'Mill Stories' documentary shows history of Sparrows Point, loss felt by former workers

The 'Mill Stories' documentary about Sparrows Point shows how the loss of an industry devastated its workers.

For many Bethlehem Steel mill workers, their middle-class jobs at the old Sparrows Point plant amounted to a military-style vocation: A tough, dangerous daily grind that required them constantly to support one another.

When what was once the largest steel plant in the world closed in 2012, a profound sense of loss descended upon the thousands who had looked up at the lit-up star atop the mill each year as a symbol of their livelihood and a fixture on the Baltimore skyline.

"It was such a part of our identity," former mill worker Troy Pritt said Sunday. "It wasn't a job. It was who you were."

Pritt and other former Bethlehem Steel employees are interviewed in "Mill Stories," the new documentary produced by William C. Shewbridge of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Michelle Stefano of the Maryland State Arts Council.

The documentary explores the history of the steel industry in Baltimore and the after-effects of its collapse on the men and women who worked in it. It was screened at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Sunday afternoon.

In the film, Pritt reads a piece he has written about the sense of abandonment workers felt when they were sent home, jobless.

"The furnace was cold and the steel no longer flowed. Silence enveloped the land that hadn't heard silence in over 100 years.

"He stood in the parking lot, not knowing what to do next. Four generations of his family gave their lives to the mill.

"When the boss passed him in the parking lot, he yelled out, 'Where do I go?' The boss replied, 'Go home.'

"He nodded in recognition. However, he didn't understand.

"'I am home,' he thought."

Randy Duncan tears up in the film as he speaks about his love for the plant.

"It's tough to see it go," he said. "A day doesn't go by that I don't think about it. A week doesn't go by that I don't dream about it."

Former workers remember how the steel mill served as a microcosm of society. As America changed, so did the mill. Bathrooms became desegregated. Women won the chance to take on jobs that had been denied to them. The rise of unions brought about strikes for better conditions.

Through it all, the mill represented a slice of the American Dream that former employees say has all but disappeared: well-paying unskilled industrial labor.

Employees could get a job out of high school and earn $25 an hour, with a pension and life insurance paid by the company.

"We used to call it Fantasy Island," says Pete Ross, another former worker.

The job carried dangers, though, including workplace deaths and asbestos poisoning. Along with the long hours, former workers say, the conditions brought employees together.

"We were almost like soldiers," Pritt says. "We depended on one another. We supported one another. That was our battlefield. We marched in every day. It wasn't about the money, it wasn't about the benefits, as much as it was who we were as a people."

Watching the mill close, former crane operator Lettis Sills says, was "like your first heartbreak."

"It's hard," she said. "It's always gonna be a hole there, because nothing can fulfill that."

Darlene Redemann says all her friends worked at Sparrows Point. Losing her job meant more than just no paycheck — the social structure of her life collapsed, too.

"The guy next to you wasn't an employee, he was your best friend," Redemann says. "You knew everybody's children and wives. ... That was the saddest part about leaving Bethlehem Steel. I had to leave all my friends behind."

Pete Koutsoutis, a 57-year-old former blast furnace laborer from 1978 to 1987, said Sunday that the fact that the documentary was being screened at a museum was concerning.

"It's a shame we're saying this is history," he said. "It's bad for our country."

The film has also been screened in Britain, Italy and Croatia. It is scheduled to be shown at the Ethnografilm Festival in Paris on March 30, and at Lehigh University on April 21.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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