Joe Magarac: Man of Steel

2018-06-05T07:55:22+00:00 May 18th, 2018|

From Belt Publishing’s Folktales and Legends of the Middle West
By Edward McClelland, with illustrations by David Wilson

Though Pittsburghers may not see themselves as Midwesterners, their city was once the steel-making capital of the world and thus closely aligned, economically and culturally, with the Middle West. The furnaces of Andrew Carnegie’s mills, heated with coal from West Virginia’s mines, melted down iron ore from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Minnesota’s Iron Range. Pittsburgh was where the Great Lakes met Appalachia, the two regions combining their riches to produce the world’s strongest alloy.

At the time, America’s steelmaking heartland stretched eastward to Allentown, and westward to Cleveland, Gary, and Chicago. Like the rest of those cities, Pittsburgh attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe, who didn’t speak English, but were willing to work long days in the hot mills. The native-born Americans called the newcomers “Hunkies” — short for Hungarian, even though many came from Poland, Bohemia, Slovakia, Serbia, and Croatia.

Steve Mestrovich came over from Croatia and went to work in a steel mill that smoked and steamed on the banks of the Monongahela River. Along with all the other immigrant steelworkers, Steve lived in Hunkietown, on the flat plain between the hills and the water. His two-story brick house, which was a short walk from the mill gate, had no porch and no front yard. The door opened right onto the sidewalk. When Steve stepped inside every evening, after finishing his shift at the mill, he walked into a house packed with heat from the stove and the smells of his wife’s pierogi and polana kapusta — lamb and rice wrapped in cabbage.

Steve was the best cinderman in the mill. He swept ashes from underneath the soaking pit, the hot furnace where ingots remained soft until they were ready for rolling. His greatest pride, though, was his seventeen-year-old daughter, Mary. With eyes as blue as the ocean Steve had once sailed across, hair as gold as wheat, and skin fairer than the noblest Old Country ladies, Mary was the most beautiful girl in the Mon Valley. All the young men in the mill talked about her. When Pete Pusic from Homestead ate supper with the Mestroviches after work, his eyes always strayed to Mary, but she was too shy to meet his gaze.

Steve, though, was determined that his daughter should marry the strongest steelworker in the Valley. And so he announced to his besotted co-workers that he was going to hold a contest for her hand: whichever man could lift the heaviest dolly bar would win Mary.

Illustration: David Wilson

Pete Pusic was already confident that he was the strongest man in the mill, but he began building up his muscles by carrying rails across the shop floor, tucking them under his arms as though they were kindling. By the time of the contest, Pete could hold three in each arm.

On the Sunday of the competition, which was held in a field by the Monongahela, Steve ordered two barrels of Iron City beer from Pittsburgh. His wife brewed prune jack, and cooked enough polana kapusta and spice cakes to cover two picnic tables. A truck delivered three dolly bars from the mill: the first weighed 350 pounds; the second 500 pounds; the third weighed more than first two together. It was so heavy that six men had to carry it.

Hunkies gathered from all over the Valley that afternoon. Dozens wanted to compete for Mary’s hand, and hundreds more wanted to see who would be strong enough to win her. A gypsy band played Old World waltzes on fiddles and accordions. “Daj, daj srcek nadaj,” the gypsies sang. “Give back my heart, and give back a kiss.” On a platform draped with bunting sat Mary, wearing a red and green silk dress fringed with lace sewn by her babcia. On her hand was a ruby ring Steve had purchased from the company store. A babushka covered Mary’s golden hair. Steve oversaw the gathering in a necktie, suspenders, and bowler hat, challenging each man who believed himself strong enough for his daughter.

“Who the heck are you?” he asked the stranger.

“Joe Magarac,” the man announced.

All the Hunkies laughed. In Croatian, “magarac” means “jackass.”

“Magarac? What kinda name is that for a man?”

“All I do is eat and work like a donkey,” Joe Magarac said.

“You been liftin’ them rails in the mill,” he said to Pete Pusic, “but you think you strong enough to lift the dolly bar? It take six men to carry from truck.”

Eli Stanoski from Monessen was the only man in the Valley who could boast he was as strong as Pete. Steve told him to prove it. He gestured to the dolly bars, lying in the grass.

