“Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One…”
For a century, the Indiana mills encircling Lake Michigan’s southern dunes have belched noxious clouds into the Midwest sky day and night. Iron particles, briefly suspended in the superheated air, float down and paint cars an ashy maroon. Heaps of iron ore arrive by railcar or ship and leave in rolls, ingots, bars, pipes. Everything there is heavy, dirty, and dangerous: the first lesson of mill life is remembering a plant is trying to kill you a hundred different ways at the same time. Unattractive, unsafe…and Northwest Indiana wouldn’t have it any other way.
Those mills occupying what had once been mini-mountains of rolling dunes and beach remain the life of Northwest Indiana. They are its heart, its blood, and even its stinking bowels. Over the last century, their hellish furnaces churned out the economic viability of Chicagoland’s southern edge, then the culture, and finally our unique identity.
Unique is the right word, the only word. Hoosiers downstate often consider “Region rats” (residents) too Chicagoan to be real Hoosiers. Chicagoans think Northwest Indiana too much a part of Indiana to really be Chicagoland. We’re country, we’re city, we’re manufacturing, we’re industrial. We’re high-hatted and low-browed all at once. Going north to south in 20 miles and 30 minutes, you can go from chugging industry to urban decay to commercial districts to suburban sprawl to farmland.
THAT variety is the Region.
The inspired legends from our steel mills—some true, some not— reflect the lives of the workers, their families, and their lives. Some are amusing, and some are downright horrifying. All of them are uniquely Northwest Indiana.
“Show Me Your Hands”
Once upon a time, when the Indiana steel mills employed armies of blue-collar workers, finding a job was as simple as showing up, but some skilled jobs couldn’t weather BS workers. Unskilled workers who had picked up drips of industrial lingo might slip their way into a skilled crew, but those shortcomings were painfully obvious in the field. Sometimes this ignorance resulted in damage. Sometimes in death.
One legend explains a savvy shop foreman’s quick and easy method of assessing a worker’s experience, no matter how many references they had. After the barrage of interview questions, the foreman would tell a candidate to hold up his hands and spread out his fingers. Living by labor puts miles on hands and aged foremen can read those miles like a map. Too many scars or missing fingers: too clumsy. No callouses, no dirt under the nails, no scars: liar, liar, pants on fire. A few deep scars, horned callouses on the fingers and thumb, and even a missing finger or two: you’re hired.
Even the finger count wasn’t a prerequisite. Many foremen judged workers only needed enough fingers to hold their tools. The other fingers? Those were just showing off.
“The Ferrous Funeral”
You can expect fatal accidents anywhere molten metal is poured by the ton from ladles dangling high overhead. The life of a mill worker is framed in danger, but, believe it or not, the mills of Northwest Indiana once operated FAR more dangerously than they do now (ladles were once uncovered). Of the thousands of potential accidents lurking in the dark corners of Lake Michigan’s mills, falling into a heat of molten steel is likely the most terrifying (a heat, or heat lot, is the term used for the steel produced in a single melting operation).
We needn’t discuss the physiological effects of molten steel on the human body; a person whose entire body hits a molten metal surface heated to thousands of degrees Celsius has almost no chance of survival. A body won’t sink, but will burn within seconds on the surface, a fatality that is both awful and (hopefully) mercifully quick. But the quick end to suffering ends with the victim and extends to the family. Remains that are not retrieved within seconds from a molten surface will boil and burn away, becoming part of the slag slurry. For a family, this means no body to bury and no closure.
According to mill legends, companies approached this all-too-common accident in a myriad of ways. One company supposedly hauled both the heat AND the ladle directly out to Lake Michigan and dropped it in the cold, deep waters. This seems the most suspect: add together the cost of the ladle and the hundreds of tons of steel, and you’d have the most expensive funeral in Hoosier history (the EPA might raise its eyebrows as well). Another legend insists once a worker suffered a similar fate, the company tore open a deep hole on mill land and buried both the ladle and cooled steel ten feet deep. Again, very costly.
This 1950s legend from Inland Steel (now ArcelorMittal) seems more likely. A worker accidentally fell into a heat. A few days later, after his widow insisted on a funeral, Inland Steel cut a steel ingot the exact weight of her husband and placed it in the casket as a secret stand-in for his remains. Before the funeral, through a storm of sobs and tears, she demanded to see his body one last time, no matter how maimed or charred. The undertaker, used to dealing with such reactions, calmly talked her out of it, sure that her discovering the anonymous steel ingot would be catastrophic. The undertaker and Inland Steel executives breathed a collective sigh of relief when the casket was finally buried.
