April 3, 2006
I am here with Pete Wolfkill.
We're in Edgemere. It's Monday, April 3rd, 2006.
Tell me a little bit about where you grew up.
Well, I was born in Lewistown,
Pennsylvania, 1934. My family moved here to Millers
Island originally in 1940. I lived there briefly for a
couple months, and then we moved to Fort Howard. I
started school in the Fort Howard Elementary School in
1940 and for only for about six months, and then we
moved back to Millers Island, and then I went to
Edgemere Elementary School. We stayed there until the
seventh grade. Went to Sparrows Point High School. I
never completed the high school. And when we moved
from Millers Island in 1950 I lived right next door I
am living right now, and I started at Sparrows Point
Bethlehem Steel Corporation on August the 13th, 1952.
Retired in 1996.
How come your family moved down
Well, I think work up there
was bad. My dad worked in a little steel mill up in
Lewistown and work was bad and we had a large family
and he just couldn't make it, so he moved down here to
get the job at Sparrows Point.
So your dad worked at Sparrows
And he was one of the group that
came right before the start of the second world war?
Yes. He worked in the ship
yard. After the shipyard closed down -- not closed
down, but after the war, it sort of slowed up, then he
transferred to the steel side. But not only my father
worked there, but I had -- I'm one of 13 children, and
all my brothers and my three sisters, a couple
brother-in-laws, all together 17 people out of my
family worked at Sparrows Point at one time or another.
I think I still have two nephews that still work at
When you were a kid, what was it
like being in a Sparrows Point family?
Just like any other kid I
Well, I mean your father -- let's
talk more about the steel mill. '46, he went to the
steel mill. You would have been 12 years old?
Well, he went to the steel
mill when I was only six years old. He moved down from
Pennsylvania and got a job and worked for a time until
he could move the family down.
Well, many of the families talk
about the difficulties with the shift work.
Well, no, he didn't work very
much shift work. I didn't work much shift work either.
Mine was a primarily daylight job. If a blast furnace
come down for repairs, it required around the clock
job, and at times they put us on nighttime maybe for a
week, two weeks or something like that, but primarily
it was a daylight job.
Well, what did your dad do at
He was pipefitter.
He was a pipefitter also. So he
was in the trades.
Myself, I was a pipefitter.
My brother Bill was a pipefitter. My brother Joe was a
pipefitter. My brother Dick was a pipefitter, and I
have two other brothers at one time or another worked
in the pipe shop. My one brother Jim, he went to
college then and went into the engineering department,
and he ended up as a general foreman in the pipe mill.
My other brother, the one we call Tank, he
quit in 1950 as soon as the Korean War broke out, and
he went to the service and he stayed in there and
retired after 28 years of service.
So what did your father tell you
about Sparrows Point when you were a kid? Do you
No, really didn't tell me much
of anything. When I went to school at Sparrows Point,
myself, I used to sit in the school and I would look
across the window. You could see the big bridge cranes
in the pour fields, and they would move back and forth
this way and things going by and I was so amazed--how do
them things work, how would anything so big move, and
then I just I think my destiny was then there. I was
so amazed by the things that I did see from the
outside, I wanted to see what was inside, and well, it
How old were you when you started
work down there?
And Sparrows Point was famous for
always hiring relatives?
Oh, yes. Like I said, I think
17 -- about 17, 18 of our family worked down there.
Like I say two more may still be working there.
So how did you apply for the job?
Well, my father and the
general foreman who was in charge of the place were
good friends, and every time one of the boys come of
age, he would say Mr. John, I've got another boy that's
ready to go to work. Well, send him down, tell him to
go down to the employment office, tell them that
Mr. Seifert said for me to come down here and give them
a job. So I think that's how most of my brothers got
their jobs, too.
Well, what was it like your first
day at work?
Well, that's a funny one. I
went down and they took me over to the open hearth to
the fellow I was going to work with, so I followed
him around like a little dog I guess.
Anyhow, we went over to one of the open
hearths to do a steam leak, repair a steam leak, and me
not knowing anything, how hot these pipes were, I
grabbed a hold of it and oh, oh, oh, and good thing it
wasn't high pressure steam or I would have burnt my
hand. I learned one lesson, number one, don't touch
anything that's hot.
