JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania – Tucked away in the metal drawers of old cabinets and stuffed into storage units, trailers and outbuildings, local industrial artist Joseph Hensel has assembled a stockpile of crafting items from the heyday of craftsmanship. steel in Johnstown.
He has been collecting relics, such as wooden steel fabrication patterns used for coin casting, for over 20 years due to his interest in the subject – and has turned many into works of art using assembly and collage techniques.
“I wanted something that commemorates what we’ve done here,” Hensel said.
In 2016, the artist, now 67, came across what he describes as a “treasure of American industry” while salvaging items from the former Lorain Steel and US Steel factory in the section Moxham of Johnstown.
When Jean Reitz Designs contacted him to add his sculptures to the Indigo Hotel in Pittsburgh before the opening, Hensel suggested they check out the old mill together to see if there was anything other than the representatives of the ‘business would be interested in buying.
An old 10-ton ladle that at one point contained molten metal became the target of buyers, and they asked Hensel about its history.
He identified the room number and asked a representative of the building’s current owner, whom he preferred not to name, to see the plans.
Hensel was led along a winding path inside the mill before being brought into a massive vault full of drawers.
He was amazed by what he saw.
“Kid in a Candy Store”
The man he was with opened drawer after drawer, each filled with blueprints, and sorted through the contents until he found what Hensel needed.
“I look at him and I said, ‘Are all these drawers full?’ and he said, ‘Yeah,'” Hensel said.
There were thousands of original blueprints for everything from steelmaking ladles to wagons, wheels, equipment, buildings and more.
Hand-drawn ink on vellum – a type of animal skin parchment with a waxy backing – or pencil on mylar dated back as far as the 1890s to as recently as the 1980s.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Hensel said.
Many blueprints were used to craft equipment and materials in Johnstown’s factories and were used there or sent around the country and the world.
“The hand-drawn, Johnstown-built mining wagons, buggies, and machinery were not only used in the Johnstown area, but also at Pittsburgh destinations like Edgar Thomson’s, US Steel Irvin’s, McKeesport’s and all the other mines and factories in Pittsburgh,” Hensel said. .
“Johnstown’s reach was global, as designs are branded for clients in the Netherlands, Iran, England, Cuba, etc.”
He made an offer almost on the spot, and two years later, for an undisclosed sum, he bought the contents of the safe, as well as the decorative frame on the outside of the door.
Hensel said he sorted around 40% of the drawings and categorized the content by detail and interest.
Items range in size from 16 inches by 24 inches to over 4 feet by 20 feet or more.
A highlight of what he has found so far is the original 1901 plans for the “Cambria Incline Plane Cars”, which detail the size and materials used, such as oak planks for the planks with “a 3-ply roofing felt between”.
These plans also show the passenger car under the main car.
Hensel said he made several trips throughout the year to the old steel mill to gather as much as he could carry and haul it to his storage area.
He also bought the cabinets in which the drawings were kept.
All of these artifacts are now stored in multiple units filled with blueprints and other historical items.
Hensel noted the professionalism of the plans and the accuracy of the drafters, pointing out that none of the drawings had gum marks.
In addition to serial numbers and titles, some blueprints have review messages asking artists to change or verify certain aspects regarding material or blueprint specifications.
In warm weather, Hensel offers tours of the original blueprints and models he rescued from the old Bethlehem and US Steel stores in Johnstown, which he keeps in his IronWood ARTifacts store on Frankstown Road.
His interest in the history of manufacturing began when he was young.
As a teenager, he and his friends explored abandoned mills and mining buildings near his home in Brownsville, Fayette County.
While the other youngsters were captivated by breaking windows, Hensel was more interested in collecting odds and ends left over from years before.
He said he took the items home and examined them more closely there.
“I just thought things were cool,” he said.
“I was seeing this stuff and thinking about the guys who worked there – the families they raised on those salaries.”
This interest led him to a career as a sales representative with Westinghouse Supply and that’s how he came to Johnstown about 40 years ago.
He worked for the company for 18 years, visiting local steel mills before leaving to create his art.
More than plans
Hensel didn’t just secure the original blueprints on his rescue trip.
He was also able to keep boxes of handwritten accident reports, numerous photos of factory workers and equipment, and ledgers.
“It’s all Johnstown,” Hensel said.
He works with Barbara Zaborowski, Dean of Library Services and Special Projects at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, to preserve historic items.
Zaborowski and his team use high definition cameras to photograph and catalog plans and documents.
The college will also use a $5,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission to purchase a large scanner to digitize larger plans for the same purpose.
“They are works of art in their own way,” Zaborowski said.
Jeff Matevish, a college media production student, helped with the process.
He documents a few packets of shots a day, taking hundreds of photos – from wide shots to close-ups.
“It’s great,” he said.
Matevish’s father is an architect and his grandfather worked at Bethlehem Steel, so documenting the objects has special meaning for him.
“I had a lot of fun with this project,” he said.
Looking at the items Hensel had brought so far, Zaborowski and Matevish were in awe of what Hensel had saved one day in March.
Zaborowski said that without Hensel’s efforts, there’s a good chance the documents and forms would have been destroyed.
“We’re so excited about it,” she said. “Think about it, the history here being saved.”
The Dean of Penn Highlands is particularly interested in accident reports from a genealogical perspective. She directs the Cambria Memory Project, which focuses on such stories.
Zaborowski said there were often older family members with visible injuries, such as missing fingers, who worked in the mines or mills and never talked about what happened.
The reports will help piece together these puzzles.
“That will tell you the details,” Zaborowski said. “From a genealogical point of view, this is priceless.”
She wants to digitize the files and create a publicly accessible and searchable database.
Zaborowski is also excited about the doors this information could open.
She said people who worked in the factories will be able to explore the artifacts and provide background details that would otherwise be lost, adding that there may be an oral history project that stems from this preservation effort.
Donations for the project can be made to the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College Foundation.
In addition to arranging plans for a future gallery exhibit, Hensel is donating a selection to the American Red Cross to be auctioned at the organization’s annual ball on Saturday.
To visit the Industrial Collection, call Hensel at 814-243-5744.
He also has pieces available for purchase on his Etsy account, IronWoodArtifactShop, and at Bottle Works in the Cambria City section of Johnstown.
More information about his collection can also be found on the IronWood ARTifacts Facebook page.