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“Lunch Pail Makes Perfect”
Some millworkers consider theft at a steel mill more a game than a crime. Workers concoct elaborate or inspired methods of thievery and the company works hard to keep up. This is not indicative of mill employees as a whole, although anyone who spent time up there has probably heard a hundred of these stories. Today, it’s not a game. Surveillance and inventory control technology has improved dramatically and owners are far less willing to overlook theft with impunity (as in the notorious 2018 ArcelorMittal case involving $1.2 million in stolen alloy).
Almost everything at a steel mill is worth something, and area scrapyard owners knew some ethically-flexible mill workers by their first name. It was nothing to take out a few pounds of scrap metal a day. The mill workers sought out the best desirable metal and compounded schemes to hustle out as much as possible: copper was, by far, the most desirable metal in an industrial setting.
Legend has it a worker from Indiana Harbor’s Standard Forge Manufacturing Plant invented a foolproof way of bleeding out 30 pounds of high-grade copper wire a day (worth roughly $70-$90 in 2020) with almost no chance of getting caught, using nothing but the most humble of mill tools, the lunch pail.
The battered steel lunch pails were a common sight in the mills and the supervisors paid them no mind. They were too small, too weak, and too awkward to be of use to a thief. Any worker that stuffed 30+ pounds of scrap in a pail the size of a football and tried to carry it out the gates would be immediately spotted. 20 pounds isn’t much, unless you’re carrying it by the tips of your fingers for the fifteen minutes it takes to cross the plant floor and enter the parking lot.
But this ingenious worker had a plan. He lopped off lengths of heavy copper Million Supreme Cable (legendary for its 99.9% copper content and high scrap value). He cut this into 10 to 12 inch lengths, then bent and stacked it tightly inside his beat-up lunch pail. He added hefty reinforcement to the latches and hinges and handle, and added 1/8″ steel slats on the pail’s bottom.
Before the great heist began, he spent two months preparing his muscles. Every day, he’d get to work, fill the pail, then find odd moments here and there to lift, swing, bounce, toss, spin, and otherwise manhandle the heavy lunch pail, which tipped the scales at almost 40 pounds when loaded with the Million Cable.
After a few weeks, his arm, shoulder, and finger muscles developed such strength, that he could lazily twirl his lunch pail as though he were swinging a parasol through the park, despite it weighing more than an Olympic shot put. Everyday he stuffed his pail and walked out easily, selling the scrap at a distant yard on the weekends. Eventually he had enough extra cash to take his family to Disney World.
First class, all the way.
“The 20-Year Cadillac”
This steel mill legend was so well known in the 1970s that famed country singer Johnny Cash performed “One Piece at a Time” in the mid-70s, a song directly inspired by the legend. In the song, the narrator decided he’s going to achieve his lifelong dream of owning a long, black Cadillac worth over a “hundred grand” by slipping a few pieces at a time into his lunch pail every day. By the end of the song, he proudly proclaims his homemade Cadillac to be a ’49 to ’70 model.
As well-known as this legend is, there’s no reliable source stating the name of the mill worker, the mill, or even the specific years. According to my primary source, the mill turned this long-term larceny into a public relations event. I combed Region newspapers and found no reference to it (if anyone knows any specifics, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org). But of all the legends in this article, this is probably the best known.
In 1955, an inspired mill mechanic compiled a list of every part in a modern Cadillac, from whitewalls to windshield. A long, long list. Theft at the mills was nothing new, but this mechanic justified his plan by the sheer amount of time needed to gather the parts. It wasn’t theft. It was shaving. Thousands of parts at only a couple hundred a year…that’s hardly a felony (a judge might disagree, but we’ll ignore that).
Most amazing of all is that this mill mechanic never got rushed or greedy. Every day he took one more piece of the Cadillac, either from generic spare parts from the mill’s motor pool or manufactured the part himself, walking out with it in his pocket or punch pail. The legend doesn’t specify what happened when he came to heavy cast pieces, like the cylinder block or crankcase, or oversized pieces, like the hood. Or a tire. But don’t let that interfere with the legend.
