Lake MI Sunset 

Steel Toed Shoes Planted Firmly in the Sand

U.S. Steel Logo

What is it about the "Steel City"; or should I say what was it about the locale that it becomes a part of one's very being?  Before I can even begin to try make such an assessment you first need to know, when I speak of the "Steel City" I mean Gary, Indiana.

Gary is located in northwest Indiana, and lies on the extreme southern shore of Lake Michigan.  It is the largest city in Lake County, IN.  The terrain is, shall we say, very flat.  This is a direct result of Gary being situated at the southern terminus of the glacial flow which descended on the continent during the ice age.  Recognition of this fact is found in the name of a major thoroughfare, Ridge Rd. (U.S. HWY. 6).

Permit me to dispel a common myth.  Professor Harold Hill did not graduate from the Gary Conservatory of Music in '05.  It was not possible, Folks.  Gary was not founded until 1906!  Prior to that the area was the homeland of the Potawatomi Indians.  Native Americans from many tribes, and an occassional fur trapper or missionary, regularly traversed the "Old Sauk Trail" enroute from the Northeast to the Great Plains and back.  Alas, no Potawatomi has graced the environs since the 1890's.

Second, it is important to keep in mind my frame of reference with respect to Gary is the 50's and 60's.  Fortunately, this was the point-in-time when Gary was at its zenith.  Sadly, the last thirty, plus (30 +) years have been downhill.

The history of Gary is such as to instill pride in it's residents.  Before U.S. Steel the area was nothing more than marshes and sand.  Sweat and toil were applied to dunes photothe land, so that others could come, and sweat and toil for their livelihood.  Today the resident struggle is to save the sand dunes which remained after U.S. Steel had its will.

The original land acquisition consisted of 9,000 acres.  The cost to U.S. Steel was $7.2 Million ($800/acre).  The first stake was driven into the sand at 5th & Broadway on 4/18/1906.  The "Steel City" is named after Judge Elbert H. Gary, then Chairman of the Board of U.S. Steel.   Interestingly, Judge Gary never lived in the city bearing his name.  The real power in town was Wm. P. Gleason, Superintendent of Gary Works (for whom Gleason Park is named, and where one finds the present day home of I.U. Northwest).

The first shipment of iron ore arrived in 1908.  The first blast furnace was lit, and manufacture of steel began, in 1909.  The rest is history, as they say.

Over the decades Gary has acquired a number of monikers besides the "Steel City."   Other terms used to describe Gary, IN, affectionately or not, are
da' Region, City of the Century and Murder Capital of the U.S.  For a time it was referred to as Satellite City, in deference to the nearby Windy City of Chicago.

January 21, 1946, marks the date I arrived on the scene.  It was also the day the U.S.W.A. commenced a strike.  United Steelworkers LogoBy then Gary already had a lurid past.  Al Capone was reputed to have had a hide-out in the Tolleston area.  One wonders how much of a hide-out this was if it was able to be publicly discussed?  A decade before I was born John Dillinger had paid the area a short visit.  All of America was aware that he pulled off his infamous escape from our county jail with a wooden or soap pistol.  Considered opinion, based on factual research, is that a judge accepted a bribe to furnish him with a real weapon!

Events such as these were recounted with a bit of "civic pride" by my forefathers.  Myself, I can remember the McCarthy Era when communists were being ferreted out everywhere, it seems.  I attended school with folks whose parents were accused.  My parents knew others who were branded.  Gary, with its large industrial base, was a hot bed of socialism after the war.

Through it all, one thing in Gary remained constant; the mills.  Gary was, is and always will be a working town.  This is not to be confused with the recent slogan adopted by Chicago of being "The City that Works."  The mills were like a magnet.  The open hearths attracted the multitudes, like moths to a flame.

