Warren, O. - In the days before vinyl graphics and digital printers, sign makers used a brush, One Shot sign paint, and a steady hand. Republic Steel had a sign shop in their Warren works that hand lettered safety signs, trucks and locomotives among other things. Their work could be seen at the Warren plant, as well as the Youngstown mills, Niles works and Newton Falls plant. The photo below was taken by Rick Rowlands of Youngstown Steel Heritage Foundation during an auction of former Republic/WCI/RG Steel equipment as the new owner was preparing to scrap the mill. I wish that sign shop sign could have been preserved damn it, it is a testament to the dying art form of hand lettered signs. And basic steelmaking.
By night I am a guerrilla historian, but day I am a mild mannered project manager for a commercial sign company. I enjoy the work, it pays the bills and lets me travel, but the projects that really excite me are the ones that involve a real live sign painter. It is truly an art form that is dying before my eyes. These people (wall dogs and letterheads they call themselves) are incredibly difficult to find. I am up to the challenge of finding a painter when a customer requests it, I feel like I am doing something to preserve the craft. Some of the work can be emulated with a vinyl plotter and a decent graphic designer but it is just not the same.
Case in point: the hard hats below. I had been looking for the man that lettered the 35 or 40 years of service anniversary hard hats that were given to Republic Steel employees in the Youngstown district.
Thanks to this website, and the power of the internet, I was able to locate the man who is not only still alive, but still practicing his craft!! I was excited just to talk to him for a moment, but when he agreed to letter a hard hat for me like the ones he used to do down the mill I was ecstatic. This is now one of my prize possessions, one that I will keep for the rest of my life. Hand lettered and signed by the man himself, Jack Tolson. Below are photos of my new hat next to the one he wore in the mill for years.
Since my time working in the steel industry consisted of a half a shift cutting tube rounds down the former Youngstown Sheet & Tube Brier Hill works, I didn't think it would be right to ask him to put 30 years of service on the hat. Instead, he included The Rust Jungle logo, which is a tribute to the YST hook and bucket logo. He was also kind enough to put on some origioanl Republic Steel, WCI Steel, and RG Steel stickers on it that he still had from his time down there. Jack worked there that long, starting in the 50's in the galvanized department. He's a great guy with great stories to tell. I must have been at his house for an hour and a half shooting the shit with him.
"Sign Painter - Paint Shop"
When I heard they were tearing down the blast furnace, I frantically starting calling the demo company in an effort to purchase the remaining signage in the mill. I had seen the hand painted signs on the exterior, assumed the same guy that lettered the hats painted them, and was on a mission to see them preserved.
As I was offering cash, the contractor allowed me access to the entire blast fce. side of the mill. My requests since that day requesting a quote to purchase the signs have gone unanswered. I am only looking to buy a small amount of scrap metal, not tons, so the sons of bitches don't have time to reply. To hell with em.
I planned on donating most of the signs to the Youngstown Steel Heritage Foundation to be displayed, but to no avail. I did photograph them, and they can't sell that to the Chinese as scrap. See below for some examples of Jack's handiwork.
"DANGER - DO NOT STAND IN FRONT OF CANNON" This safety sign was referencing an air cannon that would keep migratory birds out of some holding pond. It also did a great job of keeping residents of Warren awake. It was some EPA regulation. The pond is gone, the cannon is gone, the BOF side of the mill is gone, but this sign Jack painted remians.
"TRUCKS OVER 5 TON - STOP - STAY ON R.R. TRACK" - This sign was just before the hot metal bridge that ran over Main Ave. that would take molten iron from the blast fce. side over to basic oxygen furnace to be converted to steel. The bridge is to the right, the cold blast furnace peeks up to the left.
"MAHONING VALLEY DISTRICT - FIRE BRIGADE COMPETITION" - I found this years ago inside a boxcar across Pine Ave. from Republic. Apparently it referred to a competition between the fire departments in different Republic mills in the Steel Valley.
Another example of Jack's work.
So that's it. Even if the demolition company wouldn't sell me the signs and is content to let them go to the scrap heap, I still have a piece of our history.