After twenty years, he had all the parts he needed and quickly pieced the Cadillac together. Once he retired and his pension was secured, he announced his accomplishment, either not considering or caring what the mill administration might do as a result. Turns out, they did nothing.
Despite the logistical problems, this legend is so widespread that it could be true, at least in part. Theft or not, larceny or not, the dedication and resilience of the mill mechanic is nothing short of blue-collar heroism. Those are the legends that last: even if he’s doing wrong, we still want him to succeed.
“The Covenant of the Coke Machine”
From my own time running a vending route, I know this particular legend is more than likely true.
The Covenant of the Coke Machine is a silent but well-known understanding that if any vending machine, soda or otherwise, repeatedly steals money in any industrial setting, employees have the right (nay, the OBLIGATION) to “solve” the issue by any means necessary. Typically that means killing the vending machine. I’ve seen it firsthand.
Dollars get sucked into a bill acceptor. Product gets lodged in a spiral (the curly part vendors fill with chips, candy, etc.) and nothing drops down. Stale chips, melted candy bars, gum as hard as concrete…vending machines in industrial settings usually suffer the most malfunctions. The dusty, dirty atmosphere doesn’t help and eats away at the delicate electrical components of the machine, for one. Because of the often remote location of these machines, they don’t get serviced or filled as much as they should.
Employees at the mills will try to jiggle the machine, shatter the glass or plastic, pry it open, or just give it a few swift kicks with their steel-toed boots. I can tell you from experience that almost none of this does any good. Modern vending machines are built to withstand a lot of abuse. Product might be easy to reach, but the money not so much. When the issues are reported, and the vending companies don’t address it immediately, mill management is likely to look the other way while workers apply unorthodox solutions (I once saw a completely full Dew machine moved a foot…that doesn’t sounds like much until you realize a machine couldn’t have fit in there, so four guys must have lifted the 1200 pound machine and moved it by muscle alone).
One of the most interesting legends connected to this covenant comes out of a Northwest Indiana coke plant in the late 1970s. A Coke machine in an isolated section of the plant was notorious for stealing money. Using it had turned into a 50/50 gamble. One summer day, with the temperature at the plant hot enough to boil lead, a forklift driver slid out of his soaked seat and made his way to the machine with a handful of change. Gamble or not, he’d get his Coke, even if he had to pay $4 for it. He popped in thirty-five cents and heard it clink into the machine’s change bucket. He pressed the COCA-COLA button. Nothing. He wasn’t surprised. He put in another thirty-five cents. It jingled on top of the other change. He pressed COCA-COLA. Nothing. Another thirty-cents. And another. Nothing.
A scorching hot day in a scorching hot plant and his head felt like a camel’s armpit, he tried again. And again. Again, nothing. The machine was on, the Coke sign bright and inviting. No amber OUT OF ORDER lights were on. It just…wouldn’t give him a cold Coke. Ten times in all until all his change was gone.
Later on, he said the heat affected his decision-making. He patiently got back onto his forklift, strapped himself in, adjusted the forks, then backed it up a dozen feet. He never saw the half-dozen coworkers watching in disbelief behind him.
He jammed the forklift forward full speed and its gas engine revved and whined. He hit the Coke machine like a jagged wrecking ball. The forks plunged into the dirty plastic face, shattering it into jagged, dinner-plate sized chunks. The fluorescent tubes lighting the Coke sign flashed and popped and tiny bits of the thin white glass sprinkled over the forks. Cans of cold soda ruptured and fizzed over yellowed linoleum beneath the machine.
The driver backed up, dragging the machine with him, ignoring his coworkers waving hands and shouting voices. Once he got about ten feet back, he slammed the gas again, bringing the forks down as he drove. The vending machine scrapped on the ground and the forks ripped up its front just before the lift’s tires jammed on the fallen machine. With a last sizzle, the machine lights flashed and then died. He killed the Coke machine.
The driver unbuckled and calmly got down from the seat. He stepped over the ruined machine, gazing into its open cavity like a gutted deer, reached in, and grabbed a dented by intact can of Coke. It was ice-cold, and the moisture condensed on it instantly in the boiling plant. He took the entire can down in one contented chug before anyone said a word.
Later on, they all insisted it had been an accident.