So you started right in the pipe
And working with your dad then?
Well, no, I didn't work with
my dad. I started there in '52, and I think because my
brother Dick was working with my father and he was
taking a test to become a pipefitter. You had to work
as a helper for so much, and then when he went out with
tools, then I went with my father and I worked with him
until -- let's see, that was '53, 1956. Then I went in
the Army for two years and come back out and went back
into the pipe fitting again, but I didn't work with my
dad no more after that.
What was it like working with
Great, real great. He was a
good teacher, he's a good man all together. All of us
boys worked with him. We all got along real good with
him. Not only a father, but a good friend.
Were you still living at home
Yes, living right next door.
And then when you got married,
you bought this house?
Well, this is my second
marriage, but I was living here when this house was
built or I was in the Army, but the house was being
built whenever we were living next door.
This would be in the '57, '58
Yes, right, that's when it
was, and then when I divorced in 1960, I remarried in
1964, bought this place in 1965, and this is where I
still am. It's a wonderful place to live, a good
neighborhood, good people.
Well, what was it like then going
from being a helper -- what did you have to learn to be
You have to learn almost
everything there is concerning pipe. We worked from
anything from the pipe the size of my finger, even
smaller, clear up to -- I put big concrete sewer pipes
in even down there at the Point, but every phase of
pipe fitting you can think about, gas, oil, oxygen,
anything, we had to do it all.
And for people who are not
familiar with the steel industry or the steel plant,
there's piping everywhere.
That's right. I worked in
every -- I think every building, every phase of the
steel company there was. Now, I know people that
worked at Bethlehem Steel never got outside of the one
mill that they worked in for 30 or 40 years, and I
started and I have been everywhere from the pour fields
to the finishing sides, I did it all. Worked in all
the blast furnaces, the coke oven furnaces, the pipe
mill furnaces, the boiler houses, everywhere, I worked
What was it like; income pretty
Oh, yes, we made a good
living. I can't complain about that.
You came back out of the service
in '58 and shortly after that the steel workers had a
What do you remember about the
I didn't work for three months
or four months, whatever it was, but we managed because
the union at the time with the families, they tried to
provide you with a certain amount of food. We did --
my dad got us -- one time or another we worked
somewhere -- I can't remember, some laundry or
something, we was doing some remodeling work and had
some pipe work to do, so we went up there with my
father and worked up there for a couple weeks, just
bring enough money in, but we kept going anyhow.
Managed like everybody else. It was tough, but we made
What were the issues in the
strike? Do you remember?
God, I really don't know. To
me I was only a kid and I didn't bother.
Who were the officers of the
union then? Do you remember that?
Not even that, no, I don't. I
was not really an active union member.
At any time? You were not active
at any time?
No, not really. I went to a
few meetings, but I never got -- I was always busy. I
even worked part time sometimes, tended bar part time
at nighttime and all that, things like that.
So what was it like as the mill
started to decline?
Well, it wasn't good. It was
good for me, but for a lot of people, no. I can say
one thing, I worked 44 years, never was laid off, never
lost a day's pay that wasn't my own fault, because even
in some of the time in the slowdowns, people was laid
off, certain places areas may shut down, people and
all, but at that time being in maintenance we were able
to go in the mills and do work that they couldn't
normally do when the mill was in operation. I don't
think I ever lost a day's work that wasn't my own
fault. Very fortunate.
Were you part of the Bethlehem
Steel community outside the plant? Did you see a lot
of the workers and your family?
Well, yeah, we were pretty
well -- even now we have -- every year we have for the
people that are still there and retired we have a
dinner, like a get-together at one of the clubs, it's
the Hawks Pleasure Club over in Essex, and we all go
there and have a nice night dinner, beer, a big bull
crapping session, telling stories or remember the guys
and the things, some of the funny things that the
guys -- some guys were funny in some ways and just some
of the things we did, the jobs we worked on and stuff
like that. It's really wonderful.
Why don't you tell us some of the
stories that you would tell there.
