'Like Family,' Then Nothing: Life After U.S. Steel

Betty Esper and Mark Fallon at StoryCorps in Homestead, Pa. i i

Betty Esper and Mark Fallon at StoryCorps in Homestead, Pa. hide caption

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Betty Esper and Mark Fallon at StoryCorps in Homestead, Pa.

Betty Esper and Mark Fallon at StoryCorps in Homestead, Pa.

For more than a century, U.S. Steel's Homestead Works was the flagship mill of the American steel industry. At its height, the mill was one of the world's largest producers of steel. But when the Homestead mill shut its doors in the 1980s, thousands lost their jobs.

Betty Esper, a desk clerk at the mill, was among them.

As she recently told her friend, Mark Fallon, Homestead was a different place when the mill was thriving.

"Businesses never closed til 9, 10 o'clock at night, because there was always something going on," Esper said. And in those days, the town's main avenue was lined with churches and bars.

"I always laugh when I tell people, I don't know if we drank and prayed, or prayed and drank."

Esper was 18 when she started working at the mill in 1951, as a messenger. She came to know all the employees, from the guards at the gate to the other workers.

"It was like my family," she said.

But when the mill closed in the mid 1980s, Esper was among the last to drive out of its gates.

"There wasn't one soul at the gate," Esper said. "And I said, 'My gosh, 36 years, and I don't have nobody to even say goodbye to."

The years that followed were tough, Esper remembers. Men pulled their children out of college. Mortgages and marriages were at risk, and some of her acquaintances became alcoholics.

"They were loyal people," Esper said. "There were loyal to the core — and what the hell did it get them?"

Many in the area held out hope that the mill would reopen and that things could go back to the way they once were.

"It's just hard to know that something that was so big, and great, is not coming back," Esper said.

As for her, Esper found a new job: Four years after the mill closed, she became the mayor of Homestead. She has held that position for the past 18 years.

Produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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