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History's Headlines: Mike Piersa- Master of machines

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 28 2014 08:13:22 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 31 2014 07:58:32 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Mike Piersa- Master of machines

HANOVER TWP., Pa. -

To call the future of Bethlehem’s long planned Museum of Industrial History “troubled,” is probably an understatement. But recent, headline-making events don’t need to be rehashed here.

One thing is still clear among those who, in spite of it all, still believe that a region as rich in industrial history as the Lehigh Valley deserves to have such a museum. Whatever facility eventually is created, the current staff curator/historian Mike Piersa should have a place there. “Mike is a wonder,” says author/industrial historian Ann Bartholomew. “They are just darn lucky to have him.”

Bartholomew and her husband Craig are among the most knowledgeable people in the area on the subject of the history of Bethlehem Steel and other industries. They find Piersa’s depth of knowledge impressive. A graduate of Moravian College with an M.A. in history from Lehigh University, Piersa, who lives in Saylorsburg, was drawn to history at an early age.

Piersa’s depth of knowledge was on display recently at the museum’s warehouse in Hanover Township. To hopefully staunch some of the museum’s negative publicity, its directors opened the collection to the public on Sundays in the month of March. The space contains many of the items that are planned for the museum.

That industrial history is a popular topic in the Lehigh Valley can be assumed from the lines of people that stretched into the warehouse on a recent Sunday afternoon. Museum board president Charles “Charlie” Marcon was standing by the door as they walked in. Asked about the wealth of machinery the room contained, he directed all questions to Piersa, who was standing nearby to offer tours.

A tall young man with a soft-spoken voice, Piersa does not parade his knowledge but states things clearly and without pretension. Asked about a large machine that had wheels but was not a train engine, he notes that it was built in 1877 and was used to run farm equipment, adding the make and model of the device.

Piersa identifies a bright yellow machine that’s nearby as the oldest refrigeration compressor in the country, built in 1884. He notes that it was built by Siemens, the German company and was restored by the Smithsonian. Many of the devices are from their collection.

A large wall display features a collection of industrial metal files. It was done by the Nicholson File Co. of Providence, Rhode Island. Piersa notes it was put together by the company and created for the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia.

On a far wall is something that looks like the legs of a giant beetle. Piersa identifies it as Mast-Foose wind turbine. Asked if it is like its modern sisters that generate wind power today, Piersa notes that that is what it is like. Nearby is a large scale model of a turn-of-the-20th century coke oven built in France.

In the next room, two large metal sculptures dominate a corner. One is a slightly incongruous figure in antique classical dress, complete with laurel wreath, and appears to be deep in thought.

The other is a workman with a large metal device in his hands. Both works were done by the 19th century French artist Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904) and were once at the New York home of Bethlehem Steel magnate Charles M. Schwab (1862-1939). Until recently they were part of the collection of the Allentown Art Museum. Although Gerome’s classicism is derided by some critics today as anachronistic, it was widely popular in its day.

Switching from heavy industry to textiles, Piersa points to an antique loom from the 18th century, the oldest piece in the collection. Nearby is another slightly newer Jacquard loom. It is still in working condition and as recently as the 1990s was used to weave thread for some worn-out antique furniture in use in the White House.

What may strike the casual observer who knows little about this heavy machinery is how bright and colorful it was. Many of these pieces have been restored to their original luster and glow in bold yellows and reds and rich forest greens. Company names are separated with gilded ampersands and decorated designs are lavishly done in gold-leaf.

These are not the computer wonders of today that perform their essential functions in hidden digital microchips. The 19th century machine gloried in its many moving parts, and that is how they were meant to be seen. They hissed steam and throbbed with energy, pulley belts whirring and fly wheels turning in a hymn of noise that put the industry in the Industrial Revolution.

Some people in the era thought nothing of having picnics close to factories just to watch the machines in action. French Impressionist painters traveled to railroad stations to catch on canvas the puffs of swirling smoke emerging from factory smokestacks and locomotive steam engines. And for every nature loving Thoreau in the 1850s seeking solace in a cabin in the woods, there were hundreds who thought it a hardship to live too far from the sound of a train whistle.

All of this change was not always pleasant for the people who were caught up in it, especially in its early phases. Industrial accidents were common and ordinary working men, women and children put up with horrible working conditions. But today with the distance of that past, its achievements can be appreciated. For better or worse it was the time that shaped our own.

Whether the Lehigh Valley will ever get an industrial history museum is still an open question. But folks like Mike Piersa and the crowds that pressed into the Museum of Industrial History’s warehouse probably find it difficult to imagine that such a significant part of local history should be left out of public view.