I don't know. Just when
somebody brings something up about a certain guy, oh,
you remember old big belly Benny, big guy, and he was a
funny character himself, and just -- I don't know, it's
hard to think about all of the people because there's
been so many of them, the old timers, and they were
good -- one thing I liked about everybody chipped in
and helped another guy. If I was working over here and
I had to lift something heavy, maybe the two of us, my
helper and I couldn't do it or whatever, we would go
get another guy or say hey, how about giving me --
yeah, come over and help us, and it really was like
family. I miss a lot of the guys, I really do.
One fellow I worked with when I become a
fitter, guy named Bill Vancure, he worked with me for
23 years until I wanted to slow down a little bit, and
then I went into the plumbing shop and then he went on
and stayed as a pipefitter. I think he is still
working I believe.
What was the plumbing shop like?
Good. I had a truck where I
would ride over the place, repairing the toilets and
the sinks and repairing the steam traps and stuff like
that, mostly in the locker rooms, in the bathrooms and
the offices, and all that kind of stuff.
I even worked one time in the main office for
13 weeks at night to put a new copper hot water pipes
all through the whole main office. We even went out to
the disposal plant where the company has a pumping
station out there, we done work out there.
Some of the guys at one time or another used
to go to Dundalk to the YMCA building because Bethlehem
Steel was really good about the neighborhood, they
maintained the facilities at the YMCA in Dundalk, and
they also took care of the golf course up here. I even
worked out in the golf course one year.
At the country club.
We was driving four-foot pipe
pilings across the little creek so they could put a
foot bridge across the creek. I loved it, I really do.
This is while you were being paid
by the mill?
Yeah, they paid for everything
Were you there when the town of
Sparrows Point was still in existence before?
Yeah, I retired in '96.
Well, did you ever do any work in
town or were you in the pipe shop --
Well, only if a water main
busted. We maintained all the underground facilities
like the steam lines, they have steam lines providing
heat for some of the buildings in the town and the main
water line. I never went into the houses to do any
kind -- they had a separate department that did that.
That was the real estate department that took care of
the inside the homes and stuff like that.
What was it like having a town
right there in the mill?
Well, I don't know. I didn't
live in Sparrows Point, but I know a lot of the kids I
went to school was born and raised and then over in the
bungalows, so I don't know actually what it would be
like to living in there, I don't have no idea about
And then it was torn down and the
new furnace was built?
Yeah. Well, I was working
there when they built the furnace and all.
Must have been a lot of work for
Well, the furnace itself was
done by outside contractors, but they had some lines
like there was one particular line run right past
through there, the oxygen line that I put in myself.
You see the big lines when you come across from
Dundalk, that yellow and green lines that go in there,
myself and my brother and some of the other guys, we
put them in from the oxygen plant clear to number four
open hearth, we did them jobs.
How long did it take you?
Probably six months or more
because that's a good ways. We had to put the columns
up, set those and try to hang all the pipe and
everything. Took us about six months I think, a good
Did your kids ever work over
My children, no, but like I
say a lot of my family did.
How come your kids never did?
Well, I don't know. They just
never -- well, let's see 40 years ago, my boy is 20 --
20 years ago, he wasn't interested in going there
anyhow, so I only have two, I have two children. My
boy lives directly behind me now as a matter of fact.
He wanted to move, but he didn't move far enough away
So you were there when women
started working in the mill?
Yeah. I had like I say two
sisters and a sister-in-law that worked as tin floppers
in the tin mill, but women worked at the mill way back
in the '40s flipping tin, but then --
In the '70s.
Then we had women come in
starting to get into mechanical. As a matter of fact,
we had two girls that was in the pipefitters.
Who were they; do you remember
No, I don't remember, but I
think they came out of over in the hot mill somewhere,
over in that area, come in, and then later on I think
they transferred back to the hot mill.
You don't remember what year this
And how were they to work with?
Was it a change for the guys?
Real good. I had a little
black lady which was -- she lives right down here on
Sparrows Point Road. God, she was a good worker, good
welder, wonderful person to work with.
What's her name?
Toni -- gosh, can't remember
the last name. Toni, she lives right on Sparrows Point
Road, and a wonderful person to work with.
Do you still see her from time to
I haven't seen her now for a
couple of years. I used to do a lot of walking, and
the last time I seen her I was walking past her house,
and she was over there, she hollered at me and I come
over and we talked a little bit.