“When I was young man, I lift all three at once,” he boasted. “That is how I win Mary’s mother.”

The men lined up to test themselves against the first dolly bar. It was a hot afternoon, so the straining suitors perspired as though they were standing in front of a three-thousand-degree blast furnace. One dislocated his shoulder pulling on the dolly bar. Another tumbled into the grass when his hands lost their grip. Only three men could lift the first bar: Pete, Eli, and Andy Dembroski, a stranger from Johnstown who had taken the train to Pittsburgh because stories of Mary’s beauty had reached his mill. Steve shook his head and grumbled in disapproval: Johnstown mills were puny compared to Mon Valley mills. They only forged a hundred tons of steel a day. How could a Johnstown man be as strong as Pete and Eli?

Pete, Eli, and Andy all lifted the second bar, too, but none could budge the third. Pete seemed to make it quiver, but collapsed before he could lift it from the grass. He looked sadly at Mary, sitting on her throne, and she looked back, crestfallen. Then came Andy Dembroski. Andy stripped off his shirt so the crowd could see the broad chest, barrel arms, and horizon-wide shoulders he had built shoveling ore. He clapped his hands over his head, rubbed them together and gripped the dolly bar. For ten minutes, he heaved and grunted, until the sweat flowed from his blond hair and oozed from his chest. Finally, his hands slipped and he fell flat on his bottom. Andy was picking himself up to try again when the deepest bass voice he had ever heard boomed from the crowd.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” it chortled.

“Who’s laughing at me?” Andy challenged. “You come try this yourself, and when you’re done trying, I’ll break your neck.”

The crowd parted, and out stepped a man seven feet tall, with a back broader than a furnace, and a neck as big around as an ordinary man’s waist. He wore a peasant cap atop his head and size 18 work boots on his feet. His pants and his jacket were too small for his enormous frame. With a hand the size of a paddle, he lifted Andy off the ground, then stooped to pick up the dolly bar with his other hand. As the giant waved the squirming steelworker and the unconquerable bar in the air, Steve Mestrovich rushed forward to interrogate this man who was strong enough for Mary.

“Who the heck are you?” he asked the stranger.

“Joe Magarac,” the man announced.

All the Hunkies laughed. In Croatian, “magarac” means “jackass.”

“Magarac? What kinda name is that for a man?”

“All I do is eat and work like a donkey,” Joe Magarac said. He set down Andy and the dolly bar, then took off his jacket and shirt. The crowd gasped to see that his muscles were made of steel, gleaming in the July sun.

“I was born inside an ore mountain,” he explained. “I came down to the Valley in an ore train, and now I work in the mill, three shifts a day.”

Steve gestured to his daughter. Reluctantly, Mary stepped off her podium. She was still heartsick over Pete’s failure to lift the dolly bar, and she certainly didn’t want to take the name Magarac. But the Mestroviches were an Old Country family, and a father’s word was law.

“You’re the strongest man I ever see,” Steve said, presenting Mary to Joe. “You’re the only man strong enough for my Mary.”

Joe Magarac shook his head.

“Mary’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” he said, “but I have no time for love, only work. I may be made of steel, but I’m not so hard-headed I can’t see that Mary belongs with that young man over there.”

Joe pointed at Pete Pusic, the second-strongest man that afternoon. It so happened that Father Mahovlic was at the picnic, and he agreed to marry the couple on the spot. The crowd toasted the newlyweds with prune jack, and after the service was over, Joe Magarac had the first dance with the bride, as the gypsy band played a Viennese waltz.

* * *

After the Mestroviches’ contest, the legend of Joe Magarac spread like wild re all throughout the steelmaking heartland. His foreman posted a sign on the mill fence that read: HOME OF JOE MAGARAC. So widely known was Joe’s name that mills in Youngstown, Johnstown, and Gary tried to lure him away. Joe scoffed at their offers. After all, Joe produced more steel by himself than the entire Youngstown mill. Joe’s reputation was so great that the best steelworker in Gary visited the Mon Valley to challenge him in a steelmaking contest. After three days, Joe was 3,000 tons ahead. The Gary man gave up and returned to Indiana.

