In Birmingham, Ala., New Life For Iron And Steel
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And I'm Robert Siegel.
Birmingham, Alabama was once home to vibrant iron and steel industries, but both have been on the decline there for decades. Well, next month, hundreds of metalworkers will again gather in Birmingham. They'll be meeting at the old Sloss Furnaces, now a national historic landmark, and they're coming to pour metal for the National Conference on Cast Iron Art.
As Lisa Morehouse reports, the iron and steel industries that built Birmingham are taking on a new life.
LISA MOREHOUSE: From the road, the Sloss Furnaces site looks like a jumbled pile of rusted metal, like a strange pipe organ rising from the streets between the freeway and the train tracks.
(Soundbite of train)
MOREHOUSE: But get a little closer and that tumble of metal starts to take the shape of tubes, boilers and furnaces. And in an open-sided shed the size of a football field, the winter light shines on piles of brake drums and radiators.
Sculptor Remy Hanemann hammers them apart so that a furnace can turn them into molten metal. Hanemann's the furnace master at Sloss.
Mr. REMY HANEMANN (Furnace Master, Sloss Furnaces): I have one of the hotter, more sticky jobs and getting burned all the time.
(Soundbite of machinery)
MOREHOUSE: Hanemann's one of four artists in residence at Sloss who turns scrap metal into works of art like the countless sculptures that populate the site. His colleague, Heather Spencer, is making pull-toys for her baby son, like iron dinosaurs with wooden wheels.
Spencer's enchanted by Sloss for the work she does here and for its importance in Birmingham.
Ms. HEATHER SPENCER (Resident Artist, Sloss Furnaces): This place is magical. You know, it's so still and quiet, and there's just so much history. When you think of Birmingham, you have to think about Sloss.
MOREHOUSE: Sloss was part of the iron and steel industry that built the city after the Civil War.
Seventy-nine-year-old Pat Shelby's grandfather helped build the company's first furnaces, and he worked at Sloss more than 40 years. He remembers when blast furnaces, coke plants and open hearths lined the streets of Birmingham.
Mr. PAT SHELBY (Former Employee, Sloss Furnaces): It was the Pittsburgh of the South, the magic city. That's the reason you came here. All the basic raw materials were located in Jones Valley, iron ore, limestone, coal, everything you needed to make iron. So that's the reason the industry is settled here in Birmingham.
MOREHOUSE: By World War I, the company was among the largest producers of pig iron in the world, and the industry stayed dominant until the 1970s. But it was dangerous work with a troubled racial history.
Until the late 1920s, mines relied on mostly black convict labor, and Sloss and other companies used segregated workforces through the '60s.
Houston Williams put in 39 years at Sloss.
Mr. HOUSTON WILLIAMS (Former Employee, Sloss Furnaces): Everybody treat me nice, black and white, but that was just the rule back then, you know, and just certain job is none of yours. You know, it belongs to white people. They tell you that from the beginning.
MOREHOUSE: Williams was even born in the company's housing quarters, built specifically for African-American workers like his father. As a kid, he'd bring his dad lunch at the site, and he remembers being mesmerized watching nighttime iron casts.
Mr. WILLIAMS: We used to walk up there and just stand on about and, you know, watch it. At night, it's real pretty, bright orange color. You know, they're like fireworks, you know, so pretty, and see those sparks sparking off (unintelligible). So I loved it. I'm glad (unintelligible) now.
MOREHOUSE: Today, artist Heather Spencer has the same feelings about iron pours.
Ms. SPENCER: The first time that I saw them tap the furnace and that molten metal come out, I was totally sold and in love and considered myself a metalworker or a metal artist ever since then.
MOREHOUSE: Sloss became a national historic landmark in the early '80s, one of the few industrial sites in the country to hold that title.
Mr. HANEMANN: It is part of our history. It's kind of like a ghost town now, but you can still walk through here and get the feeling that the plant's still running.
MOREHOUSE: From his studio that once was the bathhouse for African-American workers, Hanemann relishes his role in Sloss' story.
Mr. HANEMANN: On a very tiny, tiny scale, I'm doing what these guys used to do way back in the day, except I'm making art.
MOREHOUSE: With a metal arts program providing workshops for the public and summer classes for kids, Sloss is still relevant, even though the economy of Birmingham is no longer dominated by steel and iron.
For NPR News, I'm Lisa Morehouse.
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