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Category Archives: technology & culture
documents of the day
“It is imperative that we distinguish between education and technical or industrial training.”
“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks”
Published in High School Teachers Association of New York, Volume 3, 1908-1909, pp.19-31 and Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 18:593-606
quoted from Woodrow Wilson’s address to the New York Teachers Association in 1909;
at the time, Wilson was president of Princeton University. as it was a century ago, America’s elite colleges like Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Princeton, continue their role atop the educational pyramid, training the teachers, credentialing its leadership, establishing the curricula and defining the purpose and intent of schooling in America.
as was the case then and remains today, standards and methods devised among them are delivered locally through public schools. the current institution of compulsory education was still propagating across the nation in the early decades of the 20th century. discussions among those steering its course were more candid as the documentation of the day presented here, suggests.
the superintendent of Middletown Public Schools offers an honest assessment of the industrialization of schooling in urban Ohio and the rest of nation in 1915.
“Now in my thinking, I regard all men as workingmen, except a few who have inherited great wealth, the care of which is entrusted to executors or guardians.”
“So where the question is raised, what the schools are doing and can do for the workingman, it is simply another statement of the question, what all must know and be, to properly live the American life, whether in Industrial, Commercial or Professional pursuits.”
N. D. O. Wilson, Superintendent, Middletown Public Schools
The featured article published in the Armco Bulletin, September 1915 Vol. II No. 8
a century ago
as Middle America left the farm for the factory,
plans were prepared and set in motion to pacify the independent American spirit through schooling.
the success of American industrial development depended upon it.
the great tradition and promise of American free agency, where working for a wage was considered servitude, had to be subdued. the new industrial organization demanded obedience to authority over the economic autonomy rural America was so well accustomed. public schooling would be the mechanism to dislodge the independent mind of the farmer and mold the modern American workingman into his new role as submissive and compliant employee.
the plans put in place a century ago perpetuate today. America’s educational institution continues to silently inculcate today’s children for purposes that have little to do with learning – but all that’s necessary to condition for control and conformance.
the process of establishing publicly funded schooling for the private use of the state by corporate interests occurred at both the national and local level in the early decades of the 20th century.
Superintendent N. D. O. Wilson’s article written for the local steel company’s newsletter, the Armco Bulletin presents a candid description for the purpose and intent of schooling delivered at the local level. He describes a school system built for the workingman and his family. He describes a system designed to set the path for a responsible citizen’s contribution to his community. He believes in his cause and is resolute in its purpose: to create a population content with their economic position and earnest at striving for the favor of those in authority – the model employee.
the American public school system is often described as ineffective and dysfunctional and yet no matter what reform efforts are proposed and implemented, the essential structure remains untouched – a structure implemented a century ago.
for what purpose did this structure arise?
who devised its doctrine and how was it delivered?
does it continue today?
“To gain knowledge or understanding of, or skill in, by study, instruction, or investigation.”
learning American life
learning the American life a hundred years ago in the Middletown Public School system was extended not just to school age students but adults, often new immigrants valued for their labor.
local steel manufacturing in Middletown, Ohio was growing rapidly and the American Rolling Mill Company was desperate to train new workers. nineteen fifteen was a very prosperous year for American steel manufacturing; the US remained a neutral supplier for Europe’s war and fed both sides.
public schools became training centers filling the need for a desperate shortage of labor.
N. D. O. Wilson, Superintendent of Middletown Public Schools lays out the options for what a free, public education in America provided in 1915 to the workingman.
Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University in 1909, describes the liberal education for those who will lead and inspire the human production of America’s public schools.
Professor Alexander Inglis, of Harvard University, presented several lectures on the topic of school design for industrial purposes. his Principles of Secondary Education written in 1918 is a dense, academic treatment of purpose and intent of public schooling as it came to be implemented across the nation.
John Taylor Gatto, Teacher, NYC Public Schools from 1961-1991, is one of America’s most dedicated researchers on the history of pubic schooling in the US. his analysis of Inglis’ work is distilled into The Six Functions of Schooling. he summarizes his analysis in this section of an article published by Harper’s Magazine in September 2003 entitled “Against School, how public education cripples our kids, and why.”
six functions of schooling
Inglis, for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever reintegrate into a dangerous whole.
Inglis breaks down the purpose – the actual purpose – of modem schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed earlier:
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.
4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits – and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit – with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments – clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.
John Taylor Gatto, “Against School” Harper’s Magazine, September 2003
implanting the myths of the state
it took years for this system to make its way into every American public school district.
after a hundred years, it might be a good time to reflect on the origins of a system where half of all teachers leave after 5 years;
where state funding comes tethered to ineffective standardized testing;
where the status of academic achievement lags an aptitude for sports;
and, where student debt is trapping a generation of talent into servitude, to name just a few of its deficits.
what the superintendent of public schools said a hundred years ago sounds innocent enough. the fact it’s offered in a periodical published by the local steel company establishes a mutually beneficial relationship. this is a relationship that’s worth exploring.
it’s offered here with actual text written by national, academic and local leadership of the period with the intent that an honest understanding of the origins of modern compulsory schooling can be brought to light.
Subsequent posts will explore how this system was implemented and how these six functions continue to be the real purpose and intent of American public schooling: to implant the mythology of the state.
When the son of the Armco founder graduated from Cornell University in 1911, the steel company had a well established management team that was growing the company into the newly expanded East Side Works. Young Calvin Verity had stiff competition for a leadership role in the company as his father assembled a formidable management team. He was up against the likes of his brother-in-law Charlie Hook and the then emerging John Tytus, among many others.
Fortunately for the young Calvin, the world was preparing a place for him in the business of finance. One hundred years ago the federal government enacted two pieces of legislation that would set the stage for the rise of a massive financial industry in the United States and the rest of the world. An industry that would absorb then surpass the manufacturing might that created the country’s wealth.
The first piece of legislation was the 16th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in February 1913, that established the Federal Income Tax. Prior to this amendment, government could not tax income. The 16th amendment was intended not to tax wages but “unearned income” such as the capital gains acquired through investment. The country’s leaders felt that acquiring enormous sums of wealth by consolidating industry then using the resulting monopoly to the advantage of singular ownership demanded taxation.
The second piece of legislation was the Federal Reserve Act which established a private bank as the sole source of US currency, this occurred a century ago this month, in December 1913. The degree to which the government capitulated to private banking interests 100 years ago is little known among the American people even today. The term “Federal Reserve” leaves the impression that it is an institution that operates at the behest of the US national government but this is not the case. The Federal Reserve acts in the interests of its private owners, the central banks. This act now required the government to begin making interest payments on money it had to borrow instead of issue.
Calvin Verity’s career in finance provides an appropriate metaphor for how the wealth from manufacturing was preserved to maintain its value at the expense of the very innovative spirit that created it.
Dr. Smith’s Tome
Fifty years ago, a professor of history at Miami University in Oxford Ohio, William E. Smith, Ph. D., completed a three volume set called “History of Southwestern Ohio.” The first two volumes of over 1,000 pages is a chronicle of the human activity that occurred in “The Miami Country” – the 14 counties of Southwestern Ohio. The last volume is 500 pages of biographical sketches about the regions most prominent members.
The first five biographies of the book are the men who founded then led the American Rolling Mill Company in the first half of the twentieth century: George M. Verity, Charles R. Hook, Ralph Gray, William W. Sebald and Logan Johnston. Only by the bottom of page 6 does the president of Proctor & Gamble show up. Richard Deupree and chairman of the board Neil McElroy are mentioned with 4 more credited with the success of the soap maker from Cincinnati. Armco’s founders got top billing.
