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Ironworkers Are Newest Addition to Occupational Folklife Project

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The American Folklife Center is delighted to announce that an important oral history collection documenting the lives and working careers of Ironworkers in the Upper Midwest is the latest addition to the Occupational Folklife Project collections online at the Library of Congress’s website.

Mike Taqee, Local 63 Iron Workers Union (IWU), doing “tape welding” of stainless steel at Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center, 1060 East 47th Street Chicago, Illinois 60653. Photo courtesy of Michael Taqee.

In 2011, Professor James P. Leary, from the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Dr. Clark D. “Bucky” Halker of Chicago, Illinois, received an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center though the non-profit organization Company of Folk to create a collection of documentation called Cultural Traditions of Ironworkers in America’s Upper Midwest. Leary and Halker independently interviewed a total of 26 ironworkers in Illinois and Wisconsin during 2011-2012. Most interviews were conducted at workers’ homes and at local union headquarters, especially the Iron Workers Union Local #63 Headquarters in Broadview, Illinois; Local #383 in Madison, Wisconsin; and Local #1 in Forest Park, Illinois.

This newly available collection consists primarily of audio interviews, but is supplemented with substantial photographic documentation, including both images shot during the interviews and copies of informative on-the-job photographs taken between the 1950s and the 1980s, which were contributed by some of the interviewees. Those interviewed include ironworkers from a variety of generational, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, including several involved in Local #63’s initiative to train Native American ironworkers.

Bucky Halker at Iron Workers Union (IWU) Local #63 Headquarters in Broadview, Illinois, 2011.

Project directors Leary and Halker are excited to present this fascinating collection online. “In 1892, philosopher William James was dazzled by ‘the sight of a workman doing something on the dizzy edge of a sky-scaling iron construction . . . Heroism was before me in the daily lives of the laboring classes.’ We too marveled at the skill, grit, good humor and everyday heroics of the ironworkers who generously shared rich accounts of demanding, often dangerous work essential to our nation’s bridges and buildings,” they said.

Find the collection online at this link.

Cultural Traditions of Ironworkers in America’s Upper Midwest is part of the Occupational Folklife Project, a multi-year AFC initiative to document workers in contemporary America. Find other collections resulting from this project online at this link.

Over the past eight years, supported by AFC’s competitive Archie Green Fellowships program, more than 40 researchers and research teams throughout the United States have received funding to conduct oral histories with workers in a wide variety of trades. Interviewees include ironworkers, hairdressers, electricians, home health care workers, longshoremen, funeral home employees, gold miners, racetrack workers, tobacco farmers, and many more working Americans from all sectors of contemporary society.  Find a list of Archie Green Fellowships awarded by AFC at this link.

James P. Leary speaking at the Library of Congress in July 2013. Photo by Stephen Winick for the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Thanks to these fellowships, part of the AFC’s ongoing , oral histories of hundreds of American workers–stories of how they learned their trades, their skills and work routines, legendary jobs (good and bad), respected mentors and flamboyant co-workers, and their hopes for their futures—are now part of the national record. These OFP oral histories not only enrich our current understanding of our fellow Americans, but will inform scholars and researchers for generations to come about the lives of contemporary workers at the beginning of the 21st century. For information on Occupational Folklife Project’s history and development, visit this link.

As AFC Director Betsy Peterson notes, “Through AFC’s Occupational Folklife Project, researchers and members of the public have direct access to hundreds of hours of compelling fieldwork. They can hear the interviews and view fieldwork images and documentation that previously could be accessed only by visiting the Library in Washington.”


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