MRS. WOLFKILL: Boyd.
Yes, Toni Boyd, my wife just
reminded me of that.
That's why wives are good.
Yeah. Do you want to come
out, honey. You can come out here and sit with me.
Well, you are talking about Toni
Boyd coming to work there. The last couple of years
there's been quite a controversy about moving the black
Well, I ain't found nothing
wrong with them. I worked with a lot of them. As a
matter of fact, I run into one, I was up at the flea
market Saturday, and a fellow named Bob Thomas, a
welder, another wonderful guy to work with. I just as
soon have him working with me as anybody, I don't care
who it was, because he was a good worker and just a
good man. I have worked with a lot of black people. I
have no comparing with them. They were good working
people, good hard working people, and they was there to
make a living, and we worked together, we got along
fine. Never had no problem with them.
Because for some people they are
resentful, but you seem to have a better attitude
In the town where I come from,
of course I don't remember it, but my dad -- and they
only had a couple of black families in that town. They
went to school I think with our brothers and sisters
way back in the '30s and no problem, and my dad always
got along good with them and I had respect for them.
As a matter of fact, a lot of times they had
the riggers were mostly all black people, and if I
would be working around and doing something and they
seen me doing something wrong, "Hey, Wolfy, don't do
that. We'll take care of that. We'll move this, move
that." They tell you you are going to hurt yourself,
don't do that. They helped me, they looked out for me,
they really did. I have no complaints.
Which union local were you in?
And how come you never got more
active in the union?
Oh, I don't know. Who knows.
I just never got interested in it.
Do you remember any of who your
zone men were?
Yeah. Guy named Budrechi, I
don't remember his first name. Budrechi was one of
them, and I think we had Earl Lewis was -- I think he
was a shop steward in our department. Then we have
Bill Burdell was a shop steward, but then I don't know
too many of them, because I never had no dealings. I
only filed one grievance in 44 years I was down there.
I only ever filed one grievance and Burdell handled
What was the grievance over?
I wanted to go into the
plumbing shop, and the general foreman we had at the
time, they denied it, so I filed a grievance and there
was some kind of an agreement that the senior people
had the rights to bid into the plumbing shop or
wherever they wanted to go, certain rights.
Because it was considered lighter
Well, it was lighter work,
yeah, and I did my time in the big and heavy work and
stuff like that, so I figured it was time to do my
time, I think it was the last five years. I think I
was due my time to go in the plumbing shop. So I filed
a grievance and eventually after about a year they
finally let me go in the plumbing shop.
Well, when you were there, did
you start to see the decline of Bethlehem Steel?
The decline of Bethlehem Steel
really started back in the '70s.
Tell me about it.
Well, I don't know a whole lot
about it, but I know they started signing these
agreements I think when -- was when Reagan was the
President I think the biggest part of it started, and I
think the imports, they started letting the imports
come in, more and more all the time, and I think that
was the beginning of the fire of the steel company and
the whole industry in the whole United States, and it
just kept going and going and going until -- and too
much money being invested in the foreign countries
because all these -- I'm saying the people that had
money wasn't getting enough from here, so they start
invested in the foreign countries. Greed, I think it's
greed. Greed and politics, that's what ruined the
whole dog gone industry I believe, and it's ruining
this whole country right now myself, that's my opinion,
greed and politics.
What can we do?
I don't know, I don't know
what the answer is. I really don't know.
Well, how did your situation
change after December of 2003?
When Bethlehem Steel went
My situation, well, it didn't
affect me too much. I mean fortunately I'm still
getting my pension, I am still getting my Social
Security, but we did lose the medical benefits, which
was a big hit because I think I was only paying like
$64 a month or something like that for the benefits and
the prescription drugs were cheaper. Now I'm paying --
God, I think every three months I send in almost $900
every three months for me and my wife just for my
But one good thing this new company, ISGB,
give us this prescription program which is a big help.
It costs me ten dollars per month for me and my wife
and then our maintenance drugs, which we take every day
we get a three month's supply for ten dollars. Some of
it might be a little bit more, but most of it is ten
dollars, but it was a big help, really big help.
