The Art of Iron Working, Transcription with Note

The Art of Iron Working, Transcription with Note

Edited by James Patrick Leary. To hear Leary’s additional recorded interviews with these and other ironworkers visit the “Occupational Folklife Project” on the Library of Congress website.

Shots of Ironworkers over Bud Parker singing “Iron Worker’s Lament” by Fred D. Howe, Vanco 45 rpm, 231A:
(rivet gun firing)
The ironworker's life is full of thrills.
You work up high where the buttons mill.
You build the bridges and the towers tall.
The pay you get seems mighty small.

Hear the blast of the rivet gun.
It's all work now and no more fun.
The heater's mad, the boss is sore.
He says, “Rivet Man, go get some more.”

Sling that riggin’, and sling it fast.
Make that connection tight and fast.
If you'd been born a millionaire,
You wouldn't have to work in the cold, cold air.
The ironworker's life is full of thrills.

Blacky and Brownie and Whitey and Red,
Some of the boys are already dead.
They gave their life for the work they loved.
Their fate now rests with the man up above.

Rodbusters and Sodbusters
RYAN “GOOB” ROTH: We're JIW's [Journeyman Ironworkers] out of Madison but we are rodbusters. Rodbusters and sodbusters from southwest Wisconsin.

PETE STERN: What they're doing, they're building a beam, and it's, you know, the engineer on the print specified a certain number of bars and a certain spacing and a certain lap between them. And that's all they're doing—is filling out these stirrups with the required number of bars.

(Workers exchanging directions and cautions as they do their work, “Coming your way,” “Watch your toes”—and signaling the crane operator by his nickname, “Gilly!”)

A Mixed Local: Ironworkers 383
PETE STERN: We're what's called a mixed local. There's a lot of areas of iron work that get done. And depending on where you are in the country and depending on what type of work the contractor you're working for specializes in would then determine what kind of work you're doing. I mean, we do everything from the placing of reinforcing iron for concrete structures (reinforced concrete structures, which would be rebar, you know, tying iron), placing that iron, to setting a structural steel. You know, that's your classic picture that most people have of ironworkers—guys sitting high in the sky, you know, on beams and columns and actually building the skeleton of a steel building. We move machinery. We install machinery and do heavy rigging for power plants and turbines, build bridges, hospitals, schools.

The Fightin’est Group of the Trades
NORM BROWN: Ironworkers didn't get along with a lot of people because they were too independent. Basically comes from being off the ground and working in the air. And they just tell everybody else where to go and get out of our way, yeah. And they were the fightin'est group of the trades. That was their history from way back when the Empire State Building that was built way back.

MIKE SKIBBA: The guys like to drink a lot.

ERIC WOODARD: Hell, we'd been in the tavern at 6:00 A.M. if we could find an open one. It's warmer in there, and they got cold beer. That's just kind of the way we operate. I know a few guys that operated, and they quit. They're sober, it's fine. They're still good ironworkers, don't get me wrong. You don't have to be a drunken bastard to be up there with us or be even around us, but it's—to me, I think it helps.

Blue Ribbon Lunch
MIKE GRIMSLID: Bernie and I had worked down in Cedar Rapids when we were on strike one time. And so, he was the kind of guy when he'd get up in the morning, he'd grab his lunch pail (his wife always made his lunch) and out the door he'd go. Well, we're sitting there having coffee in the shack, and he opened up his lunch pail. Of course we all had, you know, the old aluminum pails. (They didn't—nobody carried, they didn't have coolers then, you know, like that.) And he bites into a sandwich and he says, "Son of a bitch." His wife had taken labels off the Pabst bottles and put them between bread because he had gotten home late, and that's what he had for his sandwiches.

A Good Wife and a Healthy Mortgage
SAM WILCOX: Plus, I still always say the best incentive was a good wife, and a healthy mortgage could make you go to work. “You're getting your ass out of bed, and going to work. We've got a house payment this week.” And that's why I did it. Guys would get mad. I'd actually just soon talk to the wife. And ‘cause they're, you know—say what you want, they know how to control a guy's work. Whatever way they do that.

