History, laughs shared at annual mill picnic

WEIRTON – Weirton Steel’s 25 Year Club has held a picnic for members every year since 1946.

This year, flooding along Kings Creek put the annual event Saturday in jeopardy at the Serbian Picnic Grounds.

Ron Baker, 25 Year Club president, said about 500 to 550 former and current workers were expected to attend the annual picnic.

He said the Serbian Picnic Ground workers did a great job in getting the facility ready for the retirees.

Baker is still working at the plant as a millwright in the tin mill with 41 years of employment in the mill.

The 25 Year Club summer picnic has been held every year since 1946. He believes it is the oldest steel mill event in the country.

He said there were 14,600 employees at the mill when he started in 1972. He saw a downturn in the late 1990s.

“I could never dream the workforce would go down to 800,” he said.

“Those still working still have hope. They still got a job. There is still hope that mill will keep going and be there for them,”

Baker looks around at the men and women at the picnic. “You can’t imagine how much experience is here. These guys dedicated their life to the mill because the mill made a life for them,” Baker said.

“There is a lot of history of what’s inside and outside the mill. We will continue to have this (picnic). We owe it to the guys to keep it going,” Baker said.

Lloyd “Red” Lemley, 75, of Hundred, formerly of Weirton, said Weirton Steel was a good place to work. He was a welder in the welder shop.

“The welding shop was like family. That was good because we were there as much as at home,” he said.

“I was probably in every dirt hole in there,” Lemley said.

Lemley, who retired in 1994, said he feels like crying when he drives past the mill now.

“I never thought it would turn out like this. I thought it would be Weirton Steel forever,” Lemley said.

Bruce Elliott was at the picnic with his son, Dave, both of Wellsburg.

Bruce was a foreman in the blacksmith shop with 32 years under his belt. Dave worked in the rail car shop beginning in 1982, retiring in 2008.

Bruce said working at Weirton Steel was a good income.

Bruce said he was glad the downturn happened later rather than sooner.

Bruce, who retired in 1983, said he never thought it would happen.

“Back in 1964 there was 13,500 people working,” he said.

He could feel something starting when the plant shut down the blooming mill and then the open harth, when it went to the basic oxygen process.

“It was a good living. I treated them good and they treated me good,” Dave Elliott said.

He said in the last few years before his retirement he was moved all over the mill. He said he wasn’t familiar with a lot of the jobs. “It could be dangerous,” he said.

Dave Elliott said he can’t believe what he sees when he drives by the mill, now with less than 1,000 employees.

“I heard all those rumors and thought, ‘they can’t do that,'” he said.

Rich Young, 25 Year Club secretary, retired in 2002 after almost 31 years of work. He worked in the caster where slabs of steel were made. He started at the coke plant in 1972.

“I worked my way up from hell to another hell,” he said with a smile on his face.

Young said the mill was huge in its heyday.

“Everyone knew each other. Everyone went to the picnic. This is where everyone got to talk about their area in the mill. Everyone got a chance to talk about their experiences. The good, the bad and the ugly – or as we used to say, ‘The good, the bad and what were they thinking,”Young said.

Young said it is hard to believe what has happened to the mill.

“It is more sad than anything,” he said.

Young said Weirton Steel was once a focus in the steel-making industry. It was the No. 8 producer of steel in the country. He said Weirton Steel made products from the start with raw materials to the finished product moving out the door.

He said the downturn started back in the he 1980s. He said National Steel started to take money out of the mill and not reinvesting it. He said the employees noticed that and bought the mill so money could be reinvested back into the plant. Young said workers gave up one-third of their income in the early years of the ESOP so the money could be put back into equipment.

Young said the economy has a lot to do with the future of the plant. He said the plant once had one-third of the tin plate market in the world. “It is still pretty high up there.”

“We still have a quality product,” he said.

(Law can be contacted at mlaw@heraldstaronline.com.)