The Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Narrative Verse Fall 1997 Volume I Number 3 NEWTON STEEL by Ronald Gordon Ziegler

NEWTON STEEL by Ronald Gordon Ziegler Ph.D. c 1986

Prologue Along the banks of the River Raisin as it flows into Lake Erie's wet, stand twin towers of the future blinking as a lightning set across the waters, so that sailors out upon that shallow sea on warm summer nights await the thunder the flashing would portend there'd be. South of Fermi's citadels rising o'er medieval cries of fear, stand two sentinel smokestacks, but different from those of other years; and they, too, set their flashing out across the flatland country stretchhing toward the sunset haze. On the west shore of Lake Erie where the Raisin marsh did unfold, among the lotus and the white crane, another story yet is told -- not the tale of Colonel Custer who was a Braddock of the west, nor of the Raisin Massacre, nor of where Custer's horse is laid to rest, nor of the founding of the Frenchtown, later called for President Monroe, nor of U of M's, or accounts of the state's first capital. For this was a workers' town -- a town of hardworking common men as much as it was anyone's -- and this is a tale of them. The paper mills set their smokestacks and furnaces were the trade; in times even before furniture and shock-absorbers were made. Workers, farmers, grinding out the wealth that made our land; surely the product of entrepreneurial zest, but equally of their hand. "Don't walk out! Sit down! Sit down!" -- the cry of two score years and ten -- in the dark days of the thirties, when they organized GM. They fought the battle of the Overpass and in Flint they yelled "Sit down!;" deputies ran in Minnesota; and in Toledo, workers ran the town. In those days this was a different town; lying different now is the land; it was here in thirty-seven that the workers made their stand. The Telegraph Office For as long as anyone can remember, a railroad track ran through town passed the Evening News and main street from the mill and further down. And just across from old Dorsch Library to a small storefront set aside the now foresaken Sears and Roebuck, the wires of the world were tied. A train was passing slowly eastward along First Street one new spring day at early morning, as the manager of the Postal Telegraph made his way alongside the freightcars to the doorway of the office. The paper in his hand was filled with stories of the sitdowns breaking out across the land. Two weeks before, first at Dodge Main and then eight other Chrysler plants around the Motor City, workers had locked themselves inside to chant: "Don't walk out! Sit down! Sit down!;" seeking just to have the right to decent wages and safe standards and a union to represent their plight. And in the weeks before that fire had spread across the assembly lines, three dozen other Detroit factories had set upon the same design that had won the union Fisher Body -- at Flint, GM was organized -- and now cigar workers -- even Woolworths -- were sitting down organized. On the front page were the photos of workers holding signs that read "Injunctions won't build automobiles:" "We're here to stay," the banners said. And flying underneath Old Glory, the Union had drapped other signs: "Give us liberty or give us death," and "Scabs and rats won't run this line." In just two months, two hundred thousand would end a march at Cadillac Square in a rally for the right to strike and unionize -- they gathered there. And three days later at the Rouge Plant, vowing they would never pass, henchmen met the organizers and bloodied them at the overpass. But now a large black man was waiting just outside the office door and entered in behind Carl Ziegler, as the rain outside began to pour. The Organizer Leonidas MacDonald was a big man, standing fully six foot three, and hefty, just as you'd expect a steel organizer to be. He was sent to town some weeks before by the U.S.W.A. to co-ordinate the effort to unionize the mill. He stayed at the Park Hotel -- a hot spot once, which in its own heyday had been the resting place of Presidents and all who knew where to stay when they passed through Monroe. He stopped in once a day for friendly words and for business and then went out and on his way. "Young fella, I made it through another week. What have you got for me?" Cork thumbed through a paper stack and said, "Well, now, let me see. Your stipend draft is in here and a reply to the report you sent. But it don't say much, Mr. MacDonald." "Hell, it'll pay the rent!," came back the big man's retort with a laugh as he read; but the laugh ended abruptly as he realized what it said. "Lewis and Murphy have decided that our friends in government are all we need if we have to strike." The message they had sent had ruled out using a sit-down. After all, good old FDR was firmly in their corner, and the N.L.R.B. was far along in its endeavours, and would guarantee their rights. "Washington's a long way off if there's gonna be a fight," MacDonald said to Corky just as the telegrapher sat down at his desk. "Know a good place for breakfast that you might suggest?" Every day he asked him that and he always got the same reply, for there was not a real bg choice, and the telegraph operator was not shy: "Well, there's Munch's on the corner and Kresge's should be open soon. Or you can walk over to Roy's Triangle, but it's still a good little while till noon, and the bars won't be open till then. "Wanna treat me to a beer?' "Ah, yes, that's just what I need. As long as I am here, I don't think I'll be drinking