Calvin Verity makes his appearance on page 423 of the total 428 pages. At the time of publishing, the junior Verity is chairman of the board of the First National Bank of Middletown. Born in Newport KY in 1889, he attended local public schooling before graduating from Cornell with a mechanical engineering degree.
The record indicates that he paid his dues as a workingman in the mill before being elected to the executive team as treasurer in 1921 then on to vice president and director of the finance committee in 1930 then chairman of finance in 1937. This is about the same time that renown innovator Tad Sendzimir established a formal relationship with the company.
Calvin Verity was president of the First National Bank of Middletown from 1943 to 1958 during which time he also served as Gen. MacArthur’s industrial adviser during Japanese reconstruction in 1949-50. He sat on several boards including regional companies Aeronca, Cincinnati Gas & Electric, Wrenn Paper and as chairman of the board for Business International of New York, California and Switzerland.
the FIRE that destroyed Manufacturing
By the middle of the 20th century, Calvin Verity enjoyed a vibrant manufacturing environment in Middletown. As described, he sat on the boards of several diverse manufacturing companies and, along with Charlie Hook, was sought to assist US interests abroad.
The small city was home to over 50 international headquarters of various industries. But by the end of the 1990s, there were only a few left. Armco Incorporated had been acquired by its offspring AK Steel Holding Company and by the end of the next decade, moved its headquarters to West Chester, Ohio from Middletown. The only vestige of the company along Curtis Street today is the Research building – the rest was demolished.
The decline of manufacturing in Middletown reflected economic trends throughout Ohio and the rest of the US. In 1950, roughly 50% of US corporate profits were generated by manufacturing, finance (as a hybrid of Fiance, Insurance & Real Estate) was at about 10%. By 2001, the share of corporate profits were reversed, FIRE exceeded 40% and manufacturing at about 10%.
Greta R. Krippner, “The financialization of the American economy“, Socio-Economic Review (2005), 173–208
It’s interesting to note that Ms. Krippner’s paper was written and published prior to the financial crash of 2008.
But what were the forces behind the displacement of manufacturing for finance? Did succeeding generations of industrial ownership work to preserve wealth or invest in the innovation that would maintain the strength of manufacturing?
Middle America is home to about one quarter of a million Amish. According to the US census, the population has increased about 10 percent from 2000 to 2010.
The Amish are one of the very few tribes in the US, religious or otherwise, that evaluate technology for its effects on their community. For the rest of us, it’s taken for granted that if a new tool saves money or time, increases profits or productivity or improves our tribal status then it’s often accepted without a second thought.
The Amish carefully evaluate new tools and ideas from the outside world for any potential to disrupt or change their Order.
Tools that replace the labor of another are rejected. A century ago, there was no hesitation among the Amish to dismiss farm mechanization.
Amish Order is maintained with a deep consideration for the value that others contribute to their community. For the Amish, Work is Life.
crowning the King
The year 1938 was selected for the 15th anniversary of the continuous mill. It was celebrated in Ashland Kentucky with about 40,000 people from Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. John Tytus was crowned the king of rolling steel in horse racing style.
The leadership of America’s steel industry were present. Happy Chandler, then the governor of Kentucky and later the commissioner of major league baseball led the celebration, applauding Tytus as the “unsung hero of the streamlined age.” Crout & Voris, pg. 145
The continuous mill was one of many innovations for the American Rolling Mill Company including Armco Ingot Iron, the 99.87% pure iron that resisted rust, Hel-Cor galvanized pipe for road culverts and the development and production of electrical steel. The company played a significant role in the establishment of the steel prefabricated housing in the years before World War II.
The American Rolling Mill Company employed not just steel makers but a public relations department that produced documentation praising the their accomplishments:
The continuous mill got its own treatment here:
Tytus was not just the focus of the accomplishment, as Vice President of Rolling he was also the gatekeeper of new ideas for rolling steel at Armco. The second greatest test of Tytus’ career as a sheet steel innovator came just after the Ashland celebration in 1938.
Arrangements were underway to bring a Polish inventor named Tadeusz Sendzimir to Middletown. Sendzimir was a galvanizing expert; the Sendzimir Process coated flat rolled steel with a layer of zinc with quality unmatched by the technology of the day.
But by the time Armco approached him in the mid-1930s, the inventor had moved on to other ideas and was neck deep in a different steel processing enterprise in Europe: he was designing, selling and supporting early versions of a new kind of rolling mill. This new, a single stand configuration with a similar configuration as the manual mill but capable of rolling steel sheet very thin with an extremely flat cross-sectional profile. It was a capable mill – when it worked – but Tad Sendzimir was a one man operation and played all three roles as artist, artisan and artificer.
“Artist, artisan and artificer are here compared as they mean one associated with art. The work of an artist is creative; that of an artisan, mechanical. The artificer is between the two, having less scope for the embodiment of his own ideas than the artist, but more than the artisan, who usually has none.”
Standard College Dictionary, Funk and Wagnalls, 1966
It was a slow start; his early mills were promising but not perfect. Eventually Sendzimir would be known as he is today, the artist as engineer who built the Sendzimir Mill (or Z-mill as it’s often called), not for the superb galvanizing process he invented as a young man that initially brought him to Middletown Ohio.
Today John Tytus and his continuous mill remain relatively unknown among many of Middletown’s current inhabitants. The memory and accomplishments of Tad Sendzimir are even more remote. The only remnants are street names. Tytus Avenue in Middletown acknowledges the paper company not the man credited with Armco’s continuous mill.
Tad Sendzimir also did well in the short time he lived in Middletown and developed a small piece of property in Madison Township across the Miami River from downtown.
At the crest of Hill Street, Sendzimir platted three narrow lanes and built a small Steelox house along Emerson Road, named for Earl Emerson. Mr. Emerson was the vice president of Armco International and helped smooth the way for the Polish engineer’s immigration to Middletown. Further up the hill are two streets dedicated to the towns in England that took a risk on his rolling mill during the troublesome early days: Sheffield and Shotton Roads.
Sendzimir called his development Cascade Lakes. He intended to add another pond to validate the plural name of his hideaway but after the war, circumstances led him away from Middletown. The story of John Tytus and innovation at Armco continues with Tad Sendzimir and his effort to get his mill built. Sendzimir’s experiences in Middletown reveal a mid-20th century trial of a lone inventor pursuing his vision in a modern American corporation.
Not Invented Here
Frans Johansson elaborates on how established expertise can be a barrier to innovation,
“…expertise, for all its strengths can make it more difficult to break out of established patterns of thought.”
In other words, success can be a trap.
Tytus was firmly in charge of rolling at Armco as Sendzimir arrived. According to a book written by Tad’s daughter Vanda, Tytus met his rolling mill idea with skepticism and indifference. It was on Tytus’ authority that Armco leadership followed the opinion that the Sendzimir Mill was a toy. All were convinced except a guy who knew better, Dr. Anson Hayes, Director of Armco Research.
“Good ideas fall on barren soil. John Tytus fought and won his case against Tad’s rolling mill in part because of ‘NIH’ [Not Invented Here].”
Sendzimir began his work in Middletown within a small office in the Armco Research building that still stands as the last remnant of steel making on Curtis Street. Dr. Hayes was Sendzimir’s direct supervisor and both shared a mutual admiration for each others work.