They All Dress the Same
ANNE BROWN: I'll say one thing. Ironworkers, they have to be of a certain personality, I think. I have found out over the years they are guys that see things a certain way. And if you ever looked in their magazine—I don't know, there might even be one here.

NORM BROWN: There's several over here.

ANNE BROWN: And they show jobs from other parts of the country, and then they will show pictures of the guys, and that. It doesn't matter where you go, where they're from, they all dress the same.

I Don’t Want to Be a Carpenter
MIKE GRIMSLID: Everybody has their things that they claim that is their work, your jurisdiction. This is what we do. And the carpenters, we've always been at odds with them a little bit because of the fact that we were doing the things up in the air that were, I  think there was—the ironworker always felt, you know, he is a little bit special compared to other crafts on the job.

NORM BROWN: I don't want to be a carpenter, and I don't want to be a bricklayer. He says, "What do you want to be?" I said "I want to be an ironworker." "Oh, Jesus, why do you want to be an ironworker?" Because he didn't, him and ironworkers never got along. Ironworkers didn't get along with a lot of people because they were too independent.

ERIK WOODARD: I just started laughing, and Tim DeMinter, my B.A. [Business Agent] here, he's, "Got any problems back there, Wood?" "Nah, nah, it's all right, man. I'll tell you, I'll tell you later." So he hits me up after the meetings, "What seemed to be so funny in there?" I said, "You know what? I bad mouth carpenters too, but you're up there, 'Order, order' with a wooden fucking hammer, and a wooden fucking ballot box, and we're ironworkers. That ain't right." So somehow my cocky and my mouth got me delegated to—"Oh, you wanna build a ballot box then, huh?"

Back in Them Days
MIKE SKIBBA: I had one close encounter. We were working on a creamery about 90 feet high, up in Stratford. And we had a beam coming in, and they had a rope tied on one end of it. And I was kind of sitting on a corner of a building, which I wasn't tied off back in them days, like I say. And it was really windy that afternoon. I mean, it was probably gusting 25, 30 miles an hour. And when the beam came down, I'm sitting on the corner. The rope started going down. So I grabbed it, and a big gust of wind came and the rope kind of wrapped around me and I started going over, but I grabbed down with one hand and just threw it over my head. But that was about the closest I ever came.

MIKE GRIMSLID: And we were doing a job in Janesville, and I was going from one beam or bar joist to another. And I got hooked up with a tool that I always carried on my pants. And so I fell down to the first floor and straddled a beam when I hit. And then my face came ahead and, and smashed onto the iron. And I taught the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] classes for a long time. And that, I always joke with the guys, the reason I teach these classes is ‘cause I've had so many accidents that I know exactly what you should or shouldn't do.

NORM BROWN: When we were putting the metal roof on a building, I was the man on the ground, feeding them all the material and everything and moving the scaffold along. That's a safety protection, so if they slide off they'll have that scaffold to land on. He wanted me to move the wagon ahead. This way, if you slip, you'll still be protected. Two sheets later, here he comes off the roof. The sheet took off. When they picked the one sheet up, he stepped onto the bundle and that top sheet slid.


NORM BROWN: And here he was coming off the building on top of the sheet. The forklift was parked right there, just right, and he came off and he was sitting on the sheet and it slammed into the nosing of the forklift. And then with his body weight on it, it buckled the sheet. And when that—or off the tires—and landed on the ground with him on it, it whipped him backwards. Sliced his whole throat from back to front from the edge of the sheet when it whipped him back like that. And it just laid him wide open all the way around. And it took me, well, until the firetrucks got there to get him to stop bleeding. And they wanted to take it all apart—you know, my wrapping that I had around his neck—and I just held tight compression on it again. But I was covered in blood, the whole front of me and everything. And I told the fireman, I said "Don't unwrap that until you get to the hospital." And I said, "I just now got it to stop bleeding." "Well, we got to look and see what it is." Well, they opened it up again. Well, they couldn't get it stopped. And they took off to the hospital as fast as they could go then, but that's a long ride.


