In 1915, five American men pulled their knowledge and resources to start The Copper Clad Steel Company in Rankin, Pennsylvania. The entire labor force consisted of 23 men who manufactured copper-covered steel wire. Later known as The Copperweld Steel Company, the company thrived on a less complex method of welding by obtaining a molten weld between copper and steel.
In 1923, lightning struck the mill, destroying the wire mill and dye room, as well as the shipping and testing departments. Ever resilient, Copperweld rebuilt and continued its success. In fact, just four years after the fire, the company’s copper wire stretched the Smoke Canyon River in Idaho, becoming the longest span of wire in the world at the time.
The Copperweld Steel Company quickly outgrew their plant in Rankin, PA and thus moved to the Axe and Tool Works in Glassport, PA in May of 1927, where they became the standard for telephone wire and electrical cable in the U.S and where Penny would dedicate the next 36 years of his life…
When asked about his days at the mill, Penny would reply, “I loved my job, and do you know why? Because it was HOT, HEAVY, and HARD, and it paid good money!” He worked in the rolling mill as a catcher, where he caught hot copper rods and moved them from one conveyor belt to the next. It was so hot and grueling that he could only work for 15 minutes at a time before breaking for 15 minutes.
The job was extremely dangerous, so he wore long underwear and a safety mask year round to keep the copper dust from reaching his skin. Still, accidents happened, and a few close calls left him with visible scars on his arms and hands. In the 36 years he worked at the mill, he only missed five or six days of work, and he never complained; he felt genuinely lucky to be working at Copperweld.
But for as much as he loved his job, he loved his family that much more. On paydays, many of the millworkers would stop at a bar in town, spending much of their paycheck before returning home, but not Penny. He took every last cent home to his wife and kids and reveled in the minutes and hours they spent over dinner or in front of the TV in the evenings. He’d sit there, sipping hot cocoa, and occasionally scratch under his arm or at his pant leg, where copper dust had irritated his skin. Rose sat nearby, the charms Penny had received from years of service at Copperweld, dangling at her wrist. She wore those charms proudly until the day she died.
In the summer, Penny and the mill workers were given packs of Chuckles® candy to keep their sugar levels up. Knowing how much his kids loved this candy, Penny wouldn’t eat them; he’d trudge through the eight-hour work days and bring them home at week’s end, the smiles on his kids’ faces far greater than his own comfort. I’m not sure how he got through those hot summer days at the mill, except to say that he himself was made of steel. All the things that made Copperweld steel a beacon in the industry—strength, conductivity, and permanence—made Penny a beacon in his family.
When his son, Wayne, was a junior in high school, Penny brought him to the mill to show him what a days work looked like. Wayne’s body wasn’t resilient to the heat and dust, and so he stepped out often for cool, clean air over the course of that 8-hour day. Penny, however, was a workhorse. Well into his 50s, he handled the hot copper rods with the strength and energy of men half his age.
At the end of the day, he patted Wayne on the shoulder, looked him right in the eye, and said,
“Now do you see why you need to go to college?”
Penny laughed, and though he truly did love the grueling, day in and day out, severity of his job, he was serious; he wanted more for his kids.
But what he failed to see was that he’d already given them more than they could ever hope for.
Rose's Copperweld charms
Penny & family circa 1950s