off their belts and celebrate the birthday boy as he walked past them down the gauntlet.

It'll be hard to conceive of the time when Clyde Dunn picked out a small rose from the mill's gardens and brought it home to his wife so that she could plant it in the backyard.

No special ceremonies are planned for Dec. 31, the mill's last day of operation, says Atlantic Steel President Jesse Webb. The men and women who work on "the hill" - engineers, managers and bookkeepers in the administration building - won't join the employees on the grounds for a closing reception. There won't be a party like the one developers threw on the grounds last month to celebrate their plans for the property. No party tent filled with video monitors and artist sketches. No self-congratulatory speeches. No reporters and politicians milling about drinking Cokes and nibbling on chocolate chip cookies.

No one at Atlantic Steel is in a party mood. Employees, past and present, are filled with "upsetness," says Charlie Orrock, who works in the mill's instrument shop. "These are well-paid, highly specialized, permanent jobs with good benefits," Orrock says. "You can't replace jobs like these with minimum-wage jobs or temporary construction work."

Although the employees of Atlantic Steel have known for 30 years that the plant would leave it's highly valued Midtown property, they always believed operations would shift to another site. In 1974, the company started a plant in Cartersville, Ga. More than 300 employees transferred. Five years later, workers held their breaths when Atlantic Steel was acquired through purchase of stock by Ivaco, Inc., a Canadian-based steel company.

The beginning of the end came in 1996, when the Cartersville mill was sold, shut down, and re-opened as a less labor-intensive mini-mill. A year later, developers bought the Midtown site. Last month Atlantic Steel employees received a letter from President Webb saying that, "The cessation of Atlantic Steel operations in Atlanta will be permanent." What Webb didn't add - employees already knew - that there are no other steel jobs in this area.

"We've got men who are weeks or months away from being vested with the company after 30 years," says Jerry Moss, the president of United Steelworkers Local Union 2401. "Now they're not going to get a pension. Retirees are losing affordable insurance - now they'll be forced to pay much more for their coverage. Some of them won't be able to afford the high-priced prescriptions that keeps them alive."

Allan Brannon, with 42 years under his buckle, wants everyone to know, "It was a good place to work for, until this."

On an unseasonably warm December afternoon, Verneeta Dunn sits on the couch and searches through two large books that she has laced together and filled with copies of The Ladle, the company's in-house magazine. She wants to show off a picture that appeared in The Ladle of Clyde and their son Bill holding their catch from a long-ago fishing trip to Destin, Fla.

"We both caught groupers," Clyde Dunn says out of the corner of his mouth. He sits ramrod straight in a special recliner that he can control with the touch of a little keypad. "Bill's fish weighed 36 pounds. Mine was 34."

Give an place of honor by the fireplace is the first piece of re-barb steel run off the 13 inch mill. Next to it are the tongs Dunn used to catch redhot steel in the Hoop Mill.

Nowadays, the job is done by men sitting in an air-conditioned booth who push buttons on a computer. But in Dunn's day, it was hot, dangerous work. The steel cable rod - think of a Slinky that is a mile-long, uncoiled, and hot enough to burn a man in half - would glide over rollers at speeds up to 120 mph. The hooker's job was to catch the end of the rod in his tongs and loop it back around so that it would feed into another set of rollers going a different direction. If the hooker missed, red-hot steel would get loose on the floor and tear up men and machines.

When Clyde Dunn broke two vertebrae in his lower back, it wasn't because he missed the rod. "I caught steel that was too cold," he said. The jolt from the steel's unexpected hardness smashed him to the floor. A foreman carried him home to Verneeta in a sheet. For several months he lay in bed, while Verneeta turned him over and rubbed cases of Ben Gay into his skin. After the back rubs and the electric-shock treatments in an iron lung, all Clyde wanted was to go back to work. The company found a crane-operator job for him until he was strong enough to return to the rod mill.

"You worked 30 minutes on, 30 minutes off," says Dunn. "That's all a man could take." The men wore heavy underwear that would become soaking wet, but protected them against the heat. They also strapped on abestos leggings that looked like cowboy chaps. So deafening was the noise that the men communicated in sign language. Holding your hand flat under your chin meant "bull."

After work, men washed off the sweaty grime in the showers, then went home to their wives and children - or, perhaps, a bottle - who had no idea how dangerous their work was.

"He never let me see where he worked," Verneeta Dunn says, her eyes burning at the memory. "He didn't want me to know how bad it was." She knew the hot steel floor wore out the soles of his shoes every ten days or so. She patched the the holes burned out of his clothes until there were more patches than original thread. She saw the black gunk that came off his clothes in the washer. She always dreaded the day when he wouldn't come home at all.

At last month's press gala for the "Atlantic Steel Re-Development," project leaders introduced each other as "visionaries." And what the visionaries envision is an intown neighborhood where people live, work and play. In other words, they imagine the type of settlement - except cleaner, costlier, more accessorized - where the Dunns and their neighbors lived, worked and attended DixiSteel baseball games.

"We had the best sandlot team in the country," says Clyde Dunn. The team played across the street from the mill on Glenn Field, named after T. K. Glenn, who served as Atlantic Steel president, director and chairman of the board before his death in 1946. These days, the Georgia Tech Lady Jackets softball team take the field where the steel team once ruled.

The steel team and the DixiSteel trademark were both well-known, well-made and well-liked. In the days when commercial baseball was as wildly popular as college football today, players were often recruited to join the team. If they were smart to boot, they received high-paying supervisor jobs; if they had more brawn than brain, they worked as guards.

"Making steel and playing baseball are similar in some ways," says Neil Harmon, an Atlantic Steel environmental engineer who has drifted into the role of company archivist.