much. They even watch me when I sleep." "They'll be in here before you go. Got a wire for me to keep until they leave?" asked Corky. And he took the message down and slipped it into his desk drawer. But before he could sit down, the door to the office opened and in walked Joe Barley, the county sheriff himself, no less, and MacDonald said calmly, "Well, fancy meeting you here, Sir." "Don't hand me that crap," the Sheriff said as he turned about with his customary snap, "I just want to remind you that we're watching your every step. We don't want no trouble here. These men don't need no Rep from somewhere's else -- especially you," he chuckled and then he said, "What on earth were they thinking of sending you in here instead of a white man. I guess they know that there won't be no strike here. The men won't listen to you. Just remember who the boss is here." "Yessur, mas'sr," replied MacDonald. "Watch yourself, there, son," Barley spat out as he turned and left. "In every town there's one," MacDonald softly uttered as the door went briskly shut; "But there's more than one in this town who'd like to kick my butt. Listen, Corky, do you think that you could cash this here for he again? The bank won't do it and the post office will not be opening until ten?" Cork counted out the money and MacDonald said, "I'm Weisel's bound. See you again tomorrow, that is, if I'm alive and still around." And with that he was out the door, across the tracks and street to Weisel's for his breakfast. Against the window, the raindrops beat. The Mill The Cuyahoga River ends its trek through Ohio emptying into Lake Erie at Cleveland, its muddy flow; and up above the city it winds and splashes along toward its destination whispering its streamy song. Here and there along its way through Ohio's rich farmland, it cascades over rocky falls where little towns came to stand, built around the many mills and shops that used its flow to provide the drive and electricity they took as it would go; miniature reflections of those of Youngstown and Pittsburgh east, set in this heartland of America where man's labor is unleashed to order the world and subdue the land as had been His decree, using muscle and machine to enhance his muscle so he could be more free. Newton Falls was one such burg that grew along its way, and among its mills was Newton Steel which set out to parley its sales to Detroit's auto plants into a plant built more closely to the teeming assembly lines of Ford, Chrysler, GM, and Packard, too. And so thye came to Monroe and at the very western shore of Erie, built a steel mill where the river was deep enough for the ships to slip in and where railroads, which a centruy before had made this town bigger than Detroit and Toledo though now it was in their shade, could take on the great rolls which could be formed to make cars and trucks and tractors just up the Detroit River above the lake. With the mill, Newton Steel had brought a large number of its men to settle in this quiet town, and their families came with them. (And, as it had brought MacDonald to pass through the telegrapher's life, it also had brought the family that would later give him his wife). Little Steel This was the Great Depression of which stories fill our lore, by which we judge much our present, and which filled every pore of every working man who lived and suffered through its reign, leaving scars that never heal on those who felt its pain. This was the Great Depression which had brought America down onto one knee crying -- no less in this River Raisin town. And yet the mill of Newton Steel ran on, though at a pace reduced from what it had been in that earlier time and place. Misery followed unemployment as the economy was shut down, but the mill rolled on in Monroe -- a life-line for the town. It ground out steel in fiercest heat, oppressive heat the men endured -- it ground out steel in fiercest heat, oppressing those who were secured in their jobs by whatever fate left them to be employed. It ground out steel in fiercest heat, their sweating muscles yet enjoyed for the luxury of working, while it idled so many more, and it ground their flesh into the steel, and fire filled their every pore. While all across the nation, the men whose muscle seared with the heat of that oppression were permeated with the fear that tomorrow they'd be laid off, if they merely bent beneath the weight, or were overheard whispering "Union," in an effort to stand up straight. And all across the nation, the men whose muscle ached with the heat of that oppression were organizing just to make a place for themselves in the sun that seemed somehow to have set -- but each knew this was America and were willing to stake a bet upon their blood and spirit that it would rise again, and that the only way to help it was to stand up and be men. This was the Great Depression. But they ground out steel in fiercest heat. And all across the nation working men would not accept defeat. The Big Steel strikes were organized and the Union won the day singing, "Solidarity Forever." And America heard them say "Don't Walk Out! Sit Down! Sit Down!," as Detroit was organized, and the men in little steel plants across the nation heard the cries. Then in 1937, in May and June they made their show, and the Little Steel Strike erupted and came to Newton Steel in Monroe. Interlude: The Proletarians This was the Great Depression. They ground out steel in fiercest heat. And all across the nation, working men would not accept defeat. All across the nation, the men whose flesh was seared with the heat of the oppression