When Steel Ruled
An often-overlooked part of West Virginia history finally has a festival to celebrate its rightful place in Appalachian culture. The first-ever Gate 5 Industrial Art Festival will take place on Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Weirton Event Center and downtown venues with events as early as 8 a.m. and going well into the evening.
While so many residents associate the Mountain State with rural landscapes and cozy homesteads, there are many for whom country roads lead home to the heart of a steelmaking giant.
For the people of Weirton, W.Va., the smell of molten steel is as familiar as the smell of the food it brought to generations of their families, and industrial noises are practically a lullaby. Their parents and grandparents worked in the great steel mills that once ruled this town, and many of them still remember their own time working in the shadow of the great metal structures where melted ore ran in rivers and the sky glowed with factory light at night.
“At one time, the mill employed people from every profession,” Weirton Mayor Harold Miller said. He mentioned doctors, lawyers, teachers, researchers and even chauffeurs among the personnel who once contributed to the great prosperity of this 20th-century steel town.
Now, so many of the mill buildings either stand silent or have disappeared, and new generations walk the streets who never set foot in one of the nation’s strongest steel producers. Some steelmaking operations continue in certain parts of the mill, but the physical evidence of Weirton’s time as an industrial powerhouse is fading.
Enter the artists.
The Beauty of the Industrial Landscape
“I know there are people here who took their industrial skills (learned while working in the mill) and turn them into a new hobby, an art,” Gate 5 Festival Founder and Chairperson Alecia Ford said.
Ford was inspired to start the Gate 5 Festival earlier this year when she witnessed the pride and sentimentality shown by local artists in the Forged By Steel competition.
“I didn’t know about the mill and what it was like to live in a mill town,” Ford said. “There is a heritage here. To me, the industrial landscape is beautiful. And when you want to honor something, you turn it into art.”
“There is a heritage here. To me, the industrial landscape is beautiful. And when you want to honor something, you turn it into art.” — Alecia Ford
The idea for the name of the Gate 5 festival came from Miller, who pointed out that Gate 5 on Main Street in downtown Weirton is one of the last entrances to the mill still standing and easily visible. It also served as the essential access point for thousands of employees in a central part of the steelmaking process. To preserve this history, he spearheaded an initiative to beautify the area around Gate 5.
“As we transition, we don’t want to forget where our roots are,” Miller said. “A lot of employees went through that gate.”
Miller is also president of Renaissance Weirton, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the citizens of Weirton by collaborating with various community organizations and the City of Weirton on events.
When Alecia heard about Miller’s efforts to beautify Gate 5, it only seemed natural to her that the gate becomes the symbol for this festival that honors what the gate represents: Weirton’s industrial heritage.
The Metal Festival
Combining forces, Ford and Miller quickly set to work assembling a festival themed around industry and metal. As the event grew, aspects were added to offer unique experiences for everyone. Whether looking to shop or solve mysteries, run or listen to good music, there will be something at the Gate 5 Festival for the entire family.
One of the first ideas to incorporate metal into the event was the inclusion of a KISS cover band. For this reason, they booked Strutter, one of America’s top tribute bands to KISS. Operating out of Akron, Ohio, Strutter has been performing worldwide for almost 20 years.
To break the ice — or rather the plate — literally — Weirton mosaic artist Elaine Klar will be at work at the Gate 5 Festival, where she will make a 40-foot-long mosaic out of Fiestaware pieces provided by The Homer Laughlin China Company of Newell. The image will be a homage to the industrial history of the Ohio Valley, provided by another of the area’s industrial companies. While Klar will be working onsite that day, festival visitors are also welcome to help build the mosaic.
The public was invited to play an early role in this work of art by breaking plates in Steubenville on Friday, Oct. 5, for a donation of $1 a plate. As a collaboration between neighbors, the Gate 5 Festival Committee and Steubenville’s First Fridays offered this chance to become involved artistically … and perhaps let off some steam!
Top Hats and Goggles Coming to Weirton
Speaking of steam, there will be a Steampunk-themed fashion show at 12:30 p.m. at the festival featuring the work of local artists Hello Haberdashery, Zen in the Shade and Iridescence Jewelry. Costumes for the show will be made by Christine Delguzzi, fashion designer for Weirton’s Striplight Theatre Company. All models in the fashion show will also be local. Molly Mossor of the Top of WV Arts Council is the fashion show chairperson.
From the stage to the street, the Gate 5 Festival will also feature the first-ever Tin Man 5K, a run/walk event that will loop around the mill and provide plenty of views of the remaining structures. Registration is open online and includes a race T-shirt for the first 100 registrants. Registration is $25 for adults and $12 for runners 12 and under. There are top-secret 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-place awards being offered.
Those wishing to peruse the festival at a more leisurely pace (and perhaps bring home a few souvenirs) are welcome to attend the artisan market. Featuring 15 carefully juried artisans, the market features all handmade pieces with an industrial theme.
One particular handmade work of art certainly captures this theme of industry, as Tim Kaulen of Pittsburgh’s Mobile Sculpture Workshop will craft an onsite sculpture entirely out of industrial components from the remains of Weirton Steel, donated by the Frontier Group.
“With so much of the mill gone, this will ensure that some survives as a piece of public art,” Gate 5 Festival Event Planner Brandy Lee Dorsch said.
The Game Is Afoot!
Those wishing to dust off their sleuthing caps have an outstanding opportunity to do so during the Gate 5 Puzzle Hunt, meticulously planned and set up by Mike Whalen and the Escape Works escape room company.
Free to groups and families, the puzzle hunt features highly interactive clues to puzzles set up throughout downtown Weirton. Using local landmarks, this well-crafted challenge will include a high level of full-emersion games and riddles to solve before the big finish with prizes.
Rust Belt Beauties
As a headquarters for the city’s historical preservation, the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center also serves as the northernmost boundary of the Gate 5 Festivities, with the Mary H. Weir Public Library serving as the other end of the festival.
“Weirton has needed something like this,” WAMCC Executive Director Dennis Jones said. “There are so many things to do, I think it’s going to be (pretty) unique.”
On Oct. 18, the museum will host a special reception for the unveiling of the design of a work of art incorporating their collection of several thousand Weirton Steel employee badges. There will also be several artists’ works of art on display in the museum’s “Rust Belt Beauty” exhibit in the upstairs gallery, and several metal artworks around the museum will be highlighted.
As always when people gather, safety is going to be a priority. To ensure this, security and safety throughout the festivities will be provided by the City of Weirton personnel.
“We have talented staff here at the city,” Miller said. “They will help as much as possible.”
“There is no industrial art festival in the entire state of West Virginia,” Ford pointed out. “This is something beyond what is typically considered ‘Appalachia.’ There’s this other way to see metal and industry and how beautiful it can be. Even the music is focused on metal! This festival has the heritage and history for the people who live here plus the edge and excitement for the future. This is cool!”
• Born and raised in the Ohio Valley, Daniel Dorsch brings a rich background of research and writing to Weelunk. He studied at West Virginia University and Duquesne University and has worked as a historian, a journalist and a marketing communications expert. Daniel’s personal philosophy is that every person and every place has a story to tell, and he makes it his mission as a wordsmith to help tell them. Daniel lives in Weirton with his wife and son.