Panel talks about their time with New Jersey Zinc Company
ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Bill Smelas, Peter Kern and John Aulenbach talked about the years they worked for New Jersey Zinc Company at a Palmerton Area Historical Society meeting.
At the Oct. 8 meeting of the Palmerton Area Historical Society Peter Kern, John Aulenbach and Bill Smelas told about the New Jersey Zinc Company. The three all began their employment in the early 1960s.
Kern said he has done a presentation about the company eight times recently as there is interest throughout the Lehigh Valley. He was attending the University of Minnesota when applications were being requested for Zinc Co. workers. He got the job at $4 per hour, which he termed reasonably good pay for the time.
Kern began as an Investigator 3, the second lowest position in research. He worked in a field station and met Smelas who worked in manufacturing. He was a University of Pittsburgh graduate, both had chemical engineering degrees.
"Manufacturing couldn't run without research. We worked together and had a good problem-solving relationship," said Kern.
It was the No. 1 company in the world for zinc technology. The company owned many patents. Products included a lot of things besides zinc such as the 300 tons a day of sulfuric acid that was turned out.
Smelas was living at the Horsehead Inn and, though married people were not permitted there, Kern said he and his wife stayed a few weeks. The society has the 1909 registration book from the Horsehead.
It included the Palmers; Raymond Jelley, who began at the Zinc Co. as an engineer for $5 per hour; and later his brother, Irving Jelly the second E was left out of his name and that was the way it stayed. He became an artist. On the gravestones it is spelled "Jelly."
Smelas said people who stayed at the Horsehead were not supposed to date employees. The housemother kept a careful eye out. Women could be brought in for Thanksgiving and Christmas but only in the public areas.
Smelas said work got "turbulent" when the company was taken over by Gulf and Western. In his opinion the company was more interested in starlets than zinc. People were fired. It was a discouraging time.
In the '80s private owners came in or it would have shut down. That was when the recycling division was started.
Aulenbach was training as a draftsman but the company said it wasn't hiring. However, it needed a time-study person, particularly in the rolling mill where there was incentive pay. He was from Schuylkill Haven, a distance of 35 miles, but had never heard of Palmerton.
It was a beautiful town regardless of the smoke with many different ethnic groups, he said.
He planned to take a job only until he found something else. Forty-five years later he retired from the Zinc.
Because of his job with time study he faced a lot of animosity. A man in the rolling mill told him, "You're taking the food out of my kid's mouth."
Someone told him not to worry because the man did not have any kids.
Making slab zinc was a dirty job that gave the wrong impression. The men may have been dirty but they were not stupid. They learned their jobs and made amazing products with a sometimes-limited education.
Howard Cyr, who was in the audience, was involved in the mining end of the production. New Jersey Zinc was the largest zinc mining operation in the world. As a geologist he traveled a lot. The ores came from all over the world.
Aulenbach recalls an old beat-up gondola filled with residue. When he asked why it was being kept he was told it had a lot of gold and silver that would be reclaimed. The price of zinc dropped so much that the only profit was the reclaimed silver.
He said there was an underground shop at Ogdensburg, N.J., that was bigger than anything PennDOT could imagine.
Kern said Ogdensburg, N.J., was a cut and fill mine. Residue was shipped to Ogdensburg and mixed with cement to fill the mine. The ore from Ogdensburg was considered the best because it did not have manganese.
The Bureau of Mines is interested in the residue. If manganese is ever needed they know 1 million tons is sitting outside Palmerton.
Friedensburg (near Center Valley) pumped 30,000 gallons of water a minute. It required burning 30 tons of coal an hour to provide the electricity to keep the pumps running. In Ogdensburg there was only 175 gallons a minute pumped.
There were two chauffeurs who took Frank Stetler and nurse Mary Tashler to the site when someone needed minor medical treatment. Serious cases were taken to the hospital, said Aulenbach.
The safety department was considered excellent. The work was dangerous with occasional fatalities. A publication, "Safety Chatter," made everyone comfortable that if help was needed it would be good. Tashler said burn cases scared her the most.
In the 1970s there were a lot of layoffs, research was downsized. The slab zinc and acid plants were shut down.
Palmerton at the height of the Zinc Company production had the highest percentage of PhDs of any town in the country.