Family learns about place in Joliet history
By Jean Tyrell For The Herald-News July 13, 2012 1:34PM
Gordon Shupe of Durango, Col., Mary Jane Ancel Rougeau of Joliet and her sister Charlene Ancel McDade of Wilmington read an interpretive plaque at the Will County Forest Preserve District Iron Works site. The three were part of the Ancel family's reunion
Updated: August 17, 2012 6:16AM
JOLIET — The history of the Ancel family and the history of Joliet are closely intertwined, so much so that the Joliet Wire Mill was the place where the ancestors, the five original immigrant brothers, worked when they first came to this county between 1907 and 1911.
Some 150 family members, who assembled June 30 and July 1 for a reunion, took a special tour of the Will County Forest Preserve Joliet Iron Works Historic Site.
The site on Columbia Street at the north end of downtown Joliet was walking distance from the Slovenian neighborhood where the immigrant community settled around the anchor St. Joseph Church in the early part of the 20th century.
Family members heard about the lives of men, like their ancestors, who worked in the iron industry.
Vera Ancel Muir of Palatine organized the tour because she found in her genealogical research that all five of the brothers — John, Jacob, Martin, Peter and Joseph — worked at the mill at some point.
“It was a good opportunity,” she said, “To see the kind of jobs that were available to our immigrant ancestors.”
She called the forest preserve for more information, and it offered her family a guided tour at no charge. So, the family assembled to hear Mike Speller, an interpretive specialist, discuss the history and the working life of Joliet’s iron mill.
Speller described the harsh and dirty working that conditions were a part of the job for the immigrant laborers. Family heard Speller tell about employees who were expected to handle molten hot material, as well as clean and load two-story-high smelting furnaces that spewed toxic gases — byproducts of the ironmaking process.
Work was 12-hour shifts, six days a week. Pay was $1.50 a day.
The immigrant ancestors were among other foreign-born employees at the plant whose different native tongues, including Italian, Eastern European and Slavic languages, made communication complicated and working even more dangerous.
The site, the only part of which remains are the foundation stones of the smelter chimney, is lightly wooded and filled with bird sounds, quite a difference from the smog and noise that accompanied that industrial yard in its heydays, through the 1930s when it employed as many as 2,600.
Not all five Ancel brothers found the work to their liking. Jacob returned to Slovenia, Muir said. Another left to farm in Arkansas.
Jacob’s grandson, descendant of the Slovenian branch of the Ancels, made it to the reunion. Anton Ancelj and his wife and daughters, came from the old country to be part of the weekend and Sunday’s tour.
Like his U.S. cousins, Ancelj recognized his ancestors were fortunate.
“It was a really hard life. They had luck to survive, our family.”