The ACME Steel collection of archives and artifacts represents the “most significant single site collection to document the economic, environmental, technological, and social life of industry in the Calumet region.”
The materials were rescued from the defunct Acme Coke plant on the south side of Chicago and nearby sites in 2007 and 2008. After a long period of storage at the Pullman State Historic Park, the materials have now come to rest at Purdue University Northwest Hammond Campus Library. Now under a partnership with the Purdue University Northwest Archives and Special Collections, the materials have come home to a place that makes possible a secure home base from which critical stories about life in the industrial Calumet Region can be told.
These stories will critically broaden the narrative from underrepresented groups about work life itself, about the intersections of race, class, and gender in the work environment, and about the relationship between industrial production and environmental degradation and recovery in a region that often exalts what David Nye calls “the technological sublime” at the expense of understanding what work life itself was about.
In order for that to happen at this point, two things need to happen. First, materials need to be re-boxed, re-organized, and made safe through appropriate cleaning. Many materials were re-boxed into large Gaylord boxes for transit and storage, and the organizational system that was developed at Pullman preliminary to formal archival work needs to be re-established. Secondly, and concurrently, a plan needs to be developed for the long-term disposition of the collection. Critical questions need to be answered, such as: what is the long-term plan for archiving? How should public access to the collection be established and maintained? What portions of the collection are essential to it, and what parts of it should be deaccessioned? What narrative potential does it possess, and how can it rapidly be made safely available for storytelling possibility? How should this archive articulate with other collections in the region? And, most importantly, how can it be used to ground stories about work life in the Calumet region?
We propose a planning process to answer these questions. Key stakeholder groups will be involved at every step of the way, especially including former employees at the ACME facility but expanding to other employees in the region. (For example, since this project began, US Steel has shut down its Coke Plant in Gary).
The key players in the project are the board of CHP, which includes former and current steelworkers, SOAR (the Steelworkers On Active Retirement group), the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum (which previously collaborated with CHP on the digitization of photographs from the collection), archivists at Purdue Northwest and the Pullman Historic Site (which includes the consultant on the original collection), and archives and local history museums in the region.
In this collections current phase was the extended period of discovery of a home for the collection, which led to its ultimate movement to Purdue Northwest in 2022.
This phase is to sort, clean, and organize the collection so that community-based planning conversations can be safely held and so that some elements in the collection do not deteriorate any further. The highest priority needs include:
Taken as a whole, the Acme collection has the potential to tell a variety of stories relating to specific equipment, to the process of steelmaking, and to the economic, technical, environmental, and political history of the site. But perhaps the most significant is its potential to gather stories that illuminate the social and cultural history of the experience of work itself. The worker’s story in relation to specific objects and places in the manufacturing process has not often been told. Some artifacts and documents already illuminate elements of what it meant to be a woman or person of color at work in the coke plant.
The story of manufacturing facilities is often told from the outside in: what was the impact of this or that facility on its neighborhood or the environment? The Acme collection is a unique opportunity to tell the story from the inside out: what was it like to work here, to interact with specific tools and processes and environments, to socialize with other people in an environment that was hot, dirty, and dangerous, to live nearby, but that also created specific products for use in the world?