Baldwin was a small backward town situated in the neighbourhood of the Susquehanna River some three miles south of Harrisburg, when shortly after the Civil War the Pennsylvania Steel Company chose it as the site of the first American steel plant in 1866. It was an ideal location with both the Pennsylvania Canal and Pennsylvania Railroad running parallel to the river nearby and in close proximity to the ore and coal fields in nearby Cornwall. The small rural hamlet was transformed and eventually lost its identity and character with the construction of the large steel plant complex on the flatlands adjoining the river. It was inevitable that the company officials and their labour force would dominate the life of the community so that it became known as “Steel Works” until 1880 when its name officially became Steelton.
Before 1890 it was a homogenous community of some 10,000 inhabitants made up of mostly of white Anglo Saxons Protestants with a smattering of Germans, both those native to Pennsylvania and recent immigrants many of whom were skilled workers in the steel industry. The original unskilled workforce that was later brought in were primarily Irish immigrants and blacks moving in from the rural South living in row houses built and owned by the steel works and served by the company store where they spent the greater part of their income.
A strike in 1891 by the skilled workers challenged the power of the company but was quickly put down. In the aftermath of the strike the company encouraged massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe including the Austro-Hungarian Empire and did so through recruiting agents. These men were often local freelance operators living among their own people and who were also working for the steamship companies receiving their fees from both on the basis of the numbers of immigrants they enlisted. The arrival of thousands of these Croats, Serbs, Italians, Bulgarians, Slovaks, Hungarians and the so-called Banaters (as the first arriving Danube Swabians were known locally) forever changed the character and composition of the population of Steelton.
There was a segregation policy in effect within the company in the face of this social diversity so that the skilled high paying jobs and leadership positions in all departments remained in the hands of Anglo Saxons, primarily the Irish and the blast furnace jobs were assigned to the new south east European immigrants with little opportunity for them to advance into any kind of leadership role or train for a skilled position. It was a given that the new work force recognized and simply accepted which was also true of the community at large. As a consequence, the immigrants gathered together in ethnic enclaves, neighbourhoods and residential areas both due to external pressures and by personal intent. The reasons for this were associated with the resentment they experienced from the “old stock” residents as well as their need for social contact with individuals who shared a similar background, language, life style, customs, traditions and religious faith. In effect they became locked into their ethnic community both due to prejudice on the outside and their inner need to find and build a sense of community.
The ethnic diversity of the community had its beginnings in 1885 and would last for a quarter of a century with the south eastern Europeans arriving en masse in the 1890s. Most of the immigrants in the 1880s and 1890s returned back to their homes in Europe within two or three years of coming to the United States. It was never their intention to make it a permanent move. Those who remained were those who brought their families with them. Very often these families established boarding houses to serve their relatives, friends and countrymen and provided extra income and allowed the women to assist with the family income. All of the immigrants had a similar background; they were agricultural workers, landless and unskilled. There were basically three types of immigrants who arrived in Steelton. First, there were men with their families seeking a new life and a permanent home. Secondly, there were highly transient young single men in search of good wages. Thirdly, there were middle-aged men seeking a temporary source of income and were usually also supporting a family back home in Europe. It was the third group in particular that was most representative of the men from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In most cases they became what the community referred to as “the boarders” because they congregated in the numerous ethnic boarding houses. They probably counted for nine out of every ten of the men in the steel mill. Most of them had been married for less than ten years. They were not dreamers or romantics in search of adventure. They were men on a mission and serious about it in order to establish themselves economically for their future life back home. Few of them planned to stay. Very few of them did.
What attracted the immigrants to Steelton was the “high wages” the steel industry paid. An unskilled worker was paid up to twelve cents an hour. He could work for twelve hours a day and earn $1.44! An added incentive when it came to families was a large cigar factory that also employed 800 women at seven cents an hour! Agricultural work back home could never match that. The worker’s own expenses seemed minimal in comparison. The single and married men living in boarding houses paid $2.50 a month for their room that they usually shared with up to four other men. Their meals were extra. They could provide their own or eat with the family. Most chose the latter option.
Most of the boarding houses were owned by the company and were row houses with up to five bedrooms for a rental of $8.50 a month and were located on the west side of town close to the river and were often flooded and damaged as a result. It was a filthy and unhealthy environment compounded by its proximity to the steel works and the pollution it produced and with which they had to deal in their workday world as well.
To give an indication of the growth and expansion of the steel works and its work force in the period from 1886 to 1906 it increased from 2,500 to over 9,000 men.
In addition to the recruiters overseas the company also paid fees to boarding house operators, saloon owners and store owners who were immigrants themselves to write to friends, relatives and countrymen back home to encourage them to come to Steelton and offered their addresses as the place of their destination on arriving at Ellis Island. They received a fee for everyone who did. They also did the same with the patrons of their businesses and became the major source of recruitment in the years ahead. There was a steady stream of immigrants coming and going. In many ways Steelton had a floating population. They were always in search of jobs and jobs paying more money.
