The Ashland Beacon
In 1986, Eastern, Kentucky country artist Dwight Yoakam recorded and sang Readin', Rightin', Rt. 23 that every steel worker who worked at ARMCO Steel in Ashland, Kentucky could relate:
“They learned readin', writin', Route 23
To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
They learned readin', writin', roads to the north
To the luxury and comfort a coal miner can't afford
They thought readin', writin', Route 23
Would take them to the good life that they had never seen
They didn't know that old highway
Could lead them to a world of misery…
Have you ever seen 'em
Put the kids in the car after work on Friday night
Pull up in a holler about 2 a.m.
And see a light still shinin' bright
Those mountain folks sat up that late
Just to hold those little grandkids
In their arms, in their arms
And I'm proud to say that I've been blessed
And touched by their sweet hillbilly charm”
Those who have worked in the steel industry know that it’s not an easy job, but it is one to have proudly served. Men traveled to Ashland, Kentucky to be part of the growing industry. Some left their families for work while others brought them here for a better opportunity. Ashland has been a part of the steel industry since the 1920’s that became named ARMCO Steel Corporation on April 17, 1948. It was a fully integrated mill and the first continuous rolling mill in the nation. Working at the steel mill has been passed down through the generations. The Ashland community has seen growth and loss from the steel industry, yet its history will continue to be shared for years to come.
Boyd County native, Tim Meade, started working at ARMCO when he was 19 years old and worked there for 41 years. He started working as a labor operator in 1976 and retired in 2018 as Senior Maintenance Technician Electrician. His father, RC Meade, also worked at the plant for 42 years. His family moved from Magoffin County for better job opportunities, which is how he came to Ashland and later worked at ARMCO. Meade proudly showed mementos from the days of working at ARMCO: a sample of pig iron from the Amanda Furnace, his father’s 10k gold plated ARMCO Veteran Service Pin when he reached 35 years of service, and his father’s ARMCO ID keyring, which was used to enter the mill and collect his paycheck every Thursday. Meade loved working at ARMCO because everyone took pride in their work. One of the slogans by George M. Verity, who was the founder of the American Rolling Mill Company in 1899 stated, “ARMCO spirit is a comprehensive vital force which finds expression in the practical application of policies built on a platform of Christian principles in which selfish purpose has no place.” That selfless mentality and attitude was key to establishing a strong work foundation. Meade shared, “The workers all turned out to be family due to spending so much time together. The mill was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Work didn’t stop because of a holiday, snow or flood. ARMCO was self-sufficient; we did whatever it took to keep it running.”
Keith Holbrook also had family ties to the steel industry. His father, two grandfathers and mother-in-law all served the Ashland area. His grandfather was one of the first ones working at the Ashland steel plant. His father worked from 1950-1986. His mother-in-law, Gertrude Rice, signed every requisition to build the Bellefonte Furnace during the war. Holbrook worked for 35 years from 1970-2005. He worked 10 years in the blast furnace department and then started working maintenance in 1980. Holbrook described the experience as being “raised from a shovel to a bigger field. We were always shoveling something. It was hard work, but the pay was decent. I got to work with a lot of characters. We mostly knew each other by nicknames instead of real names. We always tried to have a good time and have lots of laughs and good stories to tell.”
Little remains of ARMCO Steel now; however the mill’s legacy will not be forgotten. Fortunately, in 2019, worker Mel Smith, found the two original ARMCO signs that originally were placed at the steel mill entrances. Orville Smith, who is the brother of Mel Smith, just celebrated his 30 year anniversary of retirement from the mill. Smith worked as a combustion engineer for 30 years. He attended meetings with his brother pleading for the ARMCO sign to be restored. It was through the work of Judge Executive Eric Chaney and the current commissioners that the sign now is proudly displayed at ARMCO Park.
