The aroma of pork and sauerkraut wafted throughout the plant on New Year’s Eve. And it was not uncommon for steelworkers to steam corn during fall harvest. This atmosphere pervaded Butler's Armco steel plant during most of the 20th century.
“Faith in men, cooperation and honesty” was the mantra of Armco’s founder George M. Verity. His dream of owning an integrated steel mill that controlled the manufacturing process from beginning to end was realized when American Rolling Mill Company was founded in 1900 in Middletown, Ohio.
Verity, the son of a minister, emphasized attention to the human element in industry. Verity's approach reflected larger trends in industry at the turn of the century, which saw industrialists improve working conditions and offering ancillary benefits to workers, in hopes of preventing unionization or labor strikes. For Verity, this was expressed through what he called the “Armco spirit" described as "a comprehensive vital force...of policies builded on the platform of Christian principles in which selfish purpose has no place.”
Armco enjoyed a niche in the vibrant steel industry in Southwest Pennsylvania. Only two steel mills in the world had the continuous operation of raw material to steel, all within one mill. Engineer John Tytus perfected it in Middleton in 1923 while engineers at Columbia Steel in Butler received patents in 1925. These two mills woke the world up to the continuous operation of hot metal to steel within one mill.
In 1927, to avoid costly patent litigation, Armco acquired Columbia Steel and its patents. This was a new era for Butler with Armco employing 40% of its industrial workforce. Armco was specialty steel, having successfully developed a variety of stainless, galvanized, and aluminized steels. Armco has always credited its employees for its success and treated them like partners. This is evident in the 10-point Armco Policies, a "bill of rights" for its stockholders, employees, management, customers and the community. Armco was the first steel company to employ an 8-hour day. It offered healthcare coverage, group life insurance and pension plans while always striving for safe working conditions.
Formed as a shop cooperative in 1933, Butler Armco Independent Union workers were given freedom of assembly, of speech, and collective bargaining rights. These generous benefits built a strong middle-class in Butler. Beyond basic necessities, Armco families could enjoy Armco Park, a 64-acre park developed along the Slippery Rock Creek where the annual company picnic was held. Armco recognized employees with retirement parties. At the annual Children’s Christmas parties, all children were given six large candy bars while they watched a double feature. Armco sponsored youth sports, the Boy Scouts, a concert band, and a 4-page newspaper that shared personnel news. Offspring of employees were given first consideration for summer employment or jobs out of high school or college. It offered scholarships for college-bound teens.
Armco was also embedded in the community. Annually, it raised money for the local YMCA, for Butler Hospital, for Junior Achievement, and for the United Way. When St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church in Lyndora had a fire, Armco donated the steel to rebuild it. It was integral in the conception of Butler Community College, from its steel buildings to supporting the fledgling institution.
Changing economic trends in the later 20th century buffeted the steel industry nationwide, and saw the diminishment of the Armco philosophy. In 1995, Butler Armco manager David Todd took out a full-page ad in the Butler Eagle asking “What Is Really Happening at Armco?” The US steel industry weakened while foreign countries subsidized it steel and heavily taxed US steel. The cost of labor and modernization soared. When it merged with Kawasaki Steel of Japan in 1999, the early guiding principles of Armco were anecdotal memories. Armco is now just AK Steel. Although AK has kept many of Armco initiatives and it is still one of the best places to work in Butler, the company has also been one of the region's heaviest polluters. In 2000, the EPA fined AK Steel for failing to properly dispose of hexavalent chromium and polluting the waters of the Connoquenessing Creek. A 2015 EPA study named the Ohio River the most contaminated body of water in America, and determined that more than 70% of chemicals discharged into the river came from facilities owned by AK Steel.
The interdependent parts of Armco, its workers and Butler built a well-respected company, self-sufficient individuals and families, and a thriving small town. As with much of the the northern industrial belt of America, Butler's connection to the original company is now far-flung, yet its rich history is intact. Armco may be gone but all it stood for in the 20th century is not forgotten.