Friday, January 13, 2017

The Rolling Mills of Middletown



Tom T Hall is a story teller in song.  One of his songs, The Rolling Mills of Middletown, released 45 years ago in 1972, tells the story of two friends who moved from Kentucky to work in the ARMCO steel mill in Middletown, Ohio, halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton. The one catches his unhappy wife cheating with "some dayshift guy" and throws himself into a blast furnace.  The song meant nothing to me, other than being another sad country song until I read JD Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy: a memoir of a family and a culture in crisis". Suddenly, I could put the song into both historical context and get a glimpse of a world now long past where good paying factory jobs were readily available to people with highschool or less education. The loss of these jobs is greatly mourned by the white working class of the rust belt who elected Donald Trump.

Middletown is the setting of Hillbilly Elegy, where Vance's grandparents moved from backwoods Kentucky in the 1940s in search of a better life and where Vance grew up. It is the location of the huge steel plant owned by American Rolling Mill Corporation a.k.a. Armco Steel a.k.a. AK Steel. According to the AK Steel website, the plant in Middletown is still in operation.

Middletown Works, located in southwest Ohio, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton, is the nation's most productive integrated steel operation. Its carbon steel melting, casting, hot and cold rolling, and finishing operations cover more than 2,791 acres. Middletown Works' hot strip mill is the only domestic mill equipped with pair-cross rolling technology for improved shape and crown control.

What the website doesn't say is how many jobs were shed through automation in the years between Tom T Hall's song and JD Vance's book. But Vance's book covers it quite well, not so much the numbers but the effect on the town and its people. If you have not read it, I would recommend it highly.

12 comments:

  1. Looks like an interesting book! I'm in 'writing mode' not 'reading mode' for the next couple of months, but maybe later... :-)

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    1. Some of us have to make a living. All the best. When are you going to nail a movie and TV contract?

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    2. Dunno. Believe it or not, Hollywood did actually call inquiring about the movie rights for Never Say Spy, but it was just a small studio and I haven't heard anything since. Still, though... it could happen! :-)

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    3. That would be so awesome. And you could play yourself. . . I mean your heroine.

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    4. Hmm, I'm not sure theatre-goers are quite ready for that. And considering that it takes about 30 attempts at still photos to yield one not-too-awful picture of me, by the time they finished shooting the whole film I'd be too old to play the part.

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  2. Glanced at the book in the Barnes and Noble in Flagstaff. Not intrigued enough to spend money on it so it's going to have to wait until I can get it through a public library or spot it for sale super cheap at a thrift store.

    I had forgotten about that particular Tom T. Hall song. My favorite has always been "Watermelon Wine" with "The Year Clayton Delaney Died" running a close second. And of course "400 Hogs" is in a class by itself.

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    1. The book sold well so there should be some in second hand book shops soon enough. I have almost every song Tom T Hall recorded, I think.

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  3. Waylon Jennings sang a song called Cedartown Georgia..love the song..about a woman who goes off with a canebrake man.(man of color) beautiful and sad song.

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    1. I'll have to find it. I have many Waylon songs but not that one

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  4. So you are missing some important aspects to the story behind this song :) My father and grandfather both retired from ARMCO steel and a lot of my highschool buddies work there to this day. Anyway, ARMCO steel commissioned Tom T. Hall to write a song to help them commemorate their anniversary (100 years I think). He came with this entourage and toured the mill and jotted down a few notes. Several months later he returned to Middletown to perform and dedicate this song. The proud executives watched and listened in horror as he unveiled his song about cheating and suicide. Dad said it was quite the scandal. Unfortunately almost all of the industry Middletown once had has dried up and heroin is an epidemic. In the 70's and early 80's however it was a great place to grow up and live. The company even had a "park" that employees and their families could use for a very little fee. Golf course, stocked lake, pic nic grounds, summer day camp, out door movie screen, putt putt, softball diamonds. Those were the days (and ARMCO was an amazing company)....

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    1. Thank you so much for this information. I wish I knew who you were so I could make sure you get my thank you. Much appreciated. Time goes and work becomes more automated all the time. Tough on highschool grads looking for high paying jobs, I guess.

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  5. Tom T Hall did not write that song...
    I've lived in Middletown Ohio all my life. My grandfather, uncles, cousins all retired from The Rolling Mill of Middletown (Armco).
    Now called AK Steel, my husband, father-in-law, brother-in-law and every friend works there.
    Btw...my Uncle Sonny (Joseph Lee Goodloe) wrote that song. Won a $1,000 contest when he sang it in Nashville. Tom T Hall didn't think it was quite good enough to record it but good enough to win the contest. Then Tom T Hall took it and recorded it. It stole it from my uncle. I hope he sets the record straight before he dies. Not a good thing to take a lie to the grave with you.

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