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The Steel Industry Restores an Ironworks

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The restoration of a colonial ironworks at Saugus, Massachusetts, was for the American steel industry a bold and imaginative venture. The hazards involved were not the same as had faced John Winthrop the Younger in the 1640's when he launched there the first large scale capitalistic industrial enterprise in the American colonies. But hazards there were, for there could be no advance assurance as to how the public, particularly the citizens of Saugus, would take to this proposal to build a public memorial to pioneers.

On the face of it, people might be skeptical that the country's basic industry really was minded to do something for others, from which no obvious monetary return could be expected. For quite a while the idea had been sedulously cultivated by some of industry's critics that all big business is not only selfish, but has no regard for tradition, the amenities, or even lawful behavior in the absence of a cop. So here was a proposal so foreign to the stereotype image of big business that a gamble on public reaction was involved.

How would a typical New England suburb like the idea of strangers coming into town to build an ironworks that wasn't going to make steel? What would this do to the normal home and business life of the city of 30,000? What about noise and smoke, pollution of the Saugus River, and the disruption of traffic and above all, would this mean the industrialists were going to tear down the old Iron master's House, which the D.A.R. and others had fought so hard to preserve: What kind of people were these going to be, anyway, and was this a case of big business moving into a town to take over and run it? What about safety?

For questions like these to be active it was not necessary that they have any basis in fact or logic. These questions seemed very real when construction began. They had to be answered and fears allayed. Later on more questions were to arise, also demanding satisfactory replies.

Most of the population in Saugus didn't even know then that 300 years earlier an enterprise gigantic for its day had produced iron at the rate of up to eight tons a week at a stone furnace on the riverbank, nor did they know that this had marked the historic beginning of the colonies' attempt to free themselves industrially from dependence on Britain. Actually, the steel men didn't know many facts connected with Winthrop's venture, either. But being practical men, they started to find out, in two ways by hiring an archaeologist to dig into the bank and see what he could find, and at the same time hiring a competent historian to mole through 300 year old records in search of facts.

It was not that the city of Saugus became overwrought at the idea of a restored ironworks. Most citizens dismissed it as a Looney, something that had not to do with them. Some were concerned. Both types had to be informed and influenced in favor of the project, and that was the community relations job.

Objectives were outlined by Hill & Knowlton, Inc., public relations counsel for American Iron and Steel Institute (the steel makers' national trade and research association). It was seen at the start that no formula worked out in New York offices could be valid. Staff men were sent to study the local situation.

The first basis of policy in this attempt to win Saugus over was to make sure that the people employed on the project, managers and workmen, made a good impression, and going a little further, took active roles in telling the neighbors what was going on. There were from the start no secrecy, no "Keep Out" signs, no unnecessary referral of inquiries to someone else. Everybody on the project became a missionary. He could hardly have helped himself, due to the contagious enthusiasm of Roland Robbins, the chief archaeologist, an ebullient man who gave over 150 illustrated lectures on the restoration in the Boston area during the six years of building.

Widening out from project employees, the local weekly, dailies, and radio stations in nearby Lynn were kept informed when important visitor groups were due, and these local media never once were scooped by the big papers.

Crises arose, inevitably. An early one came when an unauthorized story appeared to the effect that 40,000 steelworkers, headed by the board of directors of the Steel Institute wearing leather aprons, would descend on Saugus for a mammoth parade. Some townsfolk were aghast and the canard had to be laid low. Then there came the yarn, that there really was silver, not iron on the premises. When Robbins appeared one day with a mine detector, searching for some of the five tons of artifacts he uncovered, a rumor spread that this was a uranium search. But as months had gone along, the project people, simply by always being ready with true answers for every question, had established their reputation. So they were believed when they said a rumor had nothing to it.

With fears quieted, the public relations people next tackled the problem of inertia. The answer was found in the town's children. Most good weather clays a group of grade school youngsters could be seen peering at Robbins and his men as they drew forth from a past age such things as an iron pot, a stone Indian hammer (largest ever found in Massachusetts), a seventeenth century lady's shoe, a clay pipe, a cannonball, an ironsmith's tool, and to climax the lot, a 500 pound iron hammerhead from the ancient forge.

A booklet describing the project was in preparation, as was a filmstrip prepared for school audiences. The premiere of the film and first distribution of the booklet were presented during National Education Week in the Saugus schools. Nearly every family in town not only heard the proudly eager children's story of Saugus' place in history, but each school pupil had brought home an illustrated booklet for parents to read.

Sentiments in the town to the engendering of the local pride that had at first seemed so hard to come by, from that time on, the ironworks visitors multiplied a hundredfold. Teachers brought busloads of students. Family cars parked in the limited area began to present problems on weekends mostly local folk.

But the most crucial problem had yet to be solved. Archaeologist Robbins had calculated with the aid of the historian and architects that the site of the 300 year old waterwheel which had powered the furnace lay 30 feet underground, at a spot exactly in the middle of Central Street, a main traffic artery, and adjacent to the works. The only way this could be determined was to dig. To dig meant to reroute the traffic artery, at least temporarily.

This called for action by the selectmen. The selectmen were inclined to say "No," with emphasis, but were willing to let Town Meeting pass on the matter. This situation was handled by local people on the project making a presentation to Town Meeting. The PR people worked in the background but stayed away. The responsible leaders of the town were given an account of what the restoration would mean to Saugus as a tourist center. Stress was laid on the moral obligation of the community to help preserve its own heritage.

This appeal to rectitude really won the crisis. Local people began to see their town in new perspective. Now that curiosity and interest had been aroused, people began to remember things. Somebody remembered that an iron pot holding about a quart, said by legend to have been the first product of the ironworks, was still in existence. The pot was found. Metallurgists took grains from one of the pot's legs, to examine them by spectroscope. A similar test was made of artifacts recently dug up at the works. Pot and artifacts matched.

New discoveries at the ironworks, such as the forge where Joseph Jenks may have made the dies for the pine tree shilling, first American coin, research in England, where a twin to the Saugus hammerhead was found near the Forest of Dean arrival of a 200 year old tree from Maryland to make the axle for the restored waterwheel these became news events that ranked in local importance with the day's murders and politics. New buildings were going up. Men from abroad, geologists, and other scientists from across the nation, come to study the excavations, made an impression. As the time approached for the dedicatory exercises, it seemed that the headaches were over.

But there had to be a final one. The ironworks site is relatively small. It would not accommodate the thousands who might have turned out if the general public had been admitted. With the governor, a United States senator, and top ranking industrialists present, somebody was going to be disappointed. The dedication would have to be an invitational affair.

Just in time, it was discovered that the 300th anniversary of the founding of Saugus would roughly coincide with the dedication day. This inspired the steel men to make a gracious gesture, hardly in keeping with the old public stereotype of the hard boiled industrialist. The sponsors of the restoration offered to help to sponsor the town's celebration of its birth. Now the sponsors could know they belonged. They had turned a last minute crisis into an advantage, and townsfolk recognized them as neighbors and as participants in the Saugus heritage as indeed they
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