March 13, 2013
Stopper Rod Man – Cleveland, Ohio

“Stopper Rod Man” was the actual job title of the guy who pulled the rod to control the pouring of the molten metal inside of a steel plant. As a native Clevelander, I am fascinated with this industry. I also love the term as a way of harkening back to other out-dated job titles, like “typist.”

I learned about stopper rod man in a pretty cool way. My dad and my uncle were sitting around at a family gathering, telling stories. I have always been curious about the steel industry — even though I grew up here, it wasn’t my generation that had worked these vast factories of metal. I started asking them about the steel plants, what they were like, and before we knew it, they were telling stories, like war heroes, of the old days.

My dad described how one guy rode up on top of the vat of hot metal with a rod that controlled when the metal poured. But he didn’t say that, he said, “the-stopper-rod-man would be riding up there…” The what? “The stopper rod man.” Stopper. Rod. Man. I said. My dad, was like, “Yeah, stopper rod man, so anyway, he’s up there on this thing…”

Wait a minute, Dad. Stopper rod man? That sounds like a rock band! My dad and my uncle were cracking up now. It was like I had just heard the word “milkman” for the first time, and they couldn’t understand why I was making such a fuss. “What? He’s the guy that delivered the milk, just like it sounds.” But I was hooked. Riveted now, by this glimpse of recent history, already inaccessible to my own generation, let alone those beyond. Telegraph operator. Typist. Stopper rod man. Mimeograph. Film camera. My future children won’t have any idea what these things are, until they see them in old movies or read about them in old books, which, by that point, may only exist in digital form themselves.

Maybe there is still a position called Stopper Rod Man. I don’t know. But I suspect that technology has advanced, and political correctness has run its course through the steel mill floor. So if someone is there doing something similar today, he or she is probably called Flow Control Manager or something like that. I’d like to take a tour of a plant one day, and see for myself.

But in the meantime, I wanted to celebrate Stopper Rod Man, as a symbol of all things, all people, all titles, all industries, and how they have their hay day, and then pass. Stopper Rod Man is a symbol of the industry that created a lot of great cities in the midwest and elsewhere. An analog time of hot metal, fires, and filth, and of an increase of basic wage that spread a way of living that surpassed the level of wealth that the world had seen to that point. Stopper Rod Man was the gatekeeper of liquid steel, and stood at crux of the last giant change this world experienced.

If future generations looked back at us now, at what is still pretty much the dawn of the information age, the rise of the creative class, what symbols might they find of the time? Wherever we go from here, will they remember who did the dirty work? Who rode alongside the vat, and paid attention to when to stop pouring the metal? Who was at the front lines, learning and growing and putting in all of the long hours because this was where the best and newest opportunities had arisen?

For now, I look to Stopper Rod Man, as a symbol for all times. A symbol of every man or woman. The heart and spirit of the individual who rose up and met the opportunities of his time, and took on a role that could only be played for as long as that industry lasted. Each of us is a stopper rod man, playing a new role, in a new time, most probably to be forgotten, until someone’s dad or uncle starts telling tales that romanticize the long hours we put in, to live the best life we could at the time.

These products were produced with a screen made on a Gocco machine. I custom-created the ink color to be reminiscent of steel. The image is a panoramic photo I shot on 35mm black and white film, of a steel plant in Cleveland, Ohio. No two hand-prints are alike, and your print will appear slightly different than the one shown here. You can buy any of these items in my Etsy shop, or request a custom t-shirt order by emailing me.

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