Making the Art of Ironworking

By James P. Leary

This film emerged in fall 2010 as Jim Leary, a folklorist based at the University of Wisconsin, and students in his Field Methods and the Public Presentation of Folklore course began to conduct interviews with and photograph active and retired members of Ironworkers Local 383 based in Madison, Wisconsin, and consisting of members throughout southwestern and central Wisconsin. Established in 1923 as a “mixed local,” wherein ironworkers practice all aspects of the trade, Local 383 was also dubbed a “farmer’s local” since many members in its formative period were raised on Wisconsin farms--and the self-description “rodbusters and sodbusters” persists. Comprised chiefly of workers descended from European immigrants (Dutch, English, German, Irish, Norwegian, and Polish), Local 383 has included Ho-Chunks since its inception and currently involves African Americans, Hispanics, and women, including several husband/wife sets of ironworkers.

Initially Leary and his students (Larissa Christensen, Cheryl Diermyer, Kaitlin Dunn, Charitie Hyman, Jared Lowry, and Ben Mueller) intended simply to conduct audio interviews and create still photographs for possible use in a small exhibit augmented by an audio production. The leadership of Local 383, however, was particularly interested in a film that might feature key elements of their occupational culture and serve as both a keepsake for veteran ironworkers and means of introducing apprentices to the trade. Consequently we began to combine still images, audio clips, some course-related video footage shot by Cheryl Diermyer, and copies of older photos in the possession of interviewed ironworkers to create a narrative featuring images and reminiscences of 15 members of local 383: Doug Bible, Norm Brown, Kyle Burns, Adam Chaffee, Dick Frosch, Mike Grimslid, Joe Hoffman, Homer Ingram, Rich Merritt, Dave “Tinker” Nelson, Aaron Peer, Brad Reuter, Mike Skibba, Dawn Stellner, Pete Stern, Sam Wilcox, and Eric “Woody” Woodard. In addition we used an excerpt from an 8 mm home movie made in the 1960s by Dave Nelson while at work constructing a tower for Madison’s WKOW television, as well as a pair of 45 rpm recordings of ironworker songs–one of which was composed and performed by a veteran Wisconsin ironworker, DeWain Olby.

The photographs and interviews contributing to and extending beyond The Art of Ironworking are owned jointly by Ironworkers Local 383 and the Folklore Program at the University of Wisconsin, and are housed in the Folklore Program’s archives. Building upon the success of this low-tech, no-budget film, Leary and labor historian Bucky Halker, with support from the American Folklife Center’s Archie Green Fellowship, are conducting additional digital photography and interviews in 2011-2012 with still more members of Local 383, as well as with members of two Chicago-based local, Local 1, which specializes in structural steel construction, and Local 63, which is an ornamental local known as well for its American Indian apprenticeship program. The digital documentation conducted in 2011-2012 will become part of the collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.