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An Eerie Feeling About Erie: Going Home Again

The old union hall sat silently at night. Ironworkers Local #348 was part of the Labor Temple Building, located on State Street, which is the original, main thoroughfare through this northern port city. The small family restaurant and bar located underneath had its heyday decades ago, fueled by the bustling construction trade during the height of the American-Russian Cold War. If the military-industrial complex, coined by former President Eisenhower in his farewell speech had an upside in those days, it was that need created work. Mohawk ironworkers went to meet that need and that was how, at one time, Erie became the largest community of them, outside of New York State and the home reservations.

My great-grandfather Frank Mayo was the bedrock of this interesting cultural legacy. He “boomed out” from New York City, as the ironworkers said in their unique lingo, to Erie in the late 1930’s, to work on the eventual Kaiser Aluminum manufacturing facility smokestacks. When my mother drove to work next to this old plant (now an EPA superfund site) at the Zurn Energy Division, located under a now-closed but still-standing bridge, she could still see the fruits of his labor when she pulled into her parking lot. The City of Erie had grown from wooden shacks to the towering Boston Store Building which dominates its skyline to this day. Skilled workmen like these ironworkers were the firsts among equals in the building trades of these growth times. Drawn from the generations who had seen the Great Depression and the Second World War, their families were adjusted to the perils of the job in a way modern people can only wonder at. The American middle class was symbolically built on the backs of these aerial daredevils, so much like the Iroquois creation story of Turtle Island, which brought human beings to life.

Frank Mayo’s wife Mary Jacobs came with him. They eventually settled in the Little Italy section of Erie, located near a well-frequented watering hole at the time called Jake’s. It was there that my own ironworker grandfather’s stories began to overlap with Frank’s, his father-in-law. More than once, the young Steve Evans obliged his wishes by filling a bucket on a rope with bottles of beer which the older man pulled up to his bedroom window; the ironworker practice of tool buckets put to a better use for the gnarled veteran building erector. Steve knew that his younger mother-in-law would lock her husband in the room to curtail his occasional libations in the many bars dotting the neighborhood.

Frank was mostly crippled by this time, having suffered a series of accidents involving crushing steel beams that had hit him and landed on his legs. Still this work was all that he knew. He now travelled to the few jobs that he could get on as part of a construction “gang” that included two of his three sons, George and Percy, as well as newcomer Steve, who was married to his daughter Anne.

Anne had worked as a domestic housekeeper for people living in high rise apartment buildings in New York City, as did her sisters Charlotte (known affectionately as Duckie) and Alice, the youngest. Duckie went on to marry my great uncle Johnny Jocks, a Canadian armed forces veteran from World War Two, and she returned to the village of Kahnawake, where she had been born. Alice also eventually married, moved back to Kahnawake, and suffered the loss of her husband at a younger age. She went on to become the movie star of my family, co-starring in the ground-breaking Canadian National Film Board dramatic comedy called Strangers in Good Company. All of her relatives would smile when she would talk about how the limousine would pick her up in the morning for casting call. The film was well-received and her performance was singled out as inspiring when she literally fished for dinner with her nylon stockings when an emergency situation arose in the film plotline. The sisters also had a brother nicknamed “Big John” who also was an ironworker with ties to the Big Apple. A fourth sister named Eleanor also joined them there.

My grandmother and her sisters would go into a local diner, where my eventual-grandfather was working as a short-order cook and counterman. More than once he remembered her placing an order for a tuna fish sandwich which was the only meal that she seemed to eat in those lean days. Later, he would come to know the fabulously filling Mohawk culinary staple called “steak and cornbread,” which often was the main Sunday meal before the men would begin their drives back to the construction jobs to start the week. Erie is now about the same distance from the Akwesasne Territory where some ironworkers are still involved in the unique generational employment, as it is from New York City. Some of these well-traveled men boasted that they could make the eight hour trip in six hours, as they drove their big powerful gunboat Cadillacs in overdrive, screaming through the Adirondacks winding roads. To say that these men were burning both ends of the candle is an understatement for sure. That some kept a second family or families at various jobs where they had once worked has led to much light-hearted conjecture about the actual size of the Mohawk Nation today, among the more somber overtones about fidelity and departure from the reservation confines. Some of these ironworkers, especially the sought-after welders, also learned diving and water-based skills, taking them literally all over the world, where some stayed for the rest of their lives internationally.

Brothers George and Percy were both combat veterans of World War Two, joining the U.S. Navy and Marines, respectively, using forged documents that included the birth certificate of a deceased older brother who had died while still young. Their fates were intertwined when they came to be on the same beach in the Pacific theater of operations, under fire and being interviewed by the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle. My great-grandmother Mary had kept a newspaper clipping of their wartime exploits, including the age circumvention explanation, which she mounted on a gilded foil memento in the shape of heart. Her great, great-nephew and a U.S. Marine from Kahnawake, Kevin McComber, received the family record from me a few years back and he took it to be hung at the Royal Canadian Legion in Kahnawake, after I told him about what I had with me. He lovingly held the then 70-year old newspaper fragment with tears in his eyes as he had heard about this being in the family when he was younger.

Frank and Mary Mayo are now buried in the Calvary Catholic Cemetery located in Erie County Pennsylvania. All of their children are now deceased and have been for several years now with Alice being the last to pass over. In a shattering period of time for all of our family, I attended the funerals of Aunt Duckie, Big John and then my own grandmother Annie Mayo Evans during an 18-month period in the early 1980’s.

Everywhere that my family members lived became part of Indian Country to me and I never saw that distance from the reservation as being that far or really that long ago, or as in their case, reservations, as Mary (Cross the River) Jacobs Mayo had been born and baptized on the Akwesasne Territory, before leaving with Frank for Kahnawake.

Yet when I returned to either reservation, it was impressed upon me that I was seen as an outsider because my family had been away for so long. Some even confronted me with the issue of my own mixed heritage, saying that I was a now a non-Native human being.

Erie remains a place of change, as service employment and chain restaurants have replaced the old time corner bars filled with shop workers. Numerous factories have shut down. Still, many Mohawk relatives remain living and working there including older cousins and their own families now fully bloomed. Mary Catherine Mayo and her brother Frank Mayo, children of great aunt Eleanor, both were named after their grandparents and have continued to live in Erie County, Pennsylvania, active in Native events there and elsewhere.

Time and blood may both be slipping away but the ties that bind our family bring us home each time that we recall our ancestors and their individual journeys and how we came to be still here, wherever we might be at any given time. The attraction of the reservation and the closeness to those surviving family members will always remain a special place to spend time and embrace coming home again, each and every time.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.