'Like Family,' Then Nothing: Life After U.S. Steel For more than a century, U.S. Steel's Homestead Works was the flagship mill of the American steel industry, buzzing with activity. But in the 1980s, it shut down, costing thousands of people their jobs. Betty Esper, who worked there for 36 years, recalls those days and what came after them.
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'Like Family,' Then Nothing: Life After U.S. Steel

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

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

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And let's hear next about an economic disaster, as remembered for our series StoryCorps. We hear it every Friday morning. The project is recording the stories of everyday America, and today's story comes from Homestead, Pennsylvania. For more than a century, U.S. Steel 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 in the mid-'80s, the Homestead mill shut its doors and thousands of peoples lost their jobs, including Betty Esper. She was a desk clerk at the mill. Here she tells her friend Mark Fallon about what Homestead was like when the mill was still thriving.

BETTY ESPER: Businesses never closed till nine, 10 o'clock at night, because there was something going on. And the avenue was full of two things, bars and churches. I always laugh when I tell people I don't know if we drank and prayed, or prayed and drank.

MARK FALLON: So, you start working on the mill in 1951. How did you get your job?

ESPER: I started out as a messenger, started at the bottom and so, you know, work my way up. It's was my only job. You know, it was such a busy place all my life, watching in, coming and out and knew the guards at the gate, just spent more time in the mill than spend at home. And it was like my family.

FALLON: How many years did you end up working at the mill?

ESPER: Thirty-six.

FALLON: So, your last year would have been when the mill closed.

ESPER: Exactly. And it was a funny feeling, I drove out of the mill my last day. And when I drove by the mill, there wasn't one soul at the gate. And I said, my God, 36 years and I don't have nobody to even say goodbye to it.

FALLON: When the mills did shut down, it affected people's lives to an extent that's almost unfathomable.

ESPER: Yeah, it affected a lot of people. And there were loyal people, loyal to the core. And what the hell did it get them? I mean, if you're a man, 40 years old, and you lose your job, you've got to get your kid out of the college, you've got to get rid of a car and you've lost your mortgage probably on your house. I knew acquaintances that became alcoholics, I knew guys that - their marriages went on the blink because of it. Suicides. This was a tough time.

FALLON: I've always heard stories that people felt that mill would back. Did you have that feeling or...?

ESPER: You know, it's just like seeing your father, mother would never split up. And you would never imagine that that could happen. It's just hard to know that something that was so big and great is not coming back.

INSKEEP: Betty Esper and Mark Fallon, that StoryCorps in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Four years after the mill shut down, Esper became mayor of Homestead, and she's held that position for the past 18 years. Their interview will be archived with all StoryCorps interviews at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. And the StoryCorps podcast is available to you at npr.org.

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