To the old steel mill, Big Joe went down
He said, 'All you hunkies gather round.'
Big Joe Magarac.
I heard they gonna build a railroad to Frisco and back
From Maine down to Mexico.
And whose gonna make the steel for that track?
Big Joe Magarac.
— The New Christy Minstrels
For over a hundred years, Pittsburgh held the nation's steel industry with an ironclad grip. In 1865, Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Steel Company and developed the steel industry in Southwestern Pennsylvania. By 1911, Pittsburgh produced somewhere between one-third to one-half of the nation's steel. Southwestern Pennsylvania's influence is everywhere in our nation's identity, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Empire State Building. And it would not have been possible without the sweat and toil of thousands.
Most of the mills were located in the city's industrious and polluted mill towns located in regions of downtown, Homestead, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport and Clairton. While Pittsburgh was one of the largest cities in the Union at this point in history, there were not enough citizens to satisfy the need for unskilled labor. This problem was easily solved as immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe flooded Pittsburgh's Monongahela Valley in search of low-skill, stable work.
Conditions were not exactly comfortable in the mills or the mill towns. Steelworkers were both overworked and underpaid at 15 cents an hour for the average 12 hour day. These wages were considerably below the living wage of the time, $3 per day. Jobs in the steel mill were hot, dangerous, and grueling but immigrants considered it better than no work at all. Not only were conditions uncomfortable, but the jobs were segregated. Prejudice ruled the mills as easier jobs were given to citizens and Northern Europeans, while the most dangerous tasks were assigned to Eastern Europeans. The same was true in the mill towns; Eastern Europeans lived in the dingier houses, in the more dangerous neighborhoods, and had to cram multiple children in a room with boarders. But mill jobs were a steady source of income, so immigrants worked through the inhumane conditions. Legend has it, that to ease the pain of a 12-hour day, immigrant steelworkers created a fictional man who was not only happy to work all the time, but that was his only desire. His name was Joe Magarac, meaning "donkey" in Croatian, and he was the immigrant workers' own folk hero.
Industrialized America of the nineteenth and early twentieth century valued the larger-than-life, blue-collar folk hero. There was Paul Bunyan, the giant and courageous lumberjack; Pecos Bill, the cowboy who could ride a tornado like a bronco; and John Henry, the strongest railroad man alive. They were mythical representations of the working class, often considered saviors of the average working man and producers of giant proportions. "Big Man" folk heroes all shared similar qualities of strength, courage, and heart. Joe Magarac with his work in the steel mill was no exception.
Joe Magarac was born in an iron ore mine and made of solid steel. He could "[stir] vats of hot steel with his bare hands and twist horseshoes and pretzels out of iron ingots. He made railroad rails by squeezing molten steel between his fingers. As the steel cooled he made it into cannon balls as easily as kids make snowballs." He worked 24 hours a day, never slept or took a break, and could do the work of 29 men. Joe was a man whose only purpose in life was to work for the steel mill, something his exploited creators could relate to. In one tale, he wins a lifting competition and his prize is the prettiest girl in town. Joe realizes that she is in love with another man, Pete Pussick, and he allows her to marry him instead. After all, when would Joe Magarac, the steelman, have time for a family?
Joe Magarac appeared in print for the first time in Scribner's Magazine in 1931. Former steelworker Owen Francis documented the legend of Joe Magarac, with word of mouth as his only source. His article, "The Saga of Joe Magarac, Steelman" tells of Joe's final heroic sacrifice for industrialization. The mill boss decided to shut the mill down on Thursday and not open again until Monday because Joe's production put them ahead of schedule. Joe became so depressed at the thought of time off that he decided to melt himself in the furnace to create the finest steel in the world. On Monday, the boss found Joe in the furnace about to melt and let him die. After chopping him up to build a new mill, the melter-boss said to everyone: "You see dat steel? By Gods, nobody ever see steel lak dat before and dats joost because Joe Magarac he makit dat steel."
