Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural-Industrial Workers in West Virginia by Lou Martin (review)
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Reviewed by
Lou Martin. Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural-Industrial Workers in West Virginia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xi + 239 pp. ISBN 0-252-03945-4, 0-252-08102-6, $95.00 (cloth); $28.00 (paper).

In his fascinating first book, Lou Martin shows that when historians think about the twentieth-century working class, they must include [End Page 481] rural-industrial factory workers. According to Martin, "Locality shaped class identities and produced a myriad of working-class cultures across the country" (2). Building off recent trends in working-class history, political economy, and capital migration, Smokestacks in the Hills presents a local case study of the rise of a rural-industrial working class in Hancock County, West Virginia. Located not far from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first chapter shows that until 1900 the county remained a rural backwater of small yeoman farmers and a center for flour milling, sheep raising, and apple orchard farming in the Upper Ohio Valley.

Early in the book, Martin shows how corporations relocated to rural locales at the turn of the twentieth century to avoid labor unrest and transportation costs in the cities. Looking for stability following the cut-throat competition of the late nineteenth century, pottery towns like Newell and Chester, both in West Virginia, benefitted from the skilled labor in nearby East Liverpool, Ohio, and also from an available pool of cheap, largely female local laborers. Likewise, in 1909, Ernest Weir chose land near Holliday's Cove for the site of his massive steel works and planned community of Weirton, West Virginia. Until 1950, Weirton was America's largest unincorporated town, and Weir fostered a community that rewarded loyalty and punished unionism, with policing by the notorious "Hatchet Gang" (81).

The majority of the book focuses on the mid-twentieth century and the county's working-class politics and culture. Martin successfully shows how rural-industrial workers differed from their urban counterparts. In Hancock County, industrialization produced a working class that easily maintained its rural traditions, forging a strong attachment to localism and a culture of "making do" (16). The latter built off rural traditions of household food production, subsistence farming, and hunting. No matter whether the workers were native West Virginians, African American migrants from the Deep South, or Eastern Europeans arriving from peasant backgrounds, all possessed these traits of "making do."

Martin's study runs counter to Jack Metzgar's Striking Steel (Temple University Press, 2000), which argued that steelworkers had a natural affinity for the Democratic Party and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Rather, Hancock County's working class consistently voiced concerns about national unions and distant, impersonal bureaucracies, and favored a "local system of grievance and contract negotiations" (9). The International Brotherhood of Operative Potters (IBOP) used strikes judiciously and forced locals to follow a uniform pricing system. Their grievance procedure gave rank-and-file workers direct access to their national leaders, headquartered in East Liverpool, and executives at the Homer Laughlin China Company. Steelworkers also [End Page 482] supported a local brand of unionism. Weirton Steel consistently negotiated contracts with the Independent Steelworkers Union that were equal to, and at times superior, to those contracts won by the United Steelworkers of America. This localistic culture applied to politics as well. Between the 1930s and 1960s, voters supported the Democratic Party, but their values did not always align with the national party. The county's factory workers opposed right-to-work laws, yet elected conservatives who advocated limits on union power and supported a greater restriction of foreign imports (118). These ideas matched those of conservative Republican Arch Moore, who was elected to Congress for six terms in the 1950s and 1960s in an overwhelmingly Democratic district and then as the governor of West Virginia.

The book uses an excellent mix of primary sources. Martin takes advantage of the local grievance reports in the IBOP papers at Kent State, in Ohio, and he is one of the first historians to have access to the Arch Moore papers. It is Martin's use of oral histories, however, that makes the book cutting edge. Chapter 5 is particularly revealing, wherein his interviewees intimately describe their rural cultural...


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