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Lodi foundry survives on grit, tradition

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Posted: Friday, May 21, 2004 10:00 pm

It's rare when a fire hydrant is the focus of attention.

Kids might break one open on a hot day, dancing in the cool water that booms from its heart. When there's a fire nearby, it's the first thing firefighters look for.

The thigh-high plugs otherwise sit in anonymity, stubby arms pointed outward, invisible to all but dogs and meter maids.

There are places, however, where objects such as fire hydrants get all the attention. In a large factory sprawling along South Sacramento Street in Lodi, hydrants and hundreds of other metal objects are forged each day, shaped and cooled from a smoldering soup of molten iron.

Starting with a pile of scrap metal, workers at Lodi Iron Works create a nearly 3,000-degree pot of glowing, liquid iron. This is poured into a line of casts and molds and cooled to a hardened metal, shaken and polished, and shipped across the globe.

The heat is intense. Sparks fly from grinding and pouring. Eyes burn and skin sears from shards of shaven metal.

It's not work for everyone.

"Not too many people like to be in such a hot and dirty environment," said plant manager Paul Jacoy, who works amid the grimy heat each day. "It's black in here."

Iron has been crafted for more than 3,500 years, standing strong as entire civilizations rose and crumbled. Even as the industry changes - in the past 20 years, nearly 70 percent of California's foundries have shuttered due to mechanization and competition from foreign countries - the art of making iron remains the same.

Lodi Iron, led by a family with iron in its blood, continues that tradition even as its competitors fall away. Each day, workers of all ages, creeds and countries enter its doors to do what others have done for centuries: Melting, carving and crafting the pieces and parts that make the world's machines rattle and hum.

A worker packs a mixture of sand and clay into a mold to cast a fire hydrant. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Those creations include the fire hydrant, born from scraps, sand and heat, shipped out to be forgotten.

Waking the beast

It's 2 a.m. While the rest of the city sleeps, Arnold Baybayan walks along Sacramento Street toward a shadowy steel building.

The 17-year employee at Lodi Iron is as quiet as the night that surrounds him. He is a stoic man who prefers to work in silence, rather than chat, gab or play around.

He is the perfect person to wake the sleeping giant.

The night watchman unlocks the chain link fence at the mouth of the foundry and lets Baybayan enter. He walks through the pitch black, turning switches as he goes: Lights, fans, air compressors.

He treads toward the furnace, a steel cauldron in the foundry's center that will bubble with 7,000 pounds of molten iron by sunrise. The furnace is now dark and cool, but a 2,700-degree fire will soon pump in its veins.

Baybayan feeds the furnace, dropping scrap metal from the previous day into its belly. His expressionless features are cloaked with dark glasses. Worn, beaten gloves cover his hands.

Jesus Plancarte grinds sharp edges, nails and other protruding imperfections on a fire hydrant at the Lodi Iron Works. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

The furnace heats up, softening the hardened iron into a burning puddle. The sharp scent of fireworks and burning rubber fills the air. Baybayan continues to feed, using scraps from the piles lying behind the melting area.

Cutouts that once held metal disks. Tiny chips that were punched from storage racks. All the remaining metal other foundries didn't use comes here, dumped by a truck three times a week, to be stacked, melted and poured.

Today they will make a fire hydrant.

The furnace sits on a platform across from the factory's three pouring lines. It is a six-foot-tall cylindrical beast, with skin like a tank and a volcanic mouth. A round iron lid sits inches above the top. A ring of glowing heat shines in between.

The orange glow from the furnace's mouth illuminates the darkened lenses shading Baybayan's eyes.

A worker pounds a mold to loosen the casting on what will eventually become a fire hydrant. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Night turns into morning. Workers file in, wearing leather aprons and gloves, goggles and steel foot protectors to keep the liquid flame from their skin. Exposure can do more than burn. Years ago, a few drops of molten iron slipped into a worker's boot.

Three of his toes were burned away.

"It was the first week I started working here," worker Jim Berreth recalled.

Yet he stayed on, 27 years and counting, aware of the dangers but intrigued with the creation process. He oversees the melting department, where molten iron is taken from the furnace to be poured into casts and replaced by new scrap metal.

The pouring line is where the iron becomes a hydrant. First, however, Richard Van Slyke must design the cast.

A dying art

When molten iron streams into the rectangular cars running along the pouring line, it assumes the shape of the object it's meant to create, be it an engine part or a fire hydrant. To do that, a mold must be made for the liquid to envelop.

Lost in a cloud of steam, one iron worker throws in an additive in the molten iron as another pours the liquid metal into a vat. The additive separates any impurities so that the slag can be removed. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Van Slyke runs the woodworking shop at the foundry. When an order comes in for a part - in this case, Fresno-based American AVK has requested a shipment of hydrants - a blueprint comes across his desk.