As was the case with Tytus and the continuous mill, corporations of the day assigned their patents carefully. Sendzimir was very aware of this and arranged a unique business relationship leading to dual roles: he was an Armco Research employee and a vice-president of a joint venture with Armco. Sendzimir controlled 51% of Armzen, the partnership created to develop his rolling mill with Armco. A rolling mill that didn’t get much respect next door at the General Office along Curtis Street.
the Rad Lab comes calling
At about the same time that Tad Sendzimir was making his transition to life in southwest Ohio, the Wall Street millionaire Alfred Loomis was financing a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called the Radiation Laboratory or Rad Lab. Loomis’ investment was designed to refine radar developments occurring in Britain for war production.
Electrical engineers and scientists at the University of Birmingham in the UK improved a German invention for generating microwave energy called a multi-cavity resonant magnetron. While crude by modern standards, their systems could spot Nazi bombers up to 150 miles from the English coast, enough of a warning for Royal Air Force fighters to intercept them. But the radar apparatus was too bulky to mount on planes, and the equipment was not sensitive enough to detect the periscopes of German U-boats.
The first multi-cavity magnetron developed for radar was patented in Germany in 1935. It required a lot of power and its unstable output convinced the German high command to shift to the klystron. At the time, the klystron output had better target resolution than the magnetron but with much less range because of power limitations. Magnetrons would eventually get the power they needed from a pulse transformer built with electrical steel developed at Armco and rolled on a new kind of mill.
The scientists at MIT’s Rad Lab had to find a supply of electrical steel with very demanding physical properties. The nation’s supplier for electrical power systems driven with alternating current was a company in Pittsburgh called Westinghouse Electric Company. Westinghouse got its electrical steel, or silicon steel, from the company that perfected its manufacture – the American Rolling Mill Company.
MIT first approached Westinghouse, who directed them to Armco, who in turn directed them to Tad. As Tad sat in his office in Middletown one morning, a gentleman from the MIT Rad Lab walked in, introduced himself, and explained that his project needed very, very thin silicon steel – 0.002 inch. So far, everyone told him the mill didn’t exist that could roll such steel. Tad’s eyes fairly drilled through the fellow. “I can make strip that’s 0.002 inch thick,” he told him. “If you want, I’ll even make it 0.001 inch.”
At the time, only one Sendzimir Mill had been built in the US. The Signode Corporation of Chicago purchased one of Tad’s mills to produce, ironically, the steel banding necessary to prevent steel coils from uncoiling. The mill was never intended to roll hard steel, just the soft stuff. A young engineer from Armco Research named Charlie Smith took a ton of electrical steel to Chicago to see if he could roll it down to the specifications MIT was demanding. The mill broke many times during countless trials but the Armco team finally pulled it off and presented the finished product to the engineers and scientists at MIT.
And Signode slowly began rolling out this fine, thin steel. The steel was used in the transformers, which put radar on the planes fighting the war. (Signode later earned a special medal from the War Department, but the mill’s inventor was never so recognized.)
Charlie Hook decides the battle to fight a War
Electrical steel rolled to 0.002 inch thick became a strategic material. Having a single, small rolling mill retro-fitted from producing steel banding was insufficient for both Westinghouse and the War Department’s Production Board. Armco leadership was feeling the pressure to build more capacity for the fundamental component to radar pulse transformers but were still reluctant to further develop, let alone promote, the Sendzimir rolling mill.
Calvin Verity was against it.
Westinghouse put it this way: “Either you build a Sendzimir mill, or we’ll build one and produce the sheets ourselves.”
John Tytus, the story goes, balked: “As long as I’m in charge of the Armco rolling operation, there will be no Sendzimir mill in Armco plants.”
Doc Hayes phrased it another way: “Put a Z-mill in or find another Director of Research.”
Gurney Cole, an Armco manager and one of Tad’s champions, kept pushing. John Tytus said to him: “Gurney, you’re a nice man, but you’re making an absolute fool of yourself over the Sendzimir mill.”
Finally, Charlie Hook, Armco’s president, stepped in to overrule Tytus’ men – who thought the Z-mill was a toy.
Sendzimir mills continue to be built today but not in Middletown Ohio. After the war, Tadeusz Sendzimir moved his engineering firm to Waterbury Connecticut where it still operates designing and installing Z-mills in several countries.
The story behind his move to New England from Ohio reveals how the social dynamics of a small, middle American town impacts economic development. The community’s reaction to the lone inventor was described in his daughter’s book as a place too provincial and parochial to pursue his work. Armco wasn’t providing an economic incentive to stay in the area and the community was perceived as culturally myopic with a narrow range of interests.
Throughout the war years, Middletown and surrounding areas provided the talent Sendzimir needed to refine his mill and engineer it for production. Armco Research was a place where ideas for new products and processes were put into production on a regular basis. There were plenty of accomplished artificers and artisans for the artist to lead.
There’s been quite a lot written the past few weeks on the 100th anniversary of the 1913 flood. Ron Rollins of the Dayton Daily News came close when his article stated:
Indeed it wasn’t the catastrophe but the collective desire to fix it that should still resonate with us. When local corporate interests coincide with what’s best for the community, great things can happen.
National Cash Register president John Patterson continues to get acknowledgment for his contribution to the initial response. Less known is the contribution from George Verity. The Armco founder worked to secure a long term solution and played a pivotal role establishing the Miami Conservancy. But there were other very powerful people who suffered from high water. It was their concerted effort for a regional solution that still benefits the inhabitants of the Great Miami watershed today.
The governor of Ohio at the time of the flood was a former Middletown newspaper reporter from the nearby village of Jacksonburg. Jim Cox relied on his former boss, Paul Sorg for some startup cash to buy the struggling Dayton Daily News as he couldn’t get a loan from a bank. Cox had the Zuckerberg touch and created the local version of the Facebook of its day: a social society page written by women. His success came early and resulted in a magnificent, bank-like building for his office in downtown Dayton.
NCR, Armco and the Dayton Daily News were deluged and suffered huge losses from the Great Miami in March 1913. While we may congratulate the success of the Miami Conservancy for all who reside and work along its banks, let’s not lose sight of who was selected to design the solution.
Arthur Morgan was the self-taught artist who created the Miami Conservancy and deserves more than a passing mention. It was his hydraulic engineering and vision that still keeps us dry today at relatively low cost.
It was Morgan’s success with the Miami Conservancy that opened the door for his role as the Tennessee Valley Authority’s first director. Then later, he became president of the foundering Antioch College and turned it around. It would seem that Antioch is again today in the middle of a rebirth.
The Cincinnati area loves to claim a Binghamton, New York native as their own but was Antioch College that led him to southwest Ohio in the late 1940s.
So it was Cincinnati that gave Rod Serling his start.
Without Arthur Morgan’s response to a flood in late March 1913, we may never have known the Twilight Zone.
at the intersection of Paper and Steel
many of these steel sheet rolling crews witnessed the disappearance of their livelihoods because a paper maker was convinced there was a better way
After forging steel into bridges and buildings during the 19th century, the steel industry turned toward stamping steel sheet into products for a newly emerging consumer class.
“In the years following World War I, there began an accelerated shift from the manufacture of capital goods to the mass production of consumer goods, made largely of steel sheets. The all steel car entered into production in the early 1920s, and a number of home appliances such as the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, electrical refrigerator, and toaster were already appearing on the market.”
The second decade of the 20th century was a good time to be an independent, steel sheet manufacturer in the US. Especially one situated at the focus of its resource suppliers – coal barges from eastern Kentucky, rail cars of limestone from Indiana and massive ore boats from Minneota’s Mesabi range converged along the Ohio Valley. Manufacturers of steel sheet products came to them and built the Ohio Valley into the Silicon Valley of its day.
The American Rolling Mill Company’s newly built East Side Works (now the location of AK Steel in Middletown) was booming and employed dozens of sheet mill crews. Each 7-10 man crew could produce between 120-140 tons of steel sheets a week. Stacks of manually rolled sheets were shipped to manufacturers sheared and cut to size.
