A ‘Seamless’ History of Youngstown Steel

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — It starts, as most history lessons do, at the beginning.

Before Vallourec Star erected its billion-dollar steel mill in Youngstown, before Black Monday, before Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. set a company record of 3,452 tons of steel produced in a day – over the course of three shifts – during World War II, before the first Italian immigrants settled in Brier Hill.

Before all of that, a new exhibit at the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor funded by Vallourec Star, “Seamless Transition,” starts with the farmland once owned by industrialist George Tod. It was there that coal was discovered in the late 1800s, setting in motion the forces that would shape the city’s history.

“The reason we’re here is because of the steel-making expertise and tradition in the Mahoning Valley,” said Vallourec Star President Judson Wallace at the exhibit’s grand opening Aug. 30. “There was a time when Youngstown was nothing but steel. We feel we’re carrying on the tradition here.”

The company’s history in the Mahoning Valley dates to 2002, when it purchased North Star Steel. Eleven years later, Vallourec opened its billion-dollar seamless-pipe mill there. The exhibit covers the early days of steel in the Mahoning Valley, the history of the Brier Hill neighborhood and Vallourec’s work at the site, once home to Sheet & Tube’s Brier Hill Works.

Funded by a grant from the company, the exhibit was researched and developed by students in the Applied History Practicum course at Youngstown State University, led by Thomas Leary.

Among the artifacts on display are a piercer point used by Vallourec to roll steel at the mill, a worker’s safety jacket, a shovel from the plant’s groundbreaking, a plaque commemorating President Barack Obama’s visit in 2010 and a Wall Street Journal cover story on the plant.

Also featured are pictures from Sheet & Tube: one of floor-to-ceiling time cards and workers clocking in, one of a wedding in Brier Hill, one of the neighborhood’s business district.

“Until the advent of modern transportation like streetcars, Brier Hill was distant from the center of Youngstown, thus the area developed its own commercial enterprises, schools and churches,” one display reads adjacent to a picture of a row of storefronts.

“We talk about the history of that site and Brier Hill and bring it into the 21st century,” said Donna DeBlasio, director of the Center for Applied History at YSU. “We have to let people know that we’re still making steel in the Mahoning Valley.”

Seamless Transition is dedicated to the late Kim Stefanski, an attorney who secured land deals for Vallourec to build its seamless-pipe plant, and Travis Ramsey, a Vallourec engineer who helped with its development, and who died at age 31 of cancer.

“I know the steel-making part. I know that very well. To be able to dedicate this exhibit to them is very meaningful for everyone at Vallourec,” said Wallace of his favorite part of the exhibit.

YSU President Jim Tressel noted the exhibit is the latest collaboration between YSU and Vallourec Star. Engineering and business students have worked as interns and done capstone projects there. “There’s the cultural connection,” he said. “Because it’s the steel industry and that’s what built our town, we can share a reminder of that and the resurgence.”

The university president also pointed to the significance of the Labor Day holiday weekend, which coincided with the opening of the exhibit. The museum opened in 1992, Tressel’s sixth year as head football coach at YSU, and he recalled bringing the team there after every season so they could learn about the steel industry’s history and significance.

“History is important … whether it’s military history or labor history and the genius, innovative, entrepreneurial spirit this country has had, especially in industries like steel here, rubber in Akron, glass in Toledo and aeronautics in Dayton,” Tressel said. “We can remind our students that, here in Ohio, we’ve made an impact. A lot of the niceties we enjoy now are because of labor.”

Pictured: Opening the exhibit the Friday before Labor Day were YSU President Jim Tressel; Jocelyn Burton, who is studying for her master’s in history and is part of the class that researched and developed the exhibit; Paula Stefanski, widow of Kim Stefanski, an attorney who helped Vallourec secure land deals for its pipe mill; and Vallourec Star President Judson Wallace.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.