"Both are highly repetitive processes with unique variables. On the baseball field, you know what to do when a ground ball is hit with men on base. But things change according to the speed of runners, the score or the inning.

"In the steel mill, you're dealing with scrap, where each batch is different and you need to add different minerals during the cooking process. There were men who could look at hot molten steel and know when to tap it."

"The gardens, the baseball, this was all part of the company's patriarchal society," says Harmon. "They were both important to the company until the early 1950s, when the men who really cared about them started to retire."

As the company entered middle age in the 1950s, the mill employed 2,300 employees, produced 750,000 tons of steel annually, and made more than 60 different items, including Dixisteel wire products, bars, bands, angles, channels, and tees. At its peak, Atlantic was Georgia Power Company's largest customer, using 26 million kilowatt hours monthly, enough electricity to supply a residential city of 80,000 persons.

It was a far cry from the beginning days of the Atlanta Steel Hoop Company. In 1901, when iron was more important than irony, when citizens believed in a new century of Progress and Virtue, seven Atlanta businessmen and one steel man - eight visionaries - launched a small mill to make wire for binding cotton bales and hoops for wooden barrels of turpentine, rosin and pitch. It was never as big as the mills in Pittsburgh or Birmingham, but it did fine in its specialty area, and matured as one of the grand old manufacturers of the Southeast.

The story of Atlantic Steel is, in many ways, the story of this century. For the first 50 years or so, Atlantic Steel met the needs of the growing South - nails, barbed wire, plough shears, re-barb, galvanized steel. Many a Georgia Tech metallurgist supervised the production of high-quality steel that was used in two world wars. During WWII, women filled out the mill's workforce to replace the men going off to battle. Labor unions benefited from steel's growing economic muscle by hammering out basic employee benefits - vacation time, insurance and pensions - sometimes through strikes, more often at the bargaining table. Before the union came along, says Dunn, "They'd tell you if you don't like this job, there's a barefoot boy down by the gate who wants it."

What happened to Atlantic Steel after the 1950's reflected Big Steel's demise throughout the country. Manufacturers were caught flat-footed. They didn't forsee the lower labor costs of developing countries, or global buy-outs or environmental regulations. They didn't, until recently, start modernizing and streamlining the production process. Manufacturers moved more production jobs overseas; industrial jobs in this country gradually gave way to contract work, white-collar jobs and unskilled, minimum-wage labor.

Race relations at the mill also mirrored a century of the South's changes. Early on, white men worked inside, while black men worked outside. It was all grueling labor, but black employees got the worst of the lifting and loading. Later, whites and blacks began working alongside each other in two separate, unequal lines. In the hoop mill, for instance, the white man would be a Class 14 "layover man," while the black man working next to him would be a Class 8 "catch boy." The great equalizer back then was that the men faced danger together - each day they held their lives in each other's hands.

Former Gov. Lester Maddox, who gained fame in the '60s as Georgia's outspoken segregationist governor, remembers the mill as a place where he stood up for two black men in 1940. Like many fellow employees, Maddox followed his father into the mill. At 17, he was the company's youngest foreman and was on his way to the top.

"These two black men were seen riding around in a union car, so management told me to fire them," Maddox recalls. "I said, 'Those are the best two men I've got.'"

When his boss told him to make up a reason for firing the men, Maddox quit. "Those two men kept their jobs, and I lost mine."

Thirty years later, after the company was officially integrated, after the "whites only" and "coloreds only" signs were removed over the water fountains, leaving behind just a scar-like impression where the paint was a lighter shade, blacks and whites still went their separate ways at union meetings.

"Whites arrived early at union hall and sat in the front," remembers Clifford Stone, an African-American who started work in the mill galvenizer in 1971. "Blacks would arrive on time at seven thirty, and sit in the back.

"I started to get involved back then, so I stood up and asked for a rearrangement of the seating. Everyone agreed. What happened after that is, the whites would sit on one side of the room, the blacks on the other." He laughs about it now. "It's funny, but that's the way it was."

Verneeta Dunn gives a little cheer when she finally locates the Ladle with the photo of Clyde and Bill posing with their groupers. The page celebrates the achievements of company employees, with photos taken of their "modern" homes, flower gardens and fishing trips. In a faded snapshot from 1956, Clyde is a tanned, trim, in his early 50s. He and his teenage son (now almost 60) hold up two large fish. The caption proves Dunn right - they tipped the scales at 36 and 34 pounds.

Did the Dunns ever dream they would outlive Atlantic Steel? No way. No how.

Did they ever dream the mill would become an eyesore? When Mr. Dunn drove by and saw the yard a few years ago, he says it made him sick.

They aren't the only ones who are saddened and frustrated by the mill's quiet passing. Jerry Moss, the local union president, now counsels the out-of-work, retired, and heartbroken. "Our society," he says, "loves winners and turns a blind eye to the ones who lose."

Nearly one century after those eight mill founders staked their claim to a growing Atlanta by building on the city's frontier, a new set of business people have come along with even grander visions for the same territory. Once again, the winner is Progress.

As soon as Atlantic Steel cleans up the soil to conform to environmental standards, groundbreaking on what developers boast will be the "national model of new urbanism" will begin. Nightclubs, restaurants, sidewalk cafes, coffee shops, fashion boutiques will spring up in an open-air center. A "linear-park" bridge will span the Downtown Connector and link the old steel mill to Midtown.

And another chapter of Atlanta history will begin. The cessation of Atlantic Steel operations in Atlanta will be permanent. But the lesson, of course, is that nothing is permanent. Not even steel.

Creative Loafing, December 12, 1998

 

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