The resulting steel sheet products were an accommodation to process variability. Automobiles were designed with individual fenders, bisected cowlings covering the engine, roofs were cloth, doors were small and there was no trunk. The Model T in black was the mass produced standard.
sheet steel that streamlined design
A design transformation occurred during the late 1920s to mid-1930s among a wide variety of industries and markets that used sheet steel. The most glaring example of its significance to industry is the transformation to the automobile body.
Over just a few short years, cars began appearing with hoods flowing into fenders, doors, roofs and trunk lids. But not just cars were benefiting. Entire markets and especially the appliance industries increased production as they adapted to toward large, uniform steel sheet. Sheets that no longer arrived in stacks but were now delivered as huge continuous coils enabled and improved the automation of assembly lines for a wide variety of manufacturers.
Producing, then delivering steel sheet in rolls like paper, was invented at the American Rolling Mill Company in Middletown Ohio. This small but innovative steel company selected a group of specialists and their leader from within the company to pursue the first successful continuous rolling mill. They committed the money, the people and the space to pursue what many others in the steel industry had attempted but failed to accomplish.
The assembled team of innovators benefited from a convergence of different manufacturing disciplines with the emergence of new technology and power.
Tytus & the continuous mill
In his book, “The Medici Effect,” Frans Johansson discusses the catalysts that create the conditions for innovation. A section of the book is dedicated to The Intersection: Where Different Fields Meet. Here he describes innovation as it accompanies organizations that skillfully combine concepts and practices from different disciplines to produce new ideas and insights. Part of Middletown’s mythology is found in the belief that its paper making traditions made a significant contribution to the practices of the new steel maker in town.
I suspect there are times when individuals create enormous value by leading the traditions and practices of one discipline into another. And I suspect the same gamble fails just as often, probably more.
I’ll savor the stories where the risk pays off. One such story is told in the life of John Butler Tytus who is credited with one of the greatest advances in steel making after growing up the heir to a Middletown paper company.
After returning home from Yale and a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, John Tytus took a job in the family business, the Tytus Paper Mill. Upon the death of his father, the family sold their share of the business and Tytus left to pursue other work. About 1904 he visited the new manufacturer in Middletown, the American Rolling Mill Company.
At that time, the entire Middletown facility was situated between Curtis Street and the Miami-Erie Canal along what is now Verity Parkway. Came to be later known as Central Works, it was here Tytus witnessed the brutal process of flattening red hot bars into stacks of steel sheets.
He asked for a job and was put to work as a “spare hand” on a sheet mill. Many of Tytus’ biographers tell the story of his rise through the ranks; how he began at the bottom and worked his way up.
Crout and Vorhis were no different.
“The other workers, who knew his background, first laughed at the young college man, but their derision soon turned to respect as he did his share of the work. and learned about steelmaking with remarkable speed. His boss, Al Dimmick, watched with interest as he progressed from doubler to matcher and rougher, alternating as he did with others, on day and night shifts.”
Crout & Vorhis, pg. 134
Al Dimmick and the rest of the Number 4 Sheet Mill crew.
Tytus was made assistant superintendent after a year and a half. By the time the photograph below was taken in 1914, he had risen to Superintendent of the American Rolling Mill Company’s Zanesville Works.
“He counted 22 different times that the sheets were handled and concluded that a ‘business which had so much lost motion had plenty of future for a young man.’ “
As the story goes and Fisher repeats, Tytus is said to have commented to the General Superintendent, Charles Hook:
“‘Someday Charlie, we’ll be making sheets in long strips like they make paper.’ “
Fisher, Douglas Alan, “The Epic of Steel,” Harper & Row, NY, NY; 1963 pg.144
Tytus was convinced that prevalent practice of rolling of sheet steel was a prime candidate for radical change. He knew firsthand that the sheet mill and its labor intensive operations should be automated and spent the next decade making it a reality. The following offers a glimpse into the manual process he was so intent to replace.
the sheet mill
Rolling steel into flat sheets was more art than science and the artists were the rollers. Each roller had a crew and operated as an independent contractor; for many years, only the roller got paid by the company.
Douglas Fisher describes the first steps as a bar comes out of the furnace for rolling on a “rougher” mill in his book “Epic of Steel.”
“After the sheet bars were heated in a furnace to a uniform rolling temperature, a ‘helper’ deposited two bars before the rougher stand. A ‘rougher’ grasped the bar with tongs and inserted it sideways between the rolls.” “As the bar emerged on the other side, it was grasped in tongs by the ‘catcher.’ While he was lifting the bar to return it over the top roll, the rougher fed a second bar into the mill and then grasped for a second pass the first bar that the catcher was steadying on the top roll.”
Fisher, pg. 142
The rougher mill prepares the sheet for the finishing mill where the “finisher” completes the rolling of bars into a stack of sheets in a similar fashion with catchers, matchers and helpers. The process resulted in stacks of sheets called a packet, measuring roughly 4-5 feet in length and 20-30 inches in width. Maintaining consistent thickness across a given sheet and among those in the stack was a constant problem.
pursuing the controlled pass
Over the course of the decade following World War I, Tytus put together a team of rollers and other artisans and engineers to design and build the continuous steel sheet mill. The advantages were obvious and had been attempted by many others.
Fisher’s “Epic of Steel” begins a list of attempts to build and operate a continuous mill with Henry F. Mann’s mill in Pittsburgh, 1865; then Samuel R. Wilmot of Bridgeport Connecticut in 1875; a continuous mill in Teplitz Germany ran from 1902 to 1909.
US Steel made the attempt twice and both failed after a few years of operation, one in Monongahela Pennsylvania from 1902-05, the other at Mercer Works in South Sharon Pa. from 1905 to 1910.
All of these attempts were made before the development of larger industrial electric motors and the power distribution necessary to run them.
The American Rolling Mill company was helping its own cause as one of the world’s early innovators for electrical grade steel. Also known as silicon steel, it’s a crucial component designed to increase efficiency and reduce energy loss in electrical generators, motors and transformers. Electrical steel continues to be a fundamental component to the generation, transportation and delivery of electrical power today.
About the time that US Steel terminated it’s continuous mill attempt in 1910, electrical providers were installing transformers that could power new and larger electric motors capable of 5,000 horsepower. The convergence of high power with new controls for motor speed presented Tytus with advantages over earlier attempts. These developments coupled with his persistence convinced Charlie Hook that it could be done.
The following memorandum dated March 5, 1915 from Charles Hook to George Verity details an early development project for the mill and demonstrates Hook’s faith in Mr. Tytus’ idea.
The memorandum reads:
Office of Charles R. Hook
Mr. Geo. M. Verity
During your absence in the month of February the question of a “New Mill” was suggested by Mr. J. B. Tytus. After going over the matter very fully with Messrs. Danford and Tytus the suggestion looked very practical and I decided to take the matter up with Mr. Phillips and Mr. Frantz in your absence, in order to draw out any criticisms or suggestions that they might be able to make. Mr. Frantz came down and spent an entire day with us, which gave me an opportunity to go over the matter very fully with him.
In the afternoon we discussed the matter very fully in a conference at which Messrs. Frantz, Phillips, Tytus, C. W. Verity and myself were present. Mr. Frantz had a few criticisms to make but felt the proposition was practical.
During the evening a demonstration was made on one of our Cold Mills at East Side which was very encouraging.
After this conference and demonstration Messrs. Phillips and Frantz felt it advisable to give me authority to proceed with the designing of the Screw Downs and the Guides, so that we would not lose any more time than necessary in the development of the proposition. This work is proceeding very satisfactorily under the supervision of Messrs. Eppelsheimer and Tytus.