That design is crafted into two wooden boxes. Each has an indentation on one side with an imprint of a fire hydrant, a two-foot cylinder, rounded at one end, flat at the other. Sandwich the boxes together, and the hollowed form of a hydrant sits on the inside.

Van Slyke has been with the company for more than three decades. His uncle, Fred Gauger, started at the foundry in the 1950s, a decade after German immigrant Henry Kaiser - not the one of Kaiser Permanente fame - opened the factory to make agricultural pumps.

Most of the pumps made in the early days were for the Jacuzzi company. Back then, the Jacuzzis specialized in irrigation services for local Bay Area and Central Valley agriculture, not hot tubs.

Soon after Kaiser opened the foundry, a young woman came to work in the payroll department. Fresh out of high school, Vickie Van Steenberge was only 18 years old, but she had a way with numbers and a head for business.

A worker uses a giant magnet to move scrap iron to a bin so that it can be melted down to liquid form and used. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

During the next decade, she would work her way through the company's ranks, becoming Kaiser's treasurer and secretary in the late 1950s. When the company found itself in steep debt a few years later, Vickie Van Steenberge did what any other woman in pre-equal rights America would do.

She bought the company.

"She borrowed money from the family, and she had her own money, and she borrowed the rest from the bank," said her son Kevin, now president of the company. "She took on the debt and eventually paid everybody off."

Van Slyke started working in the pattern shop in the early 1970s. His plan was to work during the summer, making enough money to finish school and work for the state.

Something about the sawdust-laden workshop stuck with him, however.

Van Slyke found he had a knack for cutting and carving design features into wood, building a three-dimensional version of what once only existed on paper.

"He's like an artist," Kevin Van Steenberge said. "He'll take a design, then piece it all together like a puzzle."

He also knows that his art is dying. Most foundries have switched to computer-controlled pattern machines and laser cutting, which allows molds to be built quicker and more efficiently.

Kevin Van Steenberge, Lodi Iron Works president, and his brother, Michael, the vice president, have taken the reigns of the business after the death of their mother, Vickie. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Like the people who made spoke wheels for cars or the caboose engineers who loaded coal into steam engines, Van Slyke says the woodworker who builds wood patterns may soon become extinct.

"Somewhere, somebody had the real knowledge to make things that eventually died away," he said.

When the blueprint for the hydrant comes through, Van Slyke whittles its familiar features into a block of wood. He then sprays it with a silvery finish, giving the shape a metallic shadow of what it will soon become.

Recycling the elements

The pattern completed, the next step is to create an actual mold to form the hydrant around.

Pouring a substance hotter than volcanic lava onto a piece of wood would vaporize it. For the iron to have time to cool once it's poured, another, more heat-resistant element is used to assemble a three-piece mold: sand.

A delicate touch to a dark work environment makes things a little more pleasant at Lodi Iron Works. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Blackened sand is mixed with an adhesive and tightly packed into the hollowed wood, creating a rock-hard core. These cores are charcoal-colored statues that will eventually be coated with liquid iron.

This sand is heaped in piles around the foundry's perimeter, waiting to be used and reused. Leftovers at the foundry are almost always recycled, says Jacoy, the plant manager. Residual iron chipped away from the finished product is melted again. Old and new sand is blended together and reused.

"You're always throwing away 10 pounds here and 20 pounds there," Jacoy said. "It adds up."

Jacoy was a freshman at a vocational high school in San Gabriel when he visited his first foundry. Workers were making aluminum chessmen with castings, pouring and cooling the pieces for a captive audience of students.

Fascinated, Jacoy began studying metals at school. He continued his studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he earned a degree in metallurgy.

Before coming to the foundry nine years ago, Jacoy worked for an aerospace company, doing research and development and materials testing. Now he oversees the melting, casting and pouring process that hooked him on the art decades ago.

"I've got my hands in everything," he said.

Sparks from a grinder fall on the last fire hydrant in need of finishing at the Lodi Iron Works. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Three sand molds are prepared for the hydrant. The outer two are black sand boxes, hollowed on either side with the hydrant's shape. The third is a sand core to be sandwiched in-between.

When the iron is poured into the molds, it will settle in the space between the core and the two outer molds. There it will cool while the sand cracks and dissolves.

Part of the puzzle is ready. All that remains is the iron.

A shrinking industry

Foundries have been moving or shutting down operations at an alarming rate during the past 20 years, says Fred Simonelli, executive director of the California Cast Metals Association in Sacramento. During that time, more than 1,100 of the state's estimated 1,400 foundries have closed.

