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When Bethlehem was Steel Goundie House exhibit theme

It can be said that in many respects the Bethlehem Steel Company was Bethlehem.

For decades, it was the area's largest employer. In the 1940s, 30,000 workers had jobs there. In addition, it sponsored events in the community, founded civic organizations, and provided funding for the area's educational institutions.

It was, in many ways, "The Steel Way of Life," as the title of an exhibition in The Goundie House, 505 Main St., Bethlehem, states.

The exhibit is a collaboration of Historic Bethlehem Partnership and The Steel Workers' Archives. Exhibit curator is Amy Frey, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Historic Bethlehem.

The exhibit, which continues through this year, tells the story of the company from the perspective of its bricklayers, millwrights, carpenters, truck drivers, welders, on up to the chairman and CEO.

Ten former employees of Bethlehem Steel are featured in the exhibit, including Jeanne Brugger, Vincent Brugger, Hank Barnette, Helen Weaver, John Deutsch, Lester Clore, Joe Wilfinger, Bob Burkey, Jerry Green and Richie Check.

It features life-size portraits of former Steel employees by photographer Ed Leskin; videos of Steel employees describing their working lives at the plant by videographer Bruce Ward, a former steelworker himself; a wall of photos and documents donated by former Steel employees; and artifacts including a hard hat, lunchbox, brass checks, Bethlehem Steel time books and overtime forms.

Two painted murals, completed by Freehand Murals, depict a view of a South Bethlehem street, and the Welfare Room, a locker-like space where steel workers stored their personal belongings. Two welfare baskets hang from the ceiling.

The entrance to the exhibit includes a Community Memory Wall. Visitors may bring photos, letters, and personal histories to copied, written or left on the wall for the duration of the exhibit. The stories will be added to Historic Bethlehem Partnership's archives.

Among the many former employees with lengthy careers at the company was Rudy Garcia. When he began working at Bethlehem Steel in 1944 at age 17, he was paid 50 cents an hour. A year later, he was drafted and served in the Army Air Corps for two years.

Upon returning, he met a former co-worker, George Schaellbach, who urged him to return to the plant. He did, and stayed until 1992, completing a 48-year career. Garcia's father had emigrated from Mexico to work at Bethlehem Steel and two of Rudy's brothers were employed there.

On his last day at the plant, Garcia made his way to the parking lot and found a group of co-workers and all his bosses waiting to say good-bye. His bosses told him he had been a wonderful employee. Also in the parking lot was a horse-drawn carriage and driver his wife had engaged to transport him to a celebratory dinner.

When George Schaellbach applied for work at the plant in 1947, he was told, "It's a dirty job, but you can have it if you want it." It was the beginning of a 37-year career for him.

Women at the company did a variety of jobs. A photo of Marlene Burkey, a test-grinder in the Tool Steel Department, attests to the fact that female employees were not confined to offices. A photo of her Mobile Equipment Operator's Permit hangs in the exhibit.

Jeanne Brugger's experience at the plant was mixed. "In the beginning, it was a rocky road," she says in a video. At the time she started in 1964, "no girls had been in the plant since World War II," so there weren't any safety shoes available for her.

Worse, her boss didn't want a "girl" working there and wouldn't talk to her for a week. Fortunately, other employees treated her well. Reasoning that "it was good money," the recently-divorced mother of a young daughter decided she would make it work. She did, and remained at the company for 29 years.

For all the dirt, noise, and danger at the Steel plant, pride in their work there, gratitude for the good jobs it provided, and nostalgia over its demise are common sentiments expressed by the employees featured in the exhibit.

Jerry Green, President of United Steelworkers Local 2599, put it this way, "One of the things I miss about Bethlehem Steel ... is that whenever on Broad Street you would look out there and you would see the blast furnaces going. And you could smell the company you know ... I miss the dirt being on the cars because I knew that there were thousands of jobs that went with that."

The Goundie House is open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday and 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Sunday,

Information: Historic Bethlehem Visitor Center, historicbethlehem.org, 610-691-6055