T-L photos and story
By KIM LOCCISANO
Times Leader Staff Writer
T-L Photos/KIM LOCCISANO
This sample board of the LaBelle Nail Company’s wide range of cut nail products is a key part of a display installed at the Artisan Center in Wheeling. It provides a glimpse into the diversity of the cut nails produced in this region, ranging from the most basic design, such as a carpet tacks, to the massive Marine Nail.
Kegs of cut nails were in almost constant motion as they were filled sealed and removed from the production floors of various local mills such as the historic LaBelle Cut Nail Factory. The production levels of the completed kegs reflected a person’s potential job security in a highly physical and extremely unforgiving work environment. The cut nail machines used at LaBelle remained virtually untouched for a full century as far as extreme differences to the mechanical technology used to produce them was concerned. One of the biggest changes in the industry came when mules used to cart sleds on an endless loop on the main production floor were replaced. Industry historians have said the initial change was simply to the brute force available via manpower.
Wheeling Corrugating and the Wheeling Steel mill in Martins Ferry together often left a footprint in countless homes, schools, churches, community parks and commercial operations across America as tubs, buckets, trash cans, pails, watering cans and other items were produced. Some history books currently in use even carry a photo of a pre-Civil War era iron cooking pot and lid which sports a telltale stamp noting its era of origin: “No. 2 Wheeling, Va.” They are often prized as purchases made at antique shows and shops around the country. Stamped names and design notes, as well as paper labels, are key to resale value as collectibles.
The display at the Artisan Center in Wheeling is home to a large collection illustrating the diversity of the products made and sold through the company which reshaped itself numerous times over generations but which is most commonly recognized locally by the names Wheeling Steel and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. At the heart of the display is a machine pulled from the floor of the LaBelle Cut Nail Factory which truly embodies a physical connection to the start of an industry. This industry has had a profound impact on virtually every American’s life since the time when its operator was a man who had mastered the unforgiving and demanding processes of its operation and had earned the right to be called a “Nailer.” It was a moniker of extreme respect within the metal industries of this region. Today the name has been adjusted slightly, but is still one which denotes a person dedicated to their work in today’s steel industry — a “steelworker.”
There is no mistaking the origin of this traditional pail: Wheeling Corrugating shaped it, and it was then galvanized so it would hold up to heavy use for decades. Unfortunately, the galvanizing lines for the popular tub and bucket products at the Martins Ferry works have long ago been demolished and the site stripped of any sign of its previous production efforts.
The cut nail, sometimes referred to as a square nail, may look like a rather unimpressive creation, but there is no arguing the historic significance the item played in the development of this nation, particularly when it came to the period of westward expansion.
Any student of the history of this region has long understood the importance of the roots of the modern metal industry and just how important the cut nail produced in the Wheeling area mills for generations came to be within that industry.
Even as early as 1870, Wheeling came to be referred to as the "Nail City," but it was soon considered a title to be confined solely to the eastern side of the Ohio River's boarders.
Just across river in Bridgeport, pioneers traveling on land and those using flatboats made every effort to secure an adequate supply of nails to take with them on their westward treks, and they were available in this area at prices not available elsewhere, say historians.
Understanding how important the need for nails was when it came to being able to complete new projects, such highly valued items were often retrieved by just about any means necessary from structures no longer suitable for use or needed.
It was not unusual for a pioneer to burn down an old structure so the nails could be retrieved before they moved on. The nails were considered too costly and too important to future successes to simply leave them behind as a family or businessman moved forward, according to numerous accounts of both a personal and a business nature of practices of the day.
Bridgeport, and the surrounding area, became known as "The Gateway to the West."
This example, or sample board, of the LaBelle Nail Company's wide range of cut nail products is a key part of a display installed at the Artisan Center in Wheeling meant to preserve and share a message with the public of just how important the metal industry has been to this region and to the nation as a whole for a very long time.
This sample board shares a glimpse into the diversity of the cut nails produced in this region, as it includes samples of locally produced cut nails ranging from the most basic design, such as a carpet tacks, to the massive Marine Nail.
Successfully securing work as a nailer was entry into a lucrative business opportunity that was expected to be handed directly from one generation to the next, providing job security while not letting too many people into the trade.
The history of cut nail products is inextricably tied to production at mills in the Upper Ohio Valley, where not so long ago the last vestige of the industry and the historic works was idled. The LaBelle Nail Factory was originally a venture involving more than 20 individuals.
The long ago quieted plant is still visible to those traveling east on the Veteran's Memorial Bridge as the exit ramp enters West Virginia, the intermittent activity there in recent months has no apparent tie-in to the steel works.
One of the more recent accolades shared with those who had worked at LaBelle until its closing more than a decade ago came when it was selected to be the supplier of needed cut nails for renovations at Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.