I feel very positive that under the worst conditions that might prevail in carrying out this suggestion we should be able to make a saving of at least $2.00 per ton over the No. 9 Mill practice, with good prospects of increasing this saving gradually so that with good tonnage by the end of the first year the saving might amount to as much as $5.00 per ton.
If the entire proposition as explained to you and the Executive Committee at the special meeting last evening meets with your approval, we would like to have authority to complete the design and drawings for the necessary continuous furnace and to build the Screw Downs and Guides when drawings for same are completed.
The necessary continuous furnace can I feel certain be worked out on paper from the experiences we have had on our Blueing Furnace, which has taken us several years to completely develop. The Screw Downs and Guides are however a new proposition that will have to be worked out and built in our own shops.
We estimate that the total cost of this work will run from $3500.00 to $4000.00.
Authority to proceed with this much of the will allow us to continue on the proposition for at least the next six to eight weeks without any delay. At the end of that time I will be able to submit a full detailed estimate covering the whole proposition and to show just what has been accomplished to date. We feel that this is one of the most important propositions that has been up for consideration in many years.
Charles R. Hook”
The following are photographs of all those associated with this memo at about the time it was written, except Joseph H. Frantz, Vice President and in charge of the company’s newly acquired blast furnaces in Columbus, Ohio. His photograph was printed in the December 1915 edition of the Armco Bulletin on the page detailing the Board of Directors.
The memorandum indicates that Mr. Frantz held a great deal of influence on Mr. Hook. According to Borth
“Frantz had many years of experience in the practices of rolling sheets and, though a very practical man, possessed an analytical mind which was not closed to novel ideas.”
It’s fortunate for Armco that Joseph Frantz came to join the company with the acquisition of Columbus Iron & Sheet. Mr Frantz agreed with some reservations on the idea and gave his consent to move forward.
Armco Leadership in 1915
At the time this memo was written, the leadership of the American Rolling Mill Company were confronted with a huge opportunity and its corresponding wager. But these were men who were anything but risk averse.
The man credited as the founder of the American Rolling Mill Company, George M. Verity, managed a grocery concern in Cincinnati before being selected to assume the management of the bankrupt Sagendorf Tin Roofing Company. A very capable manager, Verity assembled an incredibly competent staff of steel makers to help him build the company.
Verity was a prolific writer and at the end of 1915 was witnessing a revolution between Labor and Capital. He wrote about the relationship of employer and employee in the company newsletter, offering not just his expectations of the “workingman” but also their leaders.
“Why all the talk about supposed differences between Capital and Labor, when each is not only necessary to the other, but when neither is of any value without the other? Where is the line of demarcation to be found when a laborer can be, and often is, a capitalist, and where the capitalist, so called, as far as the managing share holders of industry are concerned, are laborers?”
George Verity was loath to make class distinctions. He blurs the boundaries between those entrusted with Captial and the Labor that creates value. He describes the role of Manager as a Laborer to the Investor.
But Capital are not people. Capital is money and a concentration of that wealth is represented by Owners and Investors who, as Verity so aptly describes, hires their Directors, who in turn select their Officers, and so the modern industrial hierarchy is built.
Those who represent Capital are very careful with whom their wealth is entrusted. They demand loyalty of class and often select their leaders from established origins of existing wealth no matter their skill and qualifications.
the qualifications of John B. Tytus
According to Cristy Borth’s “True Steel,” John Tytus was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale in 1897, Fisher’s “Epic of Steel” describes it as a B.S. recieved the same year. Local Middletown educator George Crout and Armco corporate secretary Wilfred D. Vorhis’ wrote the article “John Butler Tytus: Inventor of the Continuous Steel Mill” for the Summer 1967 edition of Ohio History, a quarterly magazine published by the Ohio Historical Society. They list his schooling as
“Westminster Prep School at Dobb’s Ferry, New York. From there he went to Yale, where in 1897 he received his Bachelor’s degree in English literature.” pg. 133
In any case, it wasn’t an engineering degree but a manufacturing pedigree that opened the door for the young John Tytus.
It’s hard to imagine a man of letters today given an engineering assignment that essentially wagered the company’s future. Despite an academic focus on English literature, Tytus left very little written evidence of his directives during the mill’s development. He preferred to use the telephone.
Crout and Vorhis republished a memo found in his desk after his death, June 2, 1944, entitled
“Advice from John B. Tytus
1. In giving praise for a job well done be sure to give it to the deserving individual. If given to those not responsible for the good work they may secretly laugh at you.
2. A first mistake adds to ones knowledge and experience. A repetition of the same mistake is due to carelessness and represents a total loss.
3. A man me be morally honest in every respect: however the same man may be intellectually dishonest if he does not base his reasoning and conclusion on sound facts.
4. It is just as important to find causes for good results as it is to find causes for poor results. A comparison between the two extremes will point out more obvious differences.
5. When confronted with any problem, use all the knowledge and experience available in the organization This applies not only to using all the ability within a given works, but also seeking help from other sources.
6. Base decisions on facts not opinions or wishful thinking. Cultivate the ability to separate facts from opinions.”
Tytus’ creed is an homage to the Scientific Method.
Innovation at the Intersection of Art and Science
It took the better part of a decade of trial and error not by Tytus himself but artists steeped in the manual process of rolling steel sheet to reveal the roll shape that worked. A small select group of rollers, engineers, and machinists from Middletown Works pooled their talents under Tytus’ leadership. Tytus’ resolve endured a decade of failures with just enough incremental successes to keep the idea alive.
Johansson’s research on the conditions for innovation explains the need for failure.
Perhaps the most counterintuitive byproduct from the explosion of ideas at the intersection of fields is the simultaneous rise in failures.
… The more ideas you execute, the greater chance of realizing something truly groundbreaking.
Innovative people, then, experience more failures than their less creative counterparts because they pursue more ideas. It is thus very difficult – indeed, this book argues practically impossible – to realize ideas at the Intersection by flawlessly executing well-defined action plans. Yet this is how most of us are trained to think about strategy and implementation.
Johansson defends the organization willing to pay the price for repeated failure. Today, as our economy has shifted toward financial justification as value, investors demand for Return on Investment would render any similar effort impossible.
the Invention: progressive convexity
The American Rolling Mill Company was the first steel company in the United States to employ a dedicated research department to invent and develop new processes and products. The presence of this group established a culture of experimentation at the new company and Tytus took advantage of it. He ran several research trials over many years. He would pull sheets out between passes, cut them into strips and studied the cross sections. They were revealing what was occurring to the sheets under enormous pressure relative to the shape of the rolls. Progress was incremental and steady.
Tytus contribution to the continuous mill brought the importance of roll shape from the paper industry to steel. He was counseled by Tom Hall, an expert roll grinder. Roll grinders are the machinists who cut, grind and polish massive cylinders of steel that crush bars into sheets under thousands of tons of pressure.
“Tytus’ basic patent was on the ‘controlled pass’ which was made by the shape of the rolls along the whole train. Frank Fanning, later an Armco Vice-president, summed up the principles underlying the continuous process as follows:
‘The discovery which made the wide strip hot rolling practicable and which permitted much greater width to thickness ratios than previously thought possible, was that the piece should have a slightly convex cross section and that at each successive pass the sheet should have progressively less convexity, and at least five factors controlling such a process were essential – the prepared contour of the rolls; the composition and springiness of the rolls; the screw pressure applied to the roll necks; and the shape, composition and temperature of the piece.’
