Just as the loggers and lumberjacks had a hero in big Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, Babe, so did the steelworkers of the Monongahela valley of Pittsburgh have a hero in “Joe Magarac.” As with any folk character, Joe’s origins are unclear. He appeared in the 1930s. It is said he was created from the imagination of steelworkers. A journalist named Owen Fisher, himself a former steelworker, may have been his creator. Seeking a story in the mills, Fisher was told about Joe as a joke. “Magarac” (pronounced mah-gah-rats) means “jackass”, or “dumb jackass” in the Croatian tongue. Whatever his origin, a man made of steel, who could squeeze steel rails with his bare hands, caught on rapidly, and was well regarded by the hard working steelmen.
This story takes place in Hunkietown, home not only to the many immigrant Hungarians and their families who populated the steel mills of the Monongahela valley, but to the Serbs, Croats, and Slovaks who were also drawn to early 20th century Pennsylvania by the promise of work and wages. It could have been any of a dozen mill towns, but it wasn’t – it was Hunkietown where it all happened.
A day the people of Hunkietown will never forget was the day when Steve Mestrovic held a contest to see who would marry his beautiful daughter, Mary Mestrovic. Mary was a prize worth trying for. Her eyes were as blue as the flames of a steelman’s torch; her cheeks were as bright as red-hot iron; and her hair was the color of melted steel. Mary was eighteen years old, an age that her father thought proper for marriage.
“The man that wins my Mary,” said Steve, “will of course have to be a steel man. More than that, he will have to be the strongest steel man of all!”
The contest required suitors to lift three dolly bars that Steve had brought home from the mill, each one bigger and heavier than the next. The smallest weighed 350 pounds; the middle one weighed 500 pounds; and the heaviest as much as the other two put together. Steel men and their families had come from Homestead, and Duquesne, and Braddock, and just about every other place along the river. They were great strong square men, with huge muscles stretching tight their Sunday clothes.
Everyone who tried lifted the smallest dolley bar over their head without so much as a grunt – well everyone except a few fellows from Homestead, who explained that they had not had time to eat breakfast before coming to the contest. Everyone laughed at them anyhow. Then everyone’s attention was turned to the second steel bar.
The way the men’s faces got red, and the way they grunted, made it clear that this second bar was much heavier than the first one. When everyone who wanted to had tried it, only three men had managed to lift this bar over their head. Pete Pussick from Homestead, Eli Stanoski from Braddock, and another fellow from Johnstown were the only ones who did it. The three men moved on to the third bar – the biggest one.
Eli Stanoski tried it first. He took hold of the bar, squared his legs and squatted down. He grunted and started to straighten up. But all of a sudden he stopped, because he had come to the end of his arms. The bar wouldn’t budge any more than if Eli were trying to lift the world. Eli tried again, but he couldn’t do it.
Then Pete Pussick stepped to the bar. Mary Mestrovic secretly hoped that Pete would lift the bar, because she liked Pete very much. He rolled up his sleeves, spit on his hands and rubbed them together. He squatted down and took hold of the bar. He straightened up and the bar rose from the ground. When it was about one and three-quarters inches off the ground it started to go back down. Pete tried again. He got the bar six inches off the ground before it went back down. When it hit the floor, the walls of Steve Mestrovic’s house shook like an earthquake had come along.
“Ho ho!” laughed the man from Johnstown. “Move away from that bar and let me show you how to lift it. In Johnstown, steel men are so strong they can take hold of their own belt and hold themselves out at arm’s length.” He continued to brag about how strong he was until Steve pointed to the bar.
The Johnstown man stooped to grab the bar, and started to lift. His face got as red as the skies above the mills at night. His mouth turned white, as white as the limestone that went into the furnaces. The sweat dripped off his head and face like the sweat of three men tending an open hearth furnace on a hot day. But the dolley bar didn’t budge. Finally the Johnstown man let go and stood up, glaring at all the crowd, daring someone to even snicker. Then from the back of the crowd came another loud, “Ho ho ho!”
The Johnstown man turned and faced the stranger who was coming through the crowd. He bent down and started a haymaker about at his shoes, and brought up his fist hitting the huge man in the chest, which was as high as he could reach. There was a metallic pinging sound, like the sound you would hear if you hit a steel barrel. Then the Johnstown man grabbed his hand and held it to his chest. “My fingers,” he said. “They’re busted!”
Well the big man grabbed the Johnstown man in one huge hand, and picked up the heavy dolly bar in the other, and held them both over his head just as easily as if they had been a butterfly and a fountain pen. He tried to stoop, but both the man and the bar hit the ceiling anyway. Then he put the Johnstown man down, and took the bar in both hands and bent it into a figure eight.
Steve Mestrovic came hustling up to the big man. “You win, fair and square. What is your name?”
“My name,” the stranger told Steve, “is JOE MAGARAC.”
Not only was Joe a steel working man, he was actually made of steel. He worked night and day, stopping only occasionally to eat. Joe tapped the furnaces with his finger. He dipped molten steel into the molds with his cupped hands. He squeezed the cooling steel into railroad rails between his fingers.
About this time, Mary Mestrovic began to cry. “I don’t want to marry a man who works all the time,” she blubbered. As for Joe Magarac – “Wait. What’s this about m-m-m-marry? I never heard about that before.”
Well Steve explained to Joe what marriage was all about, and how Joe would be expected to stay home when he wasn’t working. Joe asked if he could get out of the staying home part. He just wanted to work all the time.
So in the end, Pete Pussick, who had done better than anyone else but Joe, and who was the one Mary wanted to marry anyway, won Mary Mestrovic’s hand in matrimony. When they were married a little later on, they tried to get Joe to be the best man, but he said he couldn’t stop working for such foolishness.
Joe Magarac later came to an untimely, but appropriate end, when he jumped into a ladel of red hot steel, to add his own strength to that of the steel being made to help the USA during World War 2. But there are those who say that in the economic downturn after the war, Joe was asked to take “a rest”. After all, he did the work of dozens of steel men who really needed the jobs. Joe agreed, saying he hadn’t taken a long rest in many years, and so he went off, to who knows where, and he still waits to be called back to his beloved steel mills.
This story has been adapted from several traditional sources.
“Big Steel” as an industry is pretty much gone from the Monongahela Valley, but it lives on in the exciting RIVERS OF STEEL NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE. Please visit “Rivers of Steel”