Two men work to preserve artifacts of Brier Hill works
PITTSBURGH — For decades Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s Campbell and Brier Hill works turned out the steel and parts that built America.
R. Gene Koch, a Mineral Ridge native who lived in Lake Milton, believed for decades that the wood patterns used to make those steel parts were worth preserving.
“Look at the craftsmanship. Why doesn’t anyone care about these? This is a dying art, a part of the industrial age,” Koch said in a 1991 interview.
Koch died in 2008 at age 81 and didn’t live to see that become a reality, but two Pennsylvania men now are trying to give Koch’s collection the showcase he always believed it deserved.
Chip Barletto of New Castle and Cory Bonnet of Pittsburgh earlier this year acquired more than 6,000 wood patterns, blueprints and other artifacts from the Brier Hill works from Koch’s wife, Evelyn, a retired Warren City Schools teacher.
“The only reason she let me have it is I told her I was going to preserve every one of them and take the whole collection,” Barletto said. “I wasn’t going to repurpose them, make a clock or a table. I want to preserve them. As a kid, I looked at these things as a piece of art.”
Like many people who grew up in this region, Bonnet, 44, and Barletto, 60, have family ties to the steel industry and met through their mutual interest in that history.
Bonnet is a Pittsburgh native with family who worked at the mills, and his grandfather and uncle ran a forklift supply company that served those mills. He worked there in the summers when he was in school.
“To me way more was lost than the mills and jobs,” Bonnet said of the steel industry’s decline. “Not to diminish any type of work, but to go from controlling forces equal to a volcano to being in a call center or some other job, there’s no meaning.
“These guys were dependent upon one another. If an accident happened, it could mean your life. And when they left work, they were surrounded by everything they made. They could tell their kids, ‘We built that.’ There was this meaning that was lost when the mills shut down, and it had this cascading effect across the entire region.”
Barletto has been collecting artifacts from steel mills since his father first took him inside one at age 10.
“Our towns were booming back then,” Barletto said. “Experiencing that made me feel special. I was proud to be a part of it.”
Barletto now is president of the scrap metal company, CBS Metal, and he regularly salvages pieces of steel industry history in his travels. His collection grew to the point that he opened CB Gallery and Museum of Industrial Art and History in New Castle, Pa.
Bonnet’s art draws upon Pittsburgh’s industrial and architectural history. And after being trained in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), he started doing some of his oil paintings on repurposed materials, such as a painting of a crumbling Pittsburgh church on a wood canvas made from its old church pews.
Barletto saw some of his steel industry paintings and offered him pieces of curved wood patterns used to make molten steel ladles that came from a Pennsylvania steel mill.
Before that he was “one-trick pony,” Bonnet said, creating two-dimensional works to hang on a wall. Painting on the the wood patterns allowed him to create self-standing art that worked with the increasingly popular open floor plans of modern office spaces.
Bonnet moved into his massive studio at the Energy Innovation Center, a former trade school building located a few blocks from PPG Paints Arena, in March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. When Barletto asked Bonnet if he knew of any place where he might be able to store his collection during the pandemic shutdown, Bonnet offered up space in his studio.
Around that same time, Barletto heard about the amazing collection of artifacts reportedly being stored in a barn in Rogers.
“Usually what happens is these things end up getting destroyed, thrown away,” Barletto said. “To have a collection of that size and have it in that condition is so rare … When I saw it, my jaw hit the floor.”
Bonnet said in a separate interview that Gene Koch went to the Brier Hill Works when it was being dismantled and inquired about buying the wood patterns. He was told if he could get them out of there, he could have them.
After Koch’s death, Bonnet said, “Evelyn had people coming out there every now and then offering to buy the choice pieces to turn them into coffee tables and break up the collection. She wouldn’t do it. Her husband’s dream was to have this collection preserved, restored and displayed.
“Chip was right on board with that. He has no desire to sell any of this stuff. I have no desire to sell any of this stuff. But then how do you fund the preservation of it?”
The first obstacle was moving everything from Rogers to Pittsburgh.
With the help of a crew, they have transferred 10 full loads of a 26-foot box truck to the center. Bonnet said the owners of the Energy Innovation Center have been very supportive as the collection has expanded beyond his studio and also is being stored on the unrenovated floors of the building.
At least four more loads of smaller items remain in the barn. Bonnet wouldn’t reveal the sale price for the collection, but he said the cost to move it was greater.
Carrying heavy wood gears and spools down a narrow barn stairway, loading them into a truck and unloading them into center’s upper floors — with only a standard passenger elevator, no service elevator available — was a Herculean task.
Figuring out exactly what they have and cataloging it is an equally Herculean task, especially for two men who have full-time jobs.
It’s why they’re hosting the first of several invitation-only receptions on Thursday to give potential donors a look at what the collection entails and how they would like to showcase it.
“The first purpose of this show is to get resources to do an inventory that will allow us to take the next steps — engage someone to do restoration / preservation, hire a designer to figure out the exhibition part of it, researchers to get the backstory together clean and precise,” Bonnet said.
Bonnet even created paintings inside some of the small curved wood patterns and multiple copies of them will be given as a thank you gift to donors at a certain level.
“I’d really like to see it be shared with everybody that has an interest,” Barletto said of the collection. “I’d like to take it on the road to other steel mill towns … so people can appreciate not only how aesthetically beautiful this stuff is but how much work those pattern workers put into something that had to be so precise. It wasn’t like they were getting some two by fours and just hammering that s— together.”
Bonnet said Thursday they hadn’t determined how much they will need to make that dream a reality, but he believes once they can overcome the initial cost, the project can be self-sustaining.
“Over the last 20 years, I have a great network of other artists, craftsmen and master craftsmen,” Bonnet said. “We’ve had a ceramics master here talking about casting these in porcelain to create new objects for interior decorating and design. I had a glass artist specializing in glass casts who could do a large-scale piece … It would take a year to cool down but in the end the result would be absolutely incredible.
“We’ve thought of creating new objects out of these patterns, reusing them for their original purpose, but in a different way to support the collection, and it’s giving more people employment opportunities and work. The idea is the collection would not only sustain and support itself but start our own little industry and support others.”