Francis' 1931 article concluded that being called a "magarac" was a compliment to immigrant steelworkers. After all, to be hard-working was a virtue for an immigrant hoping to establish a livelihood from nothing. Francis' Slavic co-workers described a "magarac" as a man who "eats and works, that's all." They jokingly ribbed one another about being "magaracs," signing donkey ears with their fingers from across the mill. Yet it is hard to miss the twinge of verbal irony behind the steelworkers' laughs.
It is debatable whether Joe Magarac was a genuine hero for these men, or just a satirical joke. Men in the mill often worked six or seven days a week, and every other week a 24 hour shift occurred because of a swing shift. Meaning, the extensive hours that the "donkey," Joe Magarac, worked were a reality rather than an exaggeration. He thrived in these conditions, and because of them, he did not have time for family or anything else in life. Furthermore, the same men who apparently valorized Joe Magarac also fought for better working conditions and shorter hours in battles like the Homestead Rebellion in 1892. This rebellion is one of the best known labor strikes in American history; it further stressed the tension between workers and bosses that finally snapped with the Great Steel Strike of 1919. Joe Magarac was happily married to the steel mill and these men were trying to spend more time away from it.
Even more surprisingly, it appears that Joe was not as famous with the overworked as originally thought. Hyman Richman of the New York Folklore Quarterly interviewed Slovakian steelworkers in 1953 and found that most of them had never heard of Joe Magarac. I had a similar experience upon interviewing my Slovakian grandfather and uncles who worked in the mills in the 1930's. If Joe Magarac wasn't famous among Slovakian steelworkers, then where did he come from?
Arguably, Joe Magarac is not a creation of the immigrant workers, but rather a prototype for the industry's ideal steelworker. Francis writes, "'The Saga of Joe Magarac' is more typical of the [immigrant steelworker] than any tale or incident or description I might write. It shows his sense of humor, his ambitions, his love of his work…a good-natured, peace- and home-loving worker." These are assumptions Francis made based on his own perceptions of the Slavic people, not fact. In the Journal of American Folklore, Jennifer Gilley and Stephen Burnett believe the corporations needed to portray the ideal steelworker as content with hard work to ensure the steel industry's security. In 1951, U.S. Steel Corporation even published a comic book, "Joe, The Genie of Steel." The corporations were using Joe to convey their ideal of a hardworking steelworker: "All I want is to work all the time except when I eat, just like a jackass." Joe Magarac was everything the industry needed to succeed, and possibly the antithesis of what the workers wanted.
Joe Magarac's true origin or meaning to the immigrant steelworkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century aside, he has been used as an icon for Pittsburgh steel-making and Pittsburgh history alike. If Joe Magarac stood for the ideals of the steel industry at one time, he now stands as a historical reminder of the struggles faced by the city's workers over time. As early as 1948, artists were using Joe as a subject, like William Gropper's famous painting, "Joe Magarac." Today, a statue of blond haired, blue-eyed Joe Magarac bending steel, stands in Pittsburgh's amusement park, Kennywood Park. Thirty historical murals scattered throughout downtown Pittsburgh feature him, including the mural above of Joe making steel. Doris Dyen works to preserve cultural heritage for Pittsburgh's Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. She believes that, "In the wrenching process of the steel industry's precipitous declining…Joe Magarac…has become immensely important to displaced workers, whose self-esteem and sense of identity have been severely challenged."
The controversy over the origin of Joe Magarac is as hot as a Bessemer blast furnace, but with the steel industry in our past, the debate loses relevance. To the modern-day Pennsylvanian, Joe Magarac symbolizes a century of multi-cultural explosion amidst labor exploitation obscured by the Pittsburgh smog; a century that influenced Western Pennsylvania into the twenty-first. A city known for its emphasis on the preservation of heritage, Pittsburgh is claiming their Slavic "hero" as their symbol of a difficult but cherished past.
Photo credits include Bruce S. Cridlebaugh at pghbridges.com