Over the last two weeks I have been working on oral histories, listening to the individual histories as told by workers who worked in the mill over time. Not of those that are important, or where leaders, but those that went to work each day with a lunch bucket, and worked their shifts in anonymity. The first thing you realize is that they all have a story to tell, collectively the fabric of the mill, and in fact the city of Pueblo. Most were either immigrants themselves or second generation United States citizens, with part of their culture still within memory. Pueblo is a city that was built by immigrants, wave after wave from different parts of mostly Europe, and those European roots still prevalent throughout Pueblo neighborhoods.
I met through an oral history Matt Puelen, a dutch immigrant who came to Pueblo after World War II, under a program that the United States offered to three hundred Dutch families who had helped rebuild Europe during the Marshall Plan. Matt took advantage of that and found himself in Pueblo in 1957, and was given a job at CF&I where he worked for 29 years. Where in 1986 the steel mill was winding down after the Steel collapse in America. Even though he was just an hourly worker he managed to find himself in the negotiations as the Mill was being sold to Oregon Steel and he got a seventy million dollar commitment for the steelworkers retirement plan. He would later become a Pueblo county Commissioner. I also met his wife, Margaret Hernandez Puelen, who worked at the mill from 1944 to 1952. She worked during the war years when women took on the jobs vacated by the men that were serving in the Pacific and the European front. She spent her days handling nine and sixteen inch brick. She noted that the toughest jobs were assigned to Hispanic and black women in the plant. Allthough the work was hard she liked the work and especially the group that she worked with. She would meet Matt years after she left CF&I, while going to ethnic or western dances in the local clubs.
It seems that most of the people that worked at the mill were very proud of being a part of CF&I, and also very proud of their association with the unions. Several talked about how it seemed that the company and the unions worked so well together, and even when there were strikes or layoffs there was very little friction between the two. The biggest strike was in 1959 and lasted one hundred and thirteen days, but was a national strike not a local strike. All were glad to see it end, and went back to work without lingering friction. While there were some accidents , some being fatal most commented on the safety efforts that were followed throughout the plant. Most accepted that many jobs were very dangerous, but felt that they were prepared for the danger.
Saturday the 21st of October I participated in a program called “Saints and Sinners”. This was an annual program that invited people to see how the different ethnicities settled in Pueblo, with churches and bars being the center point. There was tours of four churches that were certainly ethnic in there establishment, and the tours of six bars that were the haunts of different ethnic groups. Through these tours you discovered that neighborhoods were established and churches built in those neighborhoods that catered to each nationality. After getting off of work there were bars that also catered to each neighborhood. I spent my time hosting and learning about the Greek Orthodox traditions at St. John The Baptist Greek Orthodox church. Discovered a great deal about the Greeks that came to Pueblo.
The Steelworkers Museum does not get many visitors, all though it is one of the most important museums in Pueblo, forever tieing the links of our cities past, from the biggest employer to the immigrants that came to work in the mill, to the very unique neighborhoods that were settled by those immigrants creating the fabric of not only Pueblo but all of southern Colorado.