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A Conversation with Ron Baraff

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Ron Baraff is the somewhat diminutive director of museum collections and archives at Rivers of Steel. The Homestead-based organization seeks to preserve the region's industrial heritage and celebrate the legacy of the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike.

You're a historian of the steel industry, but I'm guessing your people didn't work much in the mills.

No, they didn't hire us for the simple reason that we didn't work the Sabbath. The typical steelworker shift was 12-hour days, six days a week -- and on the seventh day you didn't rest; you worked a 24-hour shift.

Actually, by "your people" I meant short people, not Jews.

Yeah, we did an interview with a gentleman who was one of the last supervisors over at Carrie [blast furnaces]. I shook hands with him, and his hand probably came up to my elbow. Seriously, he had to be about 6-foot-8, 400 pounds. He says, "They call me Big John." I was like, "No shit." He was talking about the type of guy who worked in the blast furnace, and he said, "I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but you wouldn't have lasted a minute." I'm not sure I would have wanted to last.

I grew up in Squirrel Hill and Mount Lebanon -- hotbeds of steelworker activity -- the son of a periodontist. My father did some free dental work in the Mon Valley, though, and I helped make the molds. If you see somebody with ill-fitting teeth here, I'm the reason. But [the steel industry] was just sort of in the background to me growing up. I never said, "I want to be an industrial-history geek."

So why did you become one?

Well, my family goes way back here. The first member of my family here was Isaac van Gelderen, who opened a pawnshop on Smithfield Street and was one of the founders of Rodef Shalom. [On the other side of the family] was Wolf Baraff. I love that name, but he was about this freakin' tall. He went from being a Talmudic scholar to running a grocery store in the Hill.

I got a degree in public history and worked at the Oregon Historical Society. But you can take the boy out of Pittsburgh, but not Pittsburgh out of the boy. I sent letters to a bunch of places, and [Rivers of Steel] called and said, "Would you like to come to Homestead?" It had been 15 years since I'd been over here. I remember the first time -- it was 1998 -- driving across the Homestead Bridge. Everything was just gone. I had no idea the bridge was so high; when the mill was here you could have touched the sheds from it.

What are some of the more unusual things in the archives?

We were lucky enough to get the letters of a [National] Guardsman stationed here during the 1892 strike. He was writing about how the townsfolk were treating him OK, but at one point they'd had to guard a schoolteacher whose dad was a scab. And how he can't understand how people could live like that. A lot of the Pinkertons and Guardsmen were just poor schmoes too. When it's 1892 and the country's in a recession and you want to eat, you might just take a job like that.

In fact, most of this collection is everyday stuff showing how people lived and worked. Where do you find it?

That's the coolest thing about it. It's not elitist stuff like "this was a lock of Lincoln's hair." Some of it -- like most of the hard hats we have here -- was just left behind. When US Steel closed its doors, they just walked out. It's pretty freaky: You go in these places and expect to see them all come back from lunch.

But a lot of those guys kept their own safety manuals, IDs, shape books -- anything that is a connection back. For a lot of them, the bitterness is subsiding; you start to look back and say, "What did I do? Did it matter?" In some ways it's sad and in some ways it's cool, but everything they have, they think it's the best. They bring it in like it's a piece of the Cross. They're like, "I don't know if you've ever seen one of these ..." The truth is I've seen hundreds of them. But I don't tell them that, and a lot of it we use.

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