Sparrows Point reunion

Martha Johnston, Baltimore, and Charlie Hand, look over Bethlehem Steel mill plant maps that also include the houses in the company town. They are among former residents of the Sparrows Point company town who gathered at North Point State Park for a reunion. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / August 17, 2012)

Elmer Hall grew up in a small town with tree-lined streets, stores, churches and schools — and the largest steel mill in the world, which ran it all.

Now that company town exists only in photographs and memories. Forty years ago, the then-owner of the Sparrows Point complex in Baltimore County began demolishing bungalows, rowhouses and everything else to make way for a massive blast furnace that still stands today.

On Saturday, Hall and hundreds of other former residents gathered near the mill to see each other again — and to remember when work and life were intimately intertwined. By sad coincidence, their reunion comes as the steel mill's own future is in doubt.

A redevelopment firm working with a liquidation company bought the plant this month from bankrupt owner RG Steel. The buyers say they hope to find an operator to restart the idled mill. Nobody knows yet whether one will emerge.

"One time, there were 30,000 employees down there — it was the biggest payroll in the entire state of Maryland," said Hall, who now lives in Parkville and organized the reunion. "Just before RG went bankrupt, I think they had somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000. … It's a sad thing to watch happen."

But Saturday's picnic at North Point State Park, on the other side of Old Road Bay from the mill, wasn't for rumination on the future. It was about the bygone grid of streets named with letters and numbers, the streetcar line that ran all the way to downtown Baltimore, the continual sound of trains, pile drivers, blast furnaces.

The red dust from steelmaking that settled everywhere when the wind blew.

The cheap rent for homes kept in good condition by longtime owner Bethlehem Steel.

The crabbing, fishing and swimming.

"I didn't really start missing it until years later," said Charlie Hand, who was born in Sparrows Point — the son of a foreman — and lived there until 1972. "It was home. I would open the window to listen to those noises — the steel mill was all around the town. … And the company took real good care of the town."

Hardy Green, author of "The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy," estimates the country has had as many as 2,500 company towns over its history. He counts not only the Sparrows Point variety, where the company built and oversaw everything, but also the places where a single company was (or is) the dominant force.

Though the concept might evoke the 19th century, it keeps reappearing. The decidedly 21st-century Facebook is building a Main Street of shops for employees only on the isolated campus of its California headquarters.

Green said company towns have ranged from lovely places, like Hershey, Pa., to little more than prison camps. Many of the Appalachian coal-mining towns "were just wooden shacks," he said. The mining song "Sixteen Tons" — with its lament, "I owe my soul to the company store" — captured a problem of company-town residents so deeply in debt they couldn't leave, he said.

Whether pleasant to live in or not, Green said, towns owned and operated by a company generally had two things in common: You didn't get to vote for the people calling the shots, and if you lost your job, you had to move out.

Sparrows Point dates back 125 years. The Pennsylvania Steel Co. began construction on the steelworks and town alongside the Patapsco River in 1887.

"In the earliest days, they had barracks where just single men, no families, lived," said John McGrain, the author of "From Pig Iron to Cotton Duck," about Baltimore County's industrial past. "It must have been like the American frontier."

When Hall grew up there in the 1940s and '50s, the town had about 6,000 to 8,000 residents as well as restaurants, grocery stores, "bathing beaches" and both a bowling alley and a movie theater. Bethlehem Steel, which inherited the town when it bought Sparrows Point in 1916, even ran its own fire and police departments.

Hall remembers Sparrows Point as a "beautiful little town" in the mold of Mayberry from the "The Andy Griffith Show." In "Diary of a Mill Town," he collected photographs and memories of the people who lived in the 1920s-era bungalows — from tricycle-heavy community parades to the couple who turned their home into an English cottage, complete with boxwood hedges.

Some of the homes were very modest. Hall's bungalow was all of 500 square feet. Sandy Harris, who grew up in her grandparents' bungalow, said it got so cold inside during the winter that she could see her breath, and so hot in the summer that her grandmother would give her damp towels to cool off.

Don McCardell, 60, can top that. His first home in Sparrows Point had no bathtub — he used the sink. And the only toilet was on the porch.