were filled full of fear that tomorrow they'd be jobless and they'd see their childred weak with hunger in ragged clothes -- and many set to seek a way that it be ended -- these men whose muscle ached with the heat of that oppression, were organizing just to make a place to stand in the sun the heat told them was there, though it was hidden behind dark clouds, eclipsed from their stare, or that the heat that burned their flesh was truly the stuff of hell, and they resolved that if the devil was at fault, then, well, they'd make a revolution -- they would not accept defeat. This was the Great Depression. They ground out steel in fiercest heat. And in Monroe in this depression there were three such men who could look the devil in the eye and then spit on him. In June of 1920 while the left squabbled over what to do, under John Keracher's leadership, those in Michigan formed into a Proletarian Party which rejected all the rot that the socialists bickered over, and while they had got inspired by the Bolsheviks, they were not prepared to bow before a foreign master. Yet they saw clearly how it had been these people who were the vanguard in the strikes and in organizing unions, and though they would have liked to have sparked a revolution, they also spoke clearly of our American Revolution. And it was they who would be the forgers of the ferment in this little town. They helped organize the W.P.A. crews working all around Monroe into an organization of several hundred men. And one man named Andy Geddes, who was a Proletarian, put together a whole series of classes and groups to build a movement there to lead the way and to be a shield for all the working people who would face oppressive heat. And Andy Geddes taught them that they should not accept defeat. But in all his labors, though he planted many seeds, he was but one man among many. And yet, by his deeds, he helped create a spirit that would help to make them know that they should stand and fight when Little Steel came to Monroe. Walter Hancock, John Popescu, and Andy Geddes -- these three from Monroe gave fire to the fight that was to be: this was the Proletarian Party -- their local active Monroe cadre. This was the Great Depression -- and the fight was set to be. Hospitality A small town is a rumor mill, and when 'scandal' is brewing, even more -- especially when there are those who have an interest in making sure that they fester and grow to their ends -- and when you mix in bigotry, the devil finds a welcome that can become malignancy. And thrust down in the middle of all that pent up steam was Leonidas MacDonald -- the scapegoat of all the schemes. He had a car, or at least, it belonged to the U.S.W.A., and he needed it for his work; but as he returned one day from a trek that he had made to Toledo to the union hall, along Telegraph just north of Erie, in the midst of the road, a stalled car was set with two men working under the raised hood. Leonidas stopped to try to help, but they had meant no good. As he stepped out of his car, three men appeared from the woods and grabbed and held MacDonald, while the other two who stood by the stalled car came back and smashed the windows in his car and then set in on fire, and then hit him with the bar in the stomach and across the back, and then one man let loose a fist to his jaw. They dragged him to a tree and made a noose, and fastened it around his neck and tied his hands and feet, and then left him lying bloody there along that country street. He walked to town that evening, and as he walked, a car kept going passed and hurling beer bottles at him from afar. When he got back to the hotel, he was told his room was gone and that there was no other, and that he must move on. So a local steel worker took MacDonald to stay at his place, and the next day he was fired, and that night, they laced his house with round of gunfire. Then when Sunday came around, while he was gone to church that day, they burned it to the ground. In his yard were Ku Klux crosses, and in the grass were burned the words 'Nigger' and 'communist,' which his actions had so earned. The Leonidas took a room at the swank City Hotel and walked down Front Street to a meeting that was attended well. But as he went back that night toward his hotel room, then they pulled him into an alley and beat him once again. Yet MacDonald would not give up as would have a lesser man; his courage was an inspiration. And then the strike began. STRIKE! When workers sat up picket lines, the town took sides in the dispute. And the national media all rushed in to feed and reap the fruit. S.W.O.C. sent in more men to help and each day the tension would grow. Support was organized by several groups for the strike throughout Monroe. The W.P.A. crews were to lend much moral and physical aid, and workers at other local plants joined in support and stayed night and day along the picket line, and helped with food and such, but the strike dragged on and on and on until tempers were too much. The reporters sat around the bars and tried to drink them dry, and manufactured stories that could only come from being high. On one warm night while one of them was collapsed against the wall of the Postal Telegraph office, a colleague heeded to the call and had the operator send his story to his paper in New York one way, and then leave out underlined words and send it off the next day to the paper in Chicago of the man lying in a stupor. Then he helped him to his feet and dragged him off out the door. THE VIGILANTES And those who knew this rotten strike had been cooked up in Moscow, or were