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New video captures 'History from the Mill'

At one point, the thick gray smoke being pumped into the air from the South Chicago mills demonstrated prosperity. But with the smoke long gone, a group of South Side residents hope a new documentary will preserve the stories of the thousands of workers who once made this area hum.

Metropolitan Family Services worked with South Chicago high school students and community organizations, such as the Southeast Chicago Historical Society, to interview retired mill workers from the community. The project was funded by the Chicago Community Trust, Claretian Associates and LISC/Chicago.

Photo: Southeast Chicago Historical Society

Workers from the #2 Weld Shop at U.S. Steel's South Works in 1972.

“The steel mills have really died here,” said Jackie Samuel, Claretian Associates’ director of the New Communities Program. “It’s history that we don’t want to lose.”

Students interview seniors

For “History from the Mill,” about 20 high school student volunteers from Washington High School and New Millennium School of Health interviewed 16 retired mill workers. Each video interview lasts about an hour. A 10-minute summary including interview excerpts and historic photos of the mills is posted on YouTube.

Rod Sellers, a retired history teacher from Washington High School and volunteer at the Southeast Chicago Historical Society, said the interviews were conducted in the museum after closing hours and at Metropolitan Family Services.

Dee Spiech, a licensed clinical social worker at Metropolitan Family Services and the project director, asked Sellers if he wanted to assist with the project because of his experience with oral history projects similar to “History from the Mill.” Sellers agreed and became a consultant to the students and the project.

Sellers said he conducted the first few interviews then helped train the students in the interview process. “It was a basic format,” Sellers said. “How [the mill workers] started, when they started, how they got the job there, etc.”

After the basic questions, the interviews went more in depth and covered subjects such as equal employment and working conditions. “It takes a real effort to make the logistics come together with a project like this,” Sellers said.

“I think it was successful.” Michelle Scheidt, program manager at Metropolitan Family Services, said the project was a way to work with senior citizens within the community and keep them engaged while at the same time give high school students some history about their community.

“As more years go by,” Scheidt said, “we’ll lose that opportunity [to speak with the mill workers].”

Full interviews available

Scheidt said there is a promotional 10-minute DVD providing excerpts from each interview, with the hope that it will provoke people’s interest.

Photo: Southeast Chicago Historical Society

 An aerial view of Wisconsin Steel in 1960.

The interviews took place from 2002-2007. About 100 introductory DVDs will be distributed locally. Both the introductory and the interview DVDs are available at Metropolitan Family Services, 3062 E. 91st Street; Claretian Associates, 9108 S. Brandon; and the Southeast Chicago Historical Society.

See more historic photos archived by the Southeast Chicago Historical Society.

Brian Patrick Roach is a student in the Department of Journalism at Columbia College. Read more of his stories at ChicagoTalks.org.

 

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