Frank H. Fanning, Wide Strip Mills – Evolution or Revolution (Middletown, Ohio 1952) a paper read before the General Meeting of the American Iron & Steel Institute at New York, May 21-22, 1952; pg. 3-5
It was the application of these principles, not understood by former inventors and engineers who had tried to produce the continuous mill, that made the Tytus effort a success.”
Crout and Vorhis pg. 141
the mill comes alive in Ashland
In some respects, the war years were too good for the steel industry. Steel sheet producers were at full production feeding the emerging urban centers around the US and the war machine in Europe. There were no facilities available to experiment on a new mill. Everything was devoted to production.
But after the war, steel market growth slowed. The officers of the Ashland Iron and Mining Company couldn’t keep their ingot producing capacity profitable and decided to sell. George Verity and Joseph Frantz visited the operation in Ashland Kentucky and quickly determined that the 2 blast furnaces and 6 open hearths would be a good fit for the expanding American Rolling Mill Company.
Mills needed to be built and Tytus would take his team, his drawings and a commitment to an idea to Ashland in 1921.
Outside events were affecting the source of labor at the time the continuous mill began development. The outbreak of World War One cut off the supply of eastern Europeans who dominated the ranks of skilled steel making artists and their artisans in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“The mill’s demands for hands were met by brawny men from Kentucky. ‘Not so good as hunkies,’ some labor bosses said of them. ‘Too independent!’ John disagreed. He liked these independent Americans. Inheritors of the American tinkering tradition and capable of using their heads as well as their hands… trying to make machines do what they were not designed to do – trying and failing, smashing equipment and laughing about it, and trying again.”
Borth, pgs. 258-9
About 100 workers from Middletown were sent to Ashland to build the mill. Crout and Vorhis list the following as important members of the team: Marion Amburgey, Albert Auberle, Tom Hall, Charles Hillman, M. W. Hodgdon, Hayes Holstein, E. B. Hudson, Russell Huntsberger, George Mellon, E. N. Millan, Clyde Murphy, Russell Smith, and William F. Tuttle. Below is a photograph of Charles Hillman and his crew, one of the few photographs captioned with the crew’s job titles.
A decade of experimentation means a lot of failure and learning. To maintain ownership of the invention, Armco leadership ensures that every method is detailed in drawings, built, tested and results recorded. Rollers steeped in the tradition of hand rolling were called to Ashland with the engineers to improve their craft. They all became Armco researchers.
Tytus cautioned his men , “Do things as cheaply as possible. If it works, we can rebuild it; if it doesn’t work, the loss will be less.”
Rumors spread through the steel industry that the ‘crazy’ engineers from Middletown were planning something new in Ashland. While some scoffed at them, other steel executives were worried, for they knew that Armco research was among the best in the industry, and that this organization many innovations, such as rust-resisting ‘Ingot Iron’ and high conductivity electrical steels, which had cut deeply into established markets.”
Crout & Vorhis, pgs. 140-1
a culture that valued Innovation
George Crout and Wilfred Vorhis are focused on telling the Tytus story and offer a modest mention of the innovative culture at Armco. The American Rolling Mill Company was the first in the steel industry to employ a research department. Early facilities were minimal but its leader, Robert Carnahan was a pivotal player in Armco leadership.
Armco’s innovations set it apart from other steel companies. Their specialty steel products helped identify them as unique in the industry. Armco grew rapidly in an era of steel industry consolidation. While US Steel , Republic Steel and Bethlehem Steel were forming and acquiring steel making capacity up and down the Ohio Valley, Armco remained independent by serving smaller markets with niche products that, in some cases, are still hard to make.
To this day Armco’s corporate descendant, AK Steel, enjoys enormous market share of the domestic electrical steel market. Electrical steel, as was mentioned earlier, is hard to make. Electrical steel differs from the ductile carbon variety as it contains much more silicon and, like glass, the steel is brittle and difficult to roll. The costs of entry are still very high and potential competitors must learn what Armco invented.
Innovations that occurred in the early decades of the twentieth century are the foundation for the continued existence of steel making in Middletown today.
Innovation is the highest form of Labor because of its capacity to create Labor for others.
the First Continuous Mill
Nine years after the Hook Memo to Verity, the continuous mill slowly came to life. There were a lot of breakdowns, false starts and cobbles but by
“…the end of February 1924, the first full month of operation, the new continuous mill, …produced 9,000 tons of sheet steel.”
Crout & Vorhis, pg. 142
The company’s cost justification for the project was 18,000 tons a month. After 3 years, the yield was 40,000 tons per month with much better quality and the entire industry was taking notice. The improvement in capacity and quality were way beyond what was originally anticipated. The industry press considered the mill
“epoch making” and “a monumental example of the scientific approach to a major manufacturing problem.”
Crout & Vorhis quoting the journal “Iron Age,” pg. 143
Armco wasn’t alone in their effort toward building a continuous mill but they were the ones who were awarded the patent. The mill wasn’t without serious defects and problems. In fact, Douglas Fisher writes
“the Ashland mill was anything but a continuous mill.
[Tytus] had difficulty in preventing the sheet from slipping from side to side and in maintaining proper tension between the rolls. These handicaps were overcome in a mill designed and constructed by A. J. Townsend and H. M. Naugle for the Columbia Steel Company at Butler, Pennsylvania. It began operation in 1926. The Butler mill produced strip up to 36 inches wide and was the first in the world to roll long lengths of wide strip on the continuous principle.
The question of competing patents arose between Armco and the Columbia Steel Company. It was resolved by the former purchasing the latter.
Thus, Armco controlled all the basic patents on the continuous wide hot-strip mill.”
Fisher, pg 145
Steel is still being produced by Armco descendant, AK Steel, at Butler Works. It remains to this day the single greatest source of electrical grade sheet steel in the US market. Few realize that the plant was acquired by Armco in a patent dispute over the continuous mill.
The technology for the mill was patented and licensed to other steel manufacturers. In the decade preceding World War II, every domestic steel company had to adopt the continuous mill practice to compete and Armco reaped the rewards in the form of royalties.
Products of the continuous hot-strip mill were welcomed by the trade, because sheet and strip in greater widths and lengths, with a more even surface, and of more uniform dimensions than the hand-rolled sheets, were at last available in mass quantities. Further improvements in the quality of properties of sheets and strip were made in response to demands of customers, who no sooner had a taste of one improvement than they asked for others.
Fisher, pg. 146
In the hearings before the Temporary National Economic Committee in 1940, Charles Hook:
“exhibited a fender from a Model T Ford and another from a 1939 Buick. Holding up the first fender, which he said was made from two welded hand-rolled sheets, he showed that it was possible to see right through its many coats of paint and detect the imperfections of the surface. By the hand-milled process, he explained, ‘You couldn’t get a surface fine enough, smooth enough, that the imperfections wouldn’t show through three or four operations.’ The larger Buick fender, on the other hand, was the product of the continuous mill and was stamped from one sheet.”
Hook further testified:
” ‘ there wasn’t any way under the old hand mill process, by which we could produce a sheet to make that part.’ Changes in the quality and properties of sheets made by the new process ‘are so great as to amount practically to the introduction of an entirely new product in the steel industry.’ ”
Fisher, pg. 146
The continuous mill had significant effects not just on industry but was felt most profoundly among those who plied their living from the hand rolling of steel.
the Roller is redefined
The emergence of the continuous mill changed the power structure of the Rolling Department in many ways but the position most affected was that of the Roller. The Roller was an independent contractor, hired for his craftsmanship and capacity to lead his crew. It was a powerful fraternity of artists in the manufacturing of sheet steel. The continuous mill significantly reduced their numbers but more devastating was their conversion from contracted artist to employed operator.