To describe Gary, Indiana as a "melting pot" would certainly be apropos.  One could not go anywhere without encountering people of Croation, Czech, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Rumanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak or Ukranian extraction; to name but a few.  Names like Costo, Eichstadt, Glibota, Gyurko, Havel, Holovachka, Jarosz, Koularos, Krejci, Mangano, Rukavina, Pavlovich, Tokarsky, Tomak, Svetanoff, and Zivic were as common on the streets of Gary as Smith and Jones in colonial America.  All were "Hunkys."   No, that is not a typo.  Hunky, as opposed to the pejorative term 'Honky', is a generic description for people who hailed from Eastern Europe.

All had ties to the mills.  Some, for as many generations as could be fit into a 20 year time span.  My own family is exemplary:

John Yaros - Grandfather
Paul Yaros, John D. Yaros, Sr. and Mike Yaros - Father and Uncles
John D. Yaros, Jr., Thomas L. Yaros and G. David Yaros - Cousin, Brother and Self

Between 1946 and 1966 each and everyone one of us has grabbed that lunch bucket, donned that hard hat and went off to do their stint in the mills.  Fifty years later, some are still laboring in the heat of a blast furnace. 

But, "the what" which makes Gary unique, and which gets in one's blood, is the strong-willed independence, the work ethic, a desire to fit in, all the while striving to establish and maintain one's identity.  Maintenance of identity is not easy when all are issued a number by the mill employment office.  Mine was 43 - 176.

As much as the succeeding generations tried to flee the past, the older generations were steadfast in their resolve to not let their unique heritage become homogenized or forgotten.  In Gary it was not at all uncommon to hear the "mother-tongue" being spoken by Mother, and Dad too.  One attended church where not only their religion was practiced, but also where their language was spoken!   One found identity in the foods they ate.  Query:  Are we what we eat?  The aroma and taste of halupki, kielbasa, pirogi, kolacky, fruit mazurka, and my favorite, orenacha, are still firmly planted within my brain, just waiting to be triggered.

Be you man or woman, if you lived in Gary you had to have a degree of toughness to get on.  Everyone possessed a common goal.  It was to attain a better way of life, and that took hard work.  It meant enduring brutal winters, when the wind blew in unmercifully off the lake.  It meant working all hours, under extreme conditions.  Anyone who has ever labored in the mills will never forget the horrible taste of salt candy.  What is salt candy, you ask?  It was a Chuckles (Remember them?) like clone provided by the company.  However, the crystals coating it were not sugar!  Its purpose was akin to modern day Gator-Ade; stave off heat exhaustion during periods of over exertion.

Survival also required delicately balancing finances during periods of either lay-off or strike.  Economic hard times were a common phenomena.  Just as the mills stockpiled finished product to draw on during a strike, steelworkers stockpiled their cellars with food to see them through the hard times.  1959 was particularly cruel in this regard.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  That year the strike all knew was coming did.  It lasted 116 days!  It ended only when President Eisenhower intervened.  Both stockpiled steel and food supplies were depleted during the course of the struggle.  Times were tough, and tempers short.  When it was over, the pride in being a steelworker was severely tarnished.

Yes, it is true cities such as Cleveland and Detroit bear similarities to Gary, Indiana.  But there is a difference.  On reflection the difference is that Gary was experiencing the Industrial Revolution in the 20th Century, instead of the 19th.  Nor was there any lead-in or build-up to the late arriving event.  One day the city did not exist, and the next it was up and running full-blast.  Gary not only suddenly appeared, but so did the mills and the people to work them.  In most locales the industrial revolution occurred over an extended period of time and brought an abundance of industry. In Gary it just happened and brought one industry; steel.  The experience, after it was all said and done, also did not produce a large megopolis.  Gary was, and still is, a small town that thinks it is a big city.  Even today the population is well below 200,000.   Being a small town abruptly yanked into the industrial revolution in the 20th Century, and forced to immediately catch up, is an experience which has not been duplicated elsewhere.  It is an event which gets into the blood, and permeates one's life.

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Created by G. David Yaros on Tuesday, 11 Feb 1997-02:10:55 Hrs.

1997, G. David Yaros.  All rights reserved