Benwood - Mayor Ed Kuca Jr. remembers when he, his father and many of his neighbors created American-made steel when it was a top industry in the Ohio Valley. Kuca was for many years an operator at Wheeling Corrugating Co., located in the facility in which RG Steel operates in Beech Bottom. While steel is still made there locally, the valley is no longer the major producer is once was and does not provide nearly as many jobs. The factors for the job decline in steel, Kuca said, were a newfound reliance on foreign steel and innovations in automation. In what other industries did seniors work that are no longer here? Around the same time jobs were dwindling in steel, the Fostoria Glass Plant of Moundsville in 1985 closed after the holding company that owned it went bankrupt, leaving 800 jobless. The LaBelle Nail Plant in South Wheeling closed recently after 158 years when company officials claimed foreign competition proved too much to handle. Handmade steel, however, is a thing of the past, in Kuca’s eyes. He is a collector of such old materials and when he looks at the culvert that has not been reproduced since before 1946, the metal bucket he recovered from the Martins Ferry plant or the custom-pressed ceiling panels, he remembers a different time. The machines that made steel when Kuca started in the 1960s barely used electricity. Using ropes, presses, buttons and levers, the machines made steel powered by workers’ muscles alone. When he was hired in 1966, about 700 people worked at the Beech Bottom plant. “That’s why everyone who worked in the (1950s) and (1960s) worked so well,” Kuca said. “It was made in America and sold in America.” After one year of working, his father, Ed Kuca Sr., shared the “tricks of the trade” and so began many long hours of manual labor for today’s Benwood mayor. He remembered spending many hours making grating, which required setting a machine just right to make the correct width of the spaces. He recalled calling his father at 3 a.m. because he couldn’t figure out how to make a particular width right. Kuca Sr. did not hesitate to help his son at that late hour. “When the steel industry took a hit, so did family values,” Kuca said. “Sons usually took after their fathers and they often worked together.” Kuca continued working as many of the people with whom he worked started disappearing from the production line and were replaced by automation. Those who stacked the metal paneling when it came off the belt were replaced by an auto-stacker. Grating was later made by machine and did not require the intricate techniques Kuca used. He held on to his job at the Beech Bottom plant until 2003 when he said he was forced into retirement at age 56. Soon after, the Benwood mayor position opened up and the rest is history. But as the mayor looks at the steel industry today, he said he wonders, “What if we need steel for a national crisis?” With much steel coming from foreign countries and his perceived lack of trained American labor, he said, “We might be in trouble.”
Benwood Mayor and former Wheeling Corrugating Company employee Ed Kuca Jr. shows a piece of handmade steel paneling that is no longer made.