equally as lucid in their reasoning, allowed the strike to go on a short time, but then would not be denied, and set about to break the strike. There's not much that wasn't tried. They seem to have received much support from Mayor Knaggs and Joe Barley. One man put a lathe upon a flat-bed truck, and he turned out make-shift ball bats which were distributed to vigilantes from the court house steps, and, what's more, it is said that city funds bought the lumber used to make them. At least, it is true the city organized them officially as auxilliary police. And the club-weilding vigilantes, with their official sanction, attacked a demonstration of strikers and supporters, and drove them violently back across Loranger Square in front of the county court house where they rally had been being held, and beat them severely there. Then they were loaded onto trucks and taken, clubs in hand, to the mill down at the end of Elm Street, so they could get their fill. THE BATTLE OF THE RAISIN MARSH The battle raged all over town, but when the vigilantes appeared riding out toward the plant equipped with riot gear, the strikers were ready for them -- they, too, had clubs and sticks, and a battle raged for hours; and the vigilantes took their licks! One of the strikers, Walter Hancock, was walking the picket line when the police and vigilantes attacked and smashed his picket sign. One vigilante came after him with a heavy cable made of steel and Hancock took off toward the marsh surrounding the plant; on his heels was the pursuing vigilante. Once they were out of sight and sound of the others, Hancock stopped in his tracks, and turned around. He abruptely grabbed his pursurer and took the cable away and began using it on him. He brought him down that day with several blows from the cable, and there he let him lay. He didn't move and for all that is known, he may be there yet today! The Battle of the Marsh had been sparked by attempts to bring in rats and scabs across the picket lines, but they failed in doing that. They all retreated back to town -- the police, vigilantes, scabs, and rats; the strikers had carried the day -- idle, the steel mill sat. ON A RAIL And the strike went on for days and weeks through both May and June. The vigilantes did not go back to the steel plant, but at noon one day, a group of them seized hold of Leonidas crossing Loranger Square as he was walking toward First Street to the telegraph office there. At the door of the Postal Telegraph, across the street from the library, they grabbed him and began beating and kicking him mercilessly. They dragged and carried and pushed him all the way down that block, and turned south on Monroe Street, where they pelted him with bricks and rocks. MacDonald ran through traffic to get away from their frenzied spree, and he rushed into the Post Office, since it was federal property. Supposedly, he would be safe there, but they went in and brought him out, and the mob beat and dragged him, amidst their shrieks and shouts, for ten blocks south down Monroe Street to the city limits where they threw him, bloody, on the roadside, and left him lying there, nearly unconscious, with warnings that he and all his kind not ever return to their fair town to cause trouble, or they'd find even harsher treatment from the good people of the town, and they stood hurling epitaphs at him until the sun went down. Underneath the cover of darkness, his broken form crawled away, and stumbled along in a trail of blood until a Teamster whose driveway he collapsed into in a moment of fortune came to his rescue. He took him to a Toledo hospital. He was still there when the strike was through. EPILOGUE The old town ain't the same no more -- the Raisin flows its murky course and dumps into Lake Erie -- it still passes Custer's horse. The old paper mills are idled -- the marsh has been cleared away -- downtown has been 'rejuvenated;' old landmarks seen better days. The new is replacing all the old, and sometimes for the best; but then there are exceptions to every rule -- for the rest, it just ain't the same no more -- the town really has become a part of megalopolis -- it really had to come. The old Family Theatre's torn down and the Monroe sits empty near -- the faces are all changing, but the bells of St Mary's still ring clear. All the workers won that year was all too quickly lost. They got their union recognized, but quickly paid the cost; for Newton Steel closed its doors and left them high and dry -- what's left of it is now a part of the Ford plant which by and by moved in -- they make bumpers there. The train does not pass through the town or passed the telegraph -- it's not there anymore. Nor do many remember how it was. Oft is told the tale as true that the last time Custer went away, he told them not to do anything until he got back -- and that's just what was done -- until about ten years ago, they realized he wasn't going to come. They have all gone now, the men who wrote this tale; but if you pay attention, there's no way you can fail to see the fruits of their labor -- they made us what we are. This was the Great Depression. And it has left its scars. The world is changing with the time -- and that's lawful, they say, for if we are to subdue the earth, it can be no other way. But if you travel about Michigan -- Flint, Detroit, the little towns -- you can hear them crying out "Don't Walk Out! Sit Down!" And down along the Raisin, it's not the same anymore, you feel; but you can still hear stories about the strike at Newton Steel. 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