A very poignant story about the devastation that the mill brought upon the rollers has been recounted many times by Middletown icon, Knight Goodman. As the son of a roller recruited by George Verity in the 1920s to bring his family to Middletown, Mr. Goodman reveals the very personal effects new technology can bring when it changes the livelihoods of proud men.
I called on Mr. Goodman when I first began researching this subject in 1996. He invited me to visit his office and chat. His wife Dorothy made a great cup of coffee. Dorothy has since passed and as of this writing, Knight is still my neighbors of 25 years. The day after our chat, I received the following text, Tribute to a Steelworker neatly typed with an accompanying note.
In the late 1920s Armco installed the Tytus continuous mill. A great invention. For Armco. For steelmakers everywhere. For my dad and his family, it was a disaster. Fewer rollers were needed and shortly after receiving a letter of congratulations from Mr. Verity for 25 years of continuous service – “You are an established and recognized part of the very hub of our Armco organization” – Dad and many other “older rollers” were demoted. Relegated to part-time work.
Dad’s pride resisted. He quit. Standing for what he believed right was admirable. His timing was terrible. The nation’s most serious economic crash blasted him and his family like a Stealth Fighter Bomber. Dad lost everything: House. Touring car. Fada radio. He returned the love of his family. His determination to support that family. His faith in the Almighty.
The mill had been adopted industry wide and by 1940, 26 continuous mill operations were built. The continuous mill is credited with cutting the price of sheet steel in half between 1925 and 1940. But there was a human cost for these gains in productivity that came in the form of lost labor – the kind of work where a man could walk away from the family paper business and get a new start as a helper on a sheet mill crew.
One day a visitor approached the inventor and made the remark that his “monster” was taking men’s jobs. Tytus picked up his paperweight – a silver plated replica of the continuous mill which his men had given him – and asked the man:
“Did you ever try your hand at the work it eliminated?”
In an age when poets were popular culture, a ballad or song could inspire the heart and distort the truth.
This post relates the story of how a man born in Middletown Ohio in the early 19th century died as a tragic consequence of war and was later memorialized because of a poem. In an age before printed photography, the the illustrated magazine sold well. And, as is the case today, eulogizing the fallen on far away battlefields stirs the emotions that sell.
Victor Gilbreath was executed by a firing squad during the Mexican American War two days after Christmas in 1847.
Eight years later, his demise was suggested in a popular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem, “Victor Galbraith,” offered the reader a romantic version of the tragic events.
Seventy years after the poem’s publication, renown Ohio historian, Charles B. Galbreath offered a different account for what really happened on the plains of Monterey in the waning days during an early American conquest for empire.
This is the story of the how a man was merged into myth by a poet, was commemorated with stone markers in the town of his birth and became the subject of a historian intent of setting the record straight. This is also a story about how the myth continues to be presented as fact even to this day.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Longfellow was a mid-19th century pop star. The college literature professor retired in 1854 to pursue writing and enjoyed a lucrative career creating popular verse for a wide range of mainstream magazines. He was admired, especially early in his career for the lyric quality of his work. His poetry was a favorite in US grade school classrooms well into the 20th century.
There was no explanation or note describing any actual event that accompanied the publication of the poem in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1855.
From “Birds of Passage” – “Flight the First”
“Victor Galbraith”Under the walls of Monterey At daybreak the bugles began to play, Victor Galbraith! In the mist of the morning damp and gray, These were the words they seemed to say: "Come forth to thy death, Victor Galbraith!" Forth he came, with a martial tread; Firm was his step, erect his head; Victor Galbraith, He who so well the bugle played, Could not mistake the words it said: "Come forth to thy death, Victor Galbraith!" He looked at the earth, he looked at the sky, He looked at the files of musketry, Victor Galbraith! And he said, with a steady voice and eye, "Take good aim; I am ready to die!" Thus challenges death Victor Galbraith. Twelve fiery tongues flashed straight and red, Six leaden balls on their errand sped; Victor Galbraith Falls to the ground, but he is not dead; His name was not stamped on those balls of lead, And they only scath Victor Galbraith. Three balls are in his breast and brain, But he rises out of the dust again, Victor Galbraith! The water he drinks has a bloody stain; "O kill me, and put me out of my pain!" In his agony prayeth Victor Galbraith. Forth dart once more those tongues of flame, And the bugler has died a death of shame, Victor Galbraith! His soul has gone back to whence it came, And no one answers to the name, When the Sergeant saith, "Victor Galbraith!" Under the walls of Monterey By night a bugle is heard to play, Victor Galbraith! Through the mist of the valley damp and gray The sentinels hear the sound, and say, "That is the wraith Of Victor Galbraith!"
man becomes myth
As recent as February 2013, the Gilbreath myth continues to be published in the local Middletown newspaper as fact. The article helps to illustrate how imaginative local writers have been on the subject. Quotes by Gilbreath himself appear on the local editorial page written by the newspaper’s editor pleading for justice. It’s a stirring account – and completely bogus.
Just as Longfellow’s “Victor Galbraith” sold literary magazines in the 1850s so does the myth continue to sell newspapers today.
UPDATE: On September 16, 2013, the Middletown Journal printed a retraction by Roger Miller, the author of “Middletown man’s pardon received hours after death” called “True identity of bugler revealed.” It appears that this blog site may have played a role in Mr. Miller’s reconsideration but the real source of this correction is former Middletown Historical Society board president, museum manager, docent and dedicated volunteer, Jim Stabler.
I’m indebted to Jim for pulling me into the historical society library one day many years ago and said, “you have to check this out” then pulled out a volume of Galbreath’s “History of Ohio” and showed me his entry for Victor Gilbreath. Jim and my father were both long time members of Middletown B.P.O.E. Lodge #257.
Elk’s Lodge (B.P.O.E. #257) was built on the site of Galbraith’s Middletown homestead along North Main Street. In 1917, the lodge commemorated Victor Galbraith with a stone marker. At the time they also produced a pamphlet whose author fleshes out the character in Longfellow’s poem.
‘Victor Galbraith,’ a musician and lover of music, because of his association with a lady minstrel of Portuguese birth, who came from the City of Monterey, with a harp to play and sing for the American soldiers, was supposed to have been a spy and that Victor Galbraith had imparted to her army secrets which she reported to the enemy. On this false charge he was court martialed, found guilty of treason, and executed.”
Near the corner of Main Street and Manchester Avenue are two small monuments on a grass median between two parking lots. They’re visible from the street but are low to the ground and obscure; they face the space where Elks Lodge #257 once stood at 103 North Main Street.
Prior to housing the fraternal organization’s lodge, it was a Baptist church and some time before that, the location of the Gilbreath homestead and Victor’s birthplace.
B.P.O.E Lodge #257 played a prominent role promoting the poem’s story line. About the same time as a white stone marble Post Office building was erected across the street from their lodge, the Elks produced a stone marker to memorialize the notoriety of their location. From the pamphlet produced by the lodge, it read in part –
“The stone on which his name is inscribed and which marks the location of the paternal roof, is one that the government rejected in the erection of the federal building, hard by the old homestead, and it therefore becomes a fitting monument to the one who had mistakenly suffered the same treatment from his native country as that of the stone erected in his memory.
His grave, unknown and unmarked in the fields of Mexico, his rejected stone mid the scenes he knew and loved stands the only monument to his memory, and the traveler on his way over the Dixie Highway, seeking places of historic interest, as he stands over the stone besides the Elks’ temple in Middletown, will recall the pathetic story of Victor Galbraith, sleeping peacefully in an unknown grave on the plain of Monterey.”