NORM BROWN: From the far east side of Madison back up to the other side of the square to the hospital.

Brothers and Sisters
DAWN STELLNER: Everybody's got kind of their own way of doing things, but you learn how to, you know, work with the other person, 'cause obviously you're with them, you know, more than you're with your, even your family at home. So they become your brothers, you know, and we're brothers and sisters in the Ironworkerhood or whatever you want to call it, but you just know how to work with people, and you kind of find that common ground where, you know, everybody gets along and, you know, you work with them for years and years and years. So, I mean they become your family during the day, and you go home to your family at night. So you're worried about safety and their wellbeing as well as if they're not going to show up for work one day because their kids are sick or whatever. And you know, you get real close with them.

SAM WILCOX: Not, you know, not everybody wants to be an ironworker. I mean, it's cold, wind blows. You know, you still work. The equipment's much better. I mean, it's cold, it's miserable, you're going to hurt. You're never on flat ground. But God, it's fun!

DAWN STELLNER: You're just proud of what you see when you drive around town. Like I've always said, if we can't have fun at work, why?

NORM BROWN: I was quite independent, and I liked being up there because you're in the air. You're your own boss. I liked it. I really did. And I like climbing, I still like climbing. I really loved my trade, I did!

(Credits over
DeWain Olby singing his “Ironworker Blues” on SOMA 45 rpm,
You'd sit way up there in the sky
And watch the birds go flying by
And then sometimes you'd wonder why
You get them ironworker blues,
You get them ironworker blues.

You wait for the boss to say come down.
You wait for a job that's on the ground.
You wait for payday to roll around,
And you got ironworker blues.
You've got them ironworker blues.

You hook a choker around a beam.
The choker slips, and the pusher screams.
That's sure enough to make you mean,
And you get ironworker blues,
You've get them ironworker blues.

You put your spud wrench in the hole,
And someone hollers "Hold the roll."
It seems they want your very soul,
But you've got ironworker blues.
You've get them ironworker blues.

You take your rod wrench from your hip.
The wire breaks, and you hit your lip.
It's near enough to make you quit,
And you get ironworker blues.
You've got them ironworker blues.

It's seems that you can't never gain.
It's either gotta snow or rain,
Or you get so cold you feel no pain,
And you got ironworker blues . . . .

Field Documentation & Research
Larissa Christensen
Cheryl Diermyer
Kaitlin Dunn
Charitie Hyman
Jim Leary
Jared Lowery
Ben Mueller

Video Editing & Production
David Macasaet
Cheryl Diermyer

Bud Parker
Iron Worker’s Lament
Vanco 231

DeWain Olby
Ironworker Blues
SOMA 1434

Special Thanks To
Ironworker Dave “Tinker” Nelson
1960’s film footage of
WKOW tower construction

Jason Jones, Project Manager
Steve Messling, OSHA Inspector
J. H. Findorff and Sons

Special Thanks To
Pete Stern and Mike Grimslid
Ironworkers Local 383
Madison, Wisconsin

Brian Thompson and Russell Panczenko
Chazen Museum of Art

Special Thanks To
Learning Support Services
DoIT Academic Technology
Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures

University of Wisconsin, Madison

Special Thanks To
Ironworkers of Local 383

Doug Bible              Norm Brown
Kyle Burns              Adam Chaffee
Dick Frosch             Joe Hoffman
Homer Ingram         Rich Merritt
Dave Nelson           Aaron Peer
Brad Reuter            Ryan Roth
Dawn Stellner         Mike Skibba
Sam Wilcox             Eric Woodard

Copyright 2010
Ironworkers Local 383
Folklore Program, University of Wisconsin

Dedicated to
Homer Ingram who
brought pensions to
Ironworkers Local 383