There was a major depression in 1908 which saw large numbers of the immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire either returning home when the work was slack in 1909 or migrating elsewhere. For many of the Danube Swabians that would mean Milwaukee, Wisconsin in particular.
The men and family groups in the various ethnic groups sought social contact with one another and did so in various ways but primarily through their churches, grocery stores and butcher shops operated by their own and saloons whose proprietors catered to them.
Danube Swabian immigrants from the Banat are mentioned officially for the first time in 1900 when they began to hold mass in a rented hall after previously worshipping at St. James Roman Catholic Church which was an overwhelmingly Irish parish. The reason behind their action was because of the social distinctions inherent in the total life of the community and they felt out of place or were made to feel so. Many of these original families came from Weisskirchen and its environs and had arrived during the previous decade. There were also families from Karlsdorf and Deutsch Pereg in Arad County.
The published church history of Trinity German Evangelical Lutheran Church indicates that in 1900 three families from “Western Hungary” had become members of the parish. The heads of households that were listed in the publication included: Georg Frey, Johann Schultheiss and Tobias Bitz. The three families came from Swabian Turkey which is a region that covers the Counties of Tolna, Somogy and Baranya in Hungary. In the annual report in 1910 the pastor indicates that sixty-seven families from Western Hungary were now part of the parish and in fact had become the majority leading to the exodus of some of “the more German families.” In addition to these families from Hungary there were also several families from Semlak and Liebling in the Banat with whom they shared common origins.
Congregational life and church activities became the focal point of the social life of this portion of the Danube Swabian population in addition to the Bitz grocery store operated by Henry Bitz the son of Tobias who had been a youngster when the family arrived in Steelton from Döröschke in the hill country of Somogy County in Hungary. The store was located on Mohn Street named after a German family who had lived there in the past and where many of the Danube Swabian families resided. His store and butcher shop became a meeting place where the language was familiar, the products were designed to meet their needs, where news from “home” was shared and marriages were often hatched and the sausages he made were reputed to be just like back home.
These original Lutheran families came from the following villages located in Baranya County: Csikostöttös, Bikal, Mekenyes and Nagy Hajmas. From Tolna County there were families from: Varsád, Udvári, Gyönk, Szárázd and Izmény. The following villages were represented among the numerous families from Somogy County: Miklosi, Szil, Hacs, Szabadi, Döröschke, Bonnya and Ecsény. In addition there were families from the colonies established in Slavonia by families from Swabian Turkey: Hrastovac, Klein Bastei, Pasjan, Antunovac, Sartovac and Kaptanovpolje.
The major social problem in Steelton was drunkenness and the immigrant population bore the brunt of the blame and in many instances were guilty as charged. With such a large number of “unattached” men in the community the saloons and houses run by bootleggers became the venue for social intercourse and its consequences. The local newspapers constantly inveighed against the immigrant’s propensity to fall victim to the wiles of alcohol and its attendant results. One incident in particular sheds some light on the issue. Two men, one named John Gittinger and the other John Fisher were arrested for assaulting a woman in a saloon and were identified as ‘drunk German immigrants’ in the newspaper headline. The name of John Fisher has obviously been Anglicized from the correct spelling: Fischer. The next week the same newspaper reported that Trinity German Evangelical Lutheran Church had held a special meeting with regard to the incident and issued a protest to the newspaper to the effect that the two individuals were not Germans at all but Hungarians! Even then the Danube Swains were prone to vacillate about their identity or perhaps the more German element in the congregation needed to have their say to protect their reputation.
In July of 1917 the Pennsylvania Steel Company announced that it had sold the steel mills in Steelton to Bethlehem Steel. In the 1920s the population sank to about 13,000 and remained at that level during the Great Depression.
The Danube Swabian population also appears to have gone into decline primarily due to migration to other communities in search of employment, while other families moved out of Steelton into the surrounding communities to escape from the industrial pollution and grime created by the steel mills. The 100th Anniversary 1888-1988 booklet of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Steelton provides an overview of its history but it is notable that only a few familiar Danube Swabian family names appear among the current membership that is listed. That could either be a result of intermarriage or the “Americanization” of family names, i.e. the März family is now apparently Marts. Only a few family names are recognizable such as Faul, Marts, Koller, Weiss, Shenfelt (Schönfeldt), Stark, Enders, Arndt, Krahling, Schneicker, Scheib and Dorman (Dürrmann) But during the 1930s especially large numbers of the original families resided in nearby Enhaut and Sharon or moved into Harrisburg where a large Danube Swabian community flourished at that time.
In many ways, the majority of the Danube Swabians who arrived in Steelton as their destination on coming to the United States were simply passing through and left few traces behind of their sojourn there, except for the descendents of those who remained, many of whom in the future would have no knowledge or recollection of their Danube Swabian heritage beyond knowing their families were of German origin.