In 1978, the Middletown Historical Society and the Elks’ thought it appropriate to correct the federally-rejected-stone memorial injustice that occurred in 1917 by dedicating another head stone. It was a white marble, a remnant of the recently demolished Post Office from across the street. It was cut, inscribed and celebrated as poetic justice.
This photo was taken in May 1978; the caption reads:
“On a rainy springday, the Middletown Historical Society dedicated the Victor Galbraith monument. The president of the Society, Mary Sulfsted, introduced the speaker, Isadore Casper, who is seen here with the National Guard bugler.”
The marker on the right indicates the year of birth as 1815 but Charles Galbreath’s “History of Ohio” has it around 1823.
The Historian: Charles Galbreath
By now you might have noticed the multitude of spellings for the subject of Longfellow’s poem. It took a historian from Ohio named Galbreath to track it down. Given his name, Charles Galbreath seemed to have more than a passing interest to research the name and the circumstances of the event that set the myth of Victor Gilbreath in motion.
Galbreath’s narrative begins to diverge from the myth here:
“The true story is somewhat different. To begin with, the central figure of this tragic event was not Victor Galbraith or Victor Gilbraith, but Victor Gilbreath – an immaterial variant, but worthy of note in this connection.”
According to Mr. Galbreath, the Gilbreath family had moved from Middletown to Wisconsin then, by the middle of the 1840s, to Galena, Illinois. War with Mexico was breaking out and the the young musician, Victor Gilbreath was intent on enlisting.
His mother had grave concerns about army services as Victor was prone to violence when under the influence of alcohol. But the commander of the 1st Regiment of Illinois Volunteers assured Mrs. Gilbreath that all would be well and that Victor would be in good hands.
This held true for his first enlistment. But Victor’s habits began to cause problems after he signed up for a second hitch. His command changed after his first re-enlistment and his new superiors were not nearly as accommodating toward his violent behavior while drunk. They didn’t tolerate the otherwise good-natured musician’s propensity for violent behavior under any circumstances and bivouacked on the plains of Monterey, violent drunkenness was a capital offense.
As the historian relates –
“The romantic story of the lady minstrel has little foundation in fact, Gilbreath was not executed for ‘revealing army secrets’ or for ‘treason.’ The execution ‘under the walls of Monterey’ on December 27, 1847, seems to have been not only a tragic but a gruesome affair. He fell before the firing squad, we are told, and was placed in his coffin, which was left uncovered.” Before the hour of burial, his comrades were horrified to see him arise with blood streaming from his wounds and call for a drink of water. This was given him, after which he pleaded to be shot and relieved of his pain. A second volley from the firing squad was effective. Perhaps it should be added here that sobered by his impending fate, Victor Gilbreath met death with firmness and composure.”
Galbreath’s historical narrative offers a personal view into the life and tragic death of a soldier during a very controversial war. Another soldier who fought in the Mexican-American War with a southwestern Ohio and Galena, Illinois connection, wrote this in his memoirs:
“Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
Entertainment is a very powerful force for spawning and sustaining myth. Too often what we accept as truth is a simple preference for how the story makes us feel. We select what we want to believe. We want to believe our cause is just and all who die for it are heroes.
For many years, the community of Middletown Ohio preferred to believe that Victor Galbraith was a tragic hero in a forgotten war. It’s time for this myth to be put to rest. The Middletown community can take some comfort knowing, like the myth, their war hero was hard to kill.
Henry Ford grew up on a farm. Familiar with its labor demands, he directed significant resources of the Ford Motor Company to relieving the brutal work load of the small farmer by building tractors. He sold over a half a million of them in the years leading up to the Great Depression.
He began selling farm tractors about the same time that a Ford dealership was established at the corner of Main Street and what is now Manchester Avenue in Middletown Ohio.
This photo of Dan Snider Ford was taken about 1920. Prominent in the right side window on the showroom floor is a Fordson tractor, the low cost technology that extended the industrial revolution to the small farm throughout the United States in the 1920s.
More than a few who track the introduction and early use of farm mechanization conclude that widespread automation contributed to the economic conditions that led to The Great Depression. One analyst was R. B. Fuller; the following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of his book “Critical Path”:
“What the bankers did like to support in the new mass productivity was tractor-driven farm machinery. Farm machinery was easy to sell. As the farmer sat atop the demonstration plowing or harvesting equipment, with its power to go through the fields doing an amount of work in a day equal to what had previously taken him weeks, he said to himself, “I can make more money and also take it a little easier.” So the bankers approved the financing of the production and marketing of the farm machinery. They held a chattel mortgage on the machinery and a mortgage on the farmland itself and all its buildings. The bankers loved that. There was enthusiastic bank acceptance of the selling of such equipment “on time” to the farmers. The bankers did not consider this “immoral.” The farmer was “producing food wealth.” The automobilist was “just joy riding.”
Then there came a very bad hog market in 1926. Many farmers were unable to make the payments on their power-driven equipment. The local country banks foreclosed on the delinquent farmers’ mortgages and took away their farms and machinery. The bankers had assumed that the farms were going to be readily saleable. It turned out, however, that there were not so many nonfarmers waiting to become farmers, and most of the real farmers had been put out of business by the bank foreclosures so they couldn’t buy back their own farms. There were no city people eager to go out and buy one of those farms. “How you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” were the words of a popular World War I song.
So the dust bowls developed as the upturned, unsown soil began to blow off the farms. It is relevant to note that, in 1900, 90 percent of U.S.A. citizens were living and working on the farms; in 1979 only 7 percent were on the farms, mostly as local supervisors for big, absent-ownership corporations. The owners of the farmlands today are no longer “farmers” or even individual humans—they are the great business conglomerates. What began in 1934 as government subsidies and loans to farmers for farm machinery, later to keep acreage out of production, would by 1978 result in President Carter making enormous payments to appease big corporations for cutting off vital grain and other strategic shipments to Russia. Next, the U.S. government would make enormous subsidies to bail out large corporations such as Lockheed and Chrysler, which as basic military suppliers the U.S. government could not allow to go bankrupt. Eventually the U.S. taxpayers will be asked to make “free-of-risk” bail-outs of “private” enterprises, corporations with initial physical assets worth over a billion dollars classifed [sic] as risk enterprises.
We now return to the 1926-’27-’28-’29 sequence of events developing from selling the farmers’ machinery on the bankers’ drop-dead terms (mortgage means “on death terms”). In 1927 and 1928 the bigger Western city banks began to foreclose on their local country banks that had financed the farm machinery sales and had been borrowing from the bigger city banks to cover their unprecedentedly expanded loaning. First the little and then the successively bigger banks found that they had foreclosed on farmhouses that had no indoor toilets, many with roofs falling in, barns in poor condition, with the replevined farm machinery rusting out in the open—and no customers.
Word of the bad news gradually went around; small bank “runs” began; and in 1929 came the Great Crash in the stock market. All business went from worse to worser. Unemployment multiplied. Prices steadily dropped. Nobody had money with which to buy. Bigger and bigger banks had to foreclose on smaller banks, until finally in early 1933 there came one day in which 5000 banks closed their doors to stop “the run” on their funds.”
R. B. Fuller, “Critical Path”, St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Given the recent financial crisis, Fuller’s analysis is still relevant today. In fact, not much has really changed.
Changes in technology, widely adapted, have profound economic consequences. National forces of technological change can be widespread and gradual, diffused and fragmented by time and place.
Narrowing the focus to a small place over time offers a chance at coherence.
Today the vacant, city-owned building displays neglect.
In the late summer of 2012, a portion of the facade collapsed onto the sidewalk.