But otherwise, pensionwise and Social
Securitywise, I'm still able to maintain my -- but I
can see it's going -- who was that guy? Greenspan I
believe it was, made a recommendation to the President
to reduce Social Security pensions to make Social
Security more solid in the years to come. Well, and
PBG says Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation [PBGC] says we
have so many of these big corporations like the
airlines are going down, it's a possibility that
General Motors might go down, all these companies are
all underfunded with their pensions, benefits, and
eventually with nothing else coming in, we're going to
have to cut -- the PBGC pensions are going to be cut.
So ten years from now I might be in the same position
as some of -- like my neighbor over there, retired 20
years ago and they are on a very low income, they are
having a tough time with benefits, medical and
Even 10, 15 years from now I might be like
they are, worrying about how am I going to pay my
bills. Right now I'm doing fine, but ten or fifteen
years from now, if I live that long, I don't know what
I'm going to do.
If you had to do it over again,
would you go to work at Bethlehem Steel?
Yes, I would. I would go down
there tomorrow if they called me. I really would. I
liked that place. I really loved the work I was doing,
I did, and I would go tomorrow. I was called back one
time. I went down for the interview and the funny
thing is the day that I was supposed to go back and
start working for them, it's the day that was sold to
the first guy that bought it. I can't remember his
Wilbur Ross, yeah. I think
that's the one that bought it. I think he was the
first one, and the day I was supposed to go back to
work is the day they come in to see if they wanted to
buy the place, and I lost out, because I would have
loved to went back.
What were you going to do; work
in the pipe shop again?
I was going to be -- John
Novack, which was one of my foremen when I left,
assistant general foreman, he's the one that called me
and asked if I want to come back. He said you will be
coming in as an individual contractor. I don't know
how my pay was supposed to work out, but essentially do
the same thing I was doing in the plumbing shop that I
was doing when I retired, but I would be like an
independent contractor, and I was looking forward to
that and really disappointed when it didn't work.
Looking forward to seeing all the
Oh, yeah. I still look
forward to seeing them. Like I say, I look forward to
that little reunion we have every year. Every month,
once a month now at the union hall, we have the third
Tuesday of every month, we go up there and I look
forward to -- we have about probably 10 or 15 guys that
show up every month. I really look forward to it.
Ten or fifteen ironworkers?
Well, I'm talking about the
pipefitters. There's at least 10 or 15 ironworkers,
too, and I know a lot of them. I know the ironworkers,
the pipefitters, carpenters, electricians, because they
were jobs that we all worked together on, and the blast
furnace was down, repair and things we all worked
together. People from the lube shop. Eventually we
combined with the lube shop people, and the tin mill
pipefitters we more or less worked all as one
department later on.
You probably spent more time with
them now than you did when you were active.
Yes. I know I look forward to
it. I don't miss it unless there's some reason that I
can't go. I look forward to it every year, every
Well, where is all your family?
Are they still around? Any of them still working down
Well, I think two nephews are
still working down there. I have lost three brothers
passed away, and I have a brother that lives in Texas,
a brother that lives out in Jarrettsville, and a
brother that lives in Rosedale, and there's only four
of us living. Out of eight boys, there's only four
That's a huge Bethlehem Steel
Oh, yeah. We all made a good
living. I don't think anybody can complain about the
money that they made and stuff like that. It was good,
it was a good place to work.
You don't remember any of the
particular good stories that if you were going to tell
your kids a story --
I don't think I could tell
What maybe I will do is I will
come up to the retirees' meeting and get you guys --
well, I have been up there one time, that's when I
first met you and Joe, and I went up to Joe's house,
and he actually was nice enough -- he saved a big
wooden sign that said, "Drink your soda from steel
Is that right? I remember
that. They had that campaign going on down there. I
was going to show -- I've got some things I will show
you from Sparrows Point that I've got if you want to
stop the thing a minute.
Sure. What is that plaque?
When I was on my 40th year,
Raybuck was then the general manager, and he would put
on a dinner for all the retirees that retired with 40
years service. I think they done this for about -- I
think they only done it for four or five years when he
was the general manager. If you want to hold on to
And they also give me this
little clock, and it says right on the top of it,
"Bethlehem Steel, in recognition of loyal service to
the Sparrows Point plant."