Joe boarded at Mrs. Horvath’s house by the mill gate. He ate five meals a day. For breakfast, a dozen flapjacks, a pound of scrapple, an omelet made from two cartons of eggs, a pitcher of orange juice, and two pots of coffee. His dinner, which he carried to work in a washtub, was three whole chickens, a salad made from five heads of lettuce, and a loaf of bread toasted and slathered with lard. During his afternoon break, he ate ten dozen of Mrs. Horvath’s pierogis. For supper, three 64-ounce steaks and a half-dozen baked potatoes. And at midnight, an entire pork roast with a bottle of buttermilk. Throughout the day, he washed it all down with a barrel of beer, which he lifted the way other men lift a glass.

Mrs. Horvath tolerated Joe’s appetite because he didn’t sleep in one of her beds, which left room for another steelworker and his rent money. Joe worked all day and night on the number seven furnace in the open hearth. A living machine, Joe gathered scrap steel, scrap iron, coke, limestone, and melted pig iron to feed the hearth. He stirred the molten steel with his bare hands. While other men tapped the vent hole with a blowtorch, Joe poked it open with his finger. After the steel gushed out, Joe set the ladle himself. Instead of pouring it into molds, he poured it over his hands, squeezing out rails between his fingers.

So prodigious a worker was Joe that he filled the yard with rails faster than the trains could carry them away. There were so many rails piled up by the siding that one Thursday afternoon, the foreman shut down the mill.

“Keep the furnace warm ’til Monday,” the foreman told Joe.

When the foreman returned on Monday, he couldn’t find his best worker. He walked through the mill, calling out “Joe Magarac!” Finally, a deep voice replied from a ladle. Peering inside, the foreman saw Joe sitting up to his neck in molten steel.

“You’re gonna melt in there!” said the foreman, who knew Joe was made of steel.

“I want to melt myself down,” Joe said. “There’s not enough work in a mill that shuts down on Thursday and doesn’t open again until Monday. There’s nothing for Joe to do on all those days off. I’m going to melt myself down for steel to build the biggest mill in the world: one that can run twenty-four hours a day, every day except Christmas.”

As soon as he said those words, Joe Magarac’s head disappeared into the cauldron. When the batch containing his body was tapped and poured into molds, it produced the finest ingots the Mon Valley had ever seen: smooth and straight and strong, with no rough spots or blemishes.

Joe Magarac’s name lived on in the mill he helped build. When a man called another man a jackass, it was a compliment, meaning he worked as hard as the strongest steelworker who ever walked through a mill gate. And some say Joe himself lived on. One day, a fifty-ton ladle of steel slipped loose from a crane while three men were standing underneath. Somehow, it hovered in the air long enough for the seemingly doomed steelworkers to escape. When they turned around and saw it crash to the floor, spewing sparks and steel, they also saw, for a moment, a seven-foot man with a back as broad as a furnace door. Then he faded away and was gone.

Joe Magarac may not be as famous to the outside world as Paul Bunyan, but he is still remembered in his hometown, even though the steel mill he sacrificed himself to build has been torn down and replaced with a shopping mall. Outside one of the Mon Valley’s few remaining mills, the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, stands a statue of Joe Magarac, bending a steel bar, his shirt half open to reveal his gleaming chest. It’s a symbol of Pittsburgh’s pride in the product it made, and the pride of the hardworking Old Country people who made it.

 

Edward McClelland is the author of How to Speak Midwestern. His writing has appeared in publications such as the Columbia Journalism ReviewLos Angeles TimesNew York Times, and Salon. He lives in Chicago.

More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.

Banner photo by Dan Buczynski.

3 Comments

  1. Paul Hertneky May 22, 2018 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    Great story, beautifully told by McClelland. Thank you. I’ve often wondered if the legend was created by the mill owners to present a mythical hero of limitless productivity and total devotion to work.

  2. M. Browning Sawhill June 30, 2018 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    I thought perhaps the local phrase “yinz jagoffs” was rooted in sports. Anti-Jagr, perhaps. Or maybe a pointed barb at the Stillers rival, the Jacksonville Jags. But now I begin to wonder if perhaps Joe Magarac’s Monongehela moniker “Jackass” could be the root of today’s favorite Pittsburghese.

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