Chaney worked with local businesses Ashland Fabricating & Welding and Young Signs to get the best pieces of the original signs combined to make a new sign. Steve and Brandon Layman fabricated the steel structures for the sign. Young Signs repaired the signs by buffing and sanding the letters, as well as digging the footer and setting the concrete and steel for the sign to be displayed at ARMCO Park. Young Signs was actually a part of painting the original ARMCO signs, so it meant the world to be asked to help restore the sign for the Ashland community. W.B. Young, who started the Young Signs company in 1930, previously worked for the American Rolling Mill in the 1920’s. His son, David Young, now runs the family sign business, and shared stories his father told him about his days at the mill. Young reminisced, “Dad was a passer and catcher of the metal when it came across different stations on the roller. It was a back and forth rough job. Dad talked about having to stop sometimes to resole his shoes because of the heat from the fire. Dad was a hard worker because he knew he had to provide for his family. He was talented, skilled and disciplined.” Those characteristics carried over when he started the Young Signs company; he didn’t go to school to learn the craft. Young learned the painting business from his father. He recalled being in his twenties and helping his father paint the sign for the ARMCO Steel signs and hang them at the entrance locations of the mill. Young also did the water tower painting tower when the mill changed to AK. Young felt that everything came full circle for this final project involving the ARMCO signs.
The ceremony held at ARMCO Park on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022 for the sign unveiling brought a crowd of Ashland supporters and former workers from the mill. Orville Smith was elated with joy seeing the sign placed at ARMCO Park. His sister even drove from Louisville to attend the ceremony. ARMCO holds dear significance to his family as four generations of the family worked there at some point in their lives. Smith’s grandfather, father, brother and son all worked there. Smith recalled his son, Steve Smith working there in the summer and bringing his roommate in to see the coke plant. Steve would say, “Right there is the reason I’m staying in college.” For Smith, ARMCO will always be “well-remembered. It was appreciated by the county and well supported.”
Boyd County native, Rick Potter, who worked at the plant for over 20 years, attended the ceremony for the sign’s unveiling. Potter declared, “I believe the sign is at home now. ARMCO Steel is the reason why this park exists. I remember seeing that ARMCO sign as a kid going to visit my grandparents, who lived in Russell. I wanted to see it again because it brought back memories. I’m thankful for Judge Executive Eric Chaney and the current commissioners for saving this sign forever. ARMCO was the base industry that built this community and the city of Ashland. Ashland’s population went from around 6,000 people to 32,000 with ARMCO as the leading industry. The steel mill will forever be missed.”
Sadness and disappointment were felt among Ashland residents upon the mill’s closure. The steel industry provided the commerce and growth of the city. Judge Executive Eric Chaney discussed how the placing of the ARMCO sign in ARMCO Park was a great community effort. Chaney stated, “It was very touching for me personally because Boyd County has always been known as industrial and to watch it dwindle was difficult. Seeing that sign raised overhead by the crane was unbelievable! That was a full circle experience watching the sign brought home. Mel Smith was the key stone of that project, and I’m thankful to have had a small part of it.” Chaney continued, “We should never forget where we come from and our roots. The only way the future can remember the past is for us to find ways to document it. There is more to come!”
Chaney hinted at another project in the works at ARMCO Park, which involves the placing of items from ARMCO and AK Steel around the area where the new Shelter House No. 3 will be built. Mel Smith and his brother Orville are passionate about keeping the history of the mill alive and will likely work closely with Chaney on this project. Orville Smith is also wanting to work on a restoration of the monuments from the steel mill down at the Ashland Riverfront. He has a Facebook group for anyone who wants to join to learn more about the days of ARMCO. Members can post memories or photos regarding their memories with the steel mill. The group is Ashland ARMCO Pre AK.
Even after the passing of the steel mill and the jobs lost, the workers and community still stand strong. Artist Andy Warhol stated, “The idea is not to live forever, but to create something that will.” We will never forget; the spirit of ARMCO will forever stand.