That's a beautiful clock. Does
it still run?
Yeah, but I don't run it.
I've got so many clocks in the house now.
Like I say I've got these books, I saved them
over the years, a lot of them. This is the 1990 annual
report from Bethlehem Steel. Here's one that's called
"The Bethlehem Review," and in this one here is the
pictures from the retirement party. Is this the one --
let me check.
And this was the magazine that
the company put out?
Yeah, they put these -- we
used to get these two or three times a year. This is
the one from the year that I retired and all the
pictures are in there from the different departments.
Here's a picture with myself, three of the guys I
worked with all retired the same year, in the bottom
sitting down there.
Melvin Cowan, Melvin Thomas.
Yeah, the four of us right
there, myself and then Wimpy Croft. We were all
working in the same department, we all retired the same
year, but that was taken the 40 year service though.
We all retired the same year, but we all had our 40
years in at the same time. I have these books that go
back. I even have one or two of them from back in the
'40s, back in 1948 I have got one.
Those are amazing.
Might be in the other bag. I
have over a hundred of these books, all the projects
from the time I worked there, because I went there in
'52. A lot of the mills when they built a new mill or
put a different thing in, just pictures and the stories
are in these books over the years. A lot of them I
worked on myself.
All right. Well, any other
Just off mind I can't bring
them up. It would take time probably to think about,
but yeah, there are probably a lot of memories but to
just to grab them right offhand and talk about them,
it's tough to say.
Is there somebody that you can
remember you worked with that you would really like to
see that you don't see any more, someone you were
particularly close to down there you had good times
Well, almost all the guys. I
mean we were close, everybody, that was down there, and
well, one particular guy I talked to him on the phone
awhile back, Willy Vancure, we worked 23 years
together, and he was still working, but he had a heart
problem, was in the hospital and had bypass surgery and
everything. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago on
the telephone, but I haven't seen him. But my wife
just said to me yesterday you better call Willy and see
how Willy is doing, so I'm going to have to give him a
So did you see all these guys off
the job, did you socialize a little bit?
Well, I seen Bob Thomas, I
seen him at the flea market.
I mean while you were at work,
did your families get together, or did you pretty much
just work together and then separate after you left?
No, just about separated.
They didn't have no kind of yearly reunions or picnics
or parties or stuff like that at that time, but now at
the union hall -- but some of the guys they are not
interested at all, they won't even come to the union
hall. Every time I see one that I don't see, why don't
you come down to the union hall. I might do that. But
they never come down, but I wish they would because
it's good. If once they got there and seen how the
guys will get together and the camaraderie that's
there, they might come back.
And do you ever do any of the
trips from the hall, the Washington or any of these?
No, I did most of that on my
own, my wife and I. We've been on four -- Eastern
Caribbean, Western Caribbean, Bermuda, Mississippi
River boat cruise, Alaskan cruise, bus trips to the
Canadian Rockies to Nova Scotia, we've been all around.
I was thinking more do you ever
do any of the lobbying trips that the retirees do?
No, no, no. I know I should,
but my thing is I go up there and there will probably
be so many people trying to get on them buses, I don't
I guess the other thing is you
are living now probably three miles away from the
plant, where a lot of the younger people move far away?
Right. One of my foreman,
John Novack, he is still working down there. He lives
up around Hanover somewhere, so he is driving every day
back and forth from Hanover to here.
Kind of the next generation has
moved out of the area, moved to Bel Air, Cecil County?
A lot of people -- even 20
years ago they lived -- well, they moved because back
then the money was good, the roads were good, the
traffic was -- you didn't have -- it wasn't as it used
to be, because I remember when North Point Road was
bumper to bumper for three or four miles.
Just getting into the plant?
Yeah, and 95 now, you go up 95
unless there's an accident you can be in Bel Air in a
half hour. In fact, 40, 50 years ago it would take you
three hours to get down there.
When you worked as a pipefitter,
did you have time clocks?
Yeah, we had to punch a card
Punch a card in and out?
Every day you punch a card,
give it to your foreman, punch it out. Now they have a
card where you just slide it through and it's
automatically taken care of.
All right. Well, I want to thank
you then very much for your time and we'll close this
interview out with Pete Wolfkill.