China, India and other industrialized nations have been able take a large chunk of business by offering lower prices on their products.

"Their cost is so much lower than American foundries because of labor rates and (a lack of) environmental controls," Simonelli said. "We pay a living wage to our people. Someone working at Lodi Iron Works makes a good wage."

Molten iron begins to spill into a large vat from the furnace as it lights up like a Fourth of July sparkler. Every day about 20 different items are poured. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Worker's compensation costs, despite recent reforms, are similarly driving buyers elsewhere. California has the highest worker's comp rates in the nation, and the higher rates employers must pay to cover workers has a trickle down effect on prices, Jacoy says.

"We have to pass those costs on to our customers," he said. "It almost drives them to the foreign market."

Bill Kerr's family has witnessed this diminishment over generations. His grandfather worked at a foundry. So did his great-grandfather. His cousin, Gordon Martin, was the founder of the Atlas Foundry in Richmond, which opened around the same time Kaiser started Lodi Iron.

Kerr, who manages the molting department at the Iron Works, has been in Lodi for 18 years. He started working at his cousin's plant because his only other option was the military draft. The work was hard, but like other family members, metalmaking was in his blood.

Different shapes of iron are found throughout the Lodi Iron Works foundry. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

The Atlas Foundry was bought out by another company in the early 1980s. Kerr tried to stick with the family business when it moved to Southern California, but came to Lodi after growing tired of the commute.

"I was commuting to Los Angeles every week, spending the weekends in Walnut Creek," Kerr said. "They asked me if I wanted to move out there, but I said no. I had to find something closer to home."

The Atlas Foundry's fate spread to other Lodi plants. Tokay Foundry, which specialized in manufacturing manhole covers, were forced out of business after foreign competition took their largest contracts.

At one time, Lodi Iron also dedicated large portions of its business to one business, first with Jacuzzi and later with equipment manufacturer Caterpillar.

In the 1970s, after more than a decade as Lodi Iron's president, Vickie Van Steenberge decided that relying on one company wasn't in the company's best interest. Caterpillar officials were increasingly trying to run things at the plant, dictating when and how their equipment should be made.

They soon found themselves looking for another foundry.

Lodi Iron Works by the numbers
Tons of iron poured at the foundry each year. That's approximately 300 tons a month and 15 tons each day.
Approximate number of product varieties cast at the foundry in one year. Anywhere from two to 20 types of products will be made each day.
The weight in pounds of the smallest casting made at the foundry.
The weight in pounds of the foundry's largest casting.
Number of employees, both full and part-time, punching the clock at the foundry each day.
Approximate square footage of the Sacramento Street foundry.
Approximate square footage of Lodi Iron's Galt plant.
Temperature in Fahrenheit of the molten iron bubbling in the foundry's furnace.
Years Lodi Iron Works has been in operation.

"She loaded up their patterns and sent them back to (Caterpillar)," Kevin Van Steenberge said. "She said from that day on, no company would take more than 10 percent of her business. She tried to diversify after that."

Kevin Van Steenberge's brother, Michael, now a vice president, had already begun working at the foundry at that point. Kevin would follow in 1979, a year before Vickie installed the first of three mechanized pouring lines that would triple production and allow the company to thrive when others fell away.

The second of these pouring lines, which moves casts along a mechanical track while iron is poured, came in 1987, and the largest of the three followed in 2000. This third line allowed the foundry to begin making large objects it had previously been unable to make, such as lifting kits for cars and trucks and large engine parts.

It is on this line that the fire hydrant is poured.

Pouring the hydrant

The line is ready. Molds sit like train cars along the line nearest the bubbling furnace. Two workers stand below the furnace as it tilts forward, pouring 1,100 pounds of liquid heat into an iron tub.

A loud buzz rings in the air. Everyone is on guard. Taking iron from the furnace and replacing it with scrap is a precarious process.

The liquid can burn. It can spill. Or even explode.

Last month, a furnace exploded while scrap metal was being dropped inside. Flames shot from its mouth, scorching a wall 10 feet away and pouring molten iron across the floor.

A quick history of the foundry
Lodi Iron Works has survived for nearly 60 years in a rapidly shrinking industry. Here's a look at some of the highlights in the Lodi foundry's history:
1946: Henry H. Kaiser opens the plant on South Sacramento Street. Its largest client is the Jacuzzi company, which manufactures agricultural pumps.
1947: Vickie Van Steenberge takes a job as a payroll clerk with the foundry. She had just graduated from high school.
1958: The foundry's pattern shop, in which wood replicas of casting molds are built, begins operations.
1963: Van Steenberge, now the company's secretary of treasury, buys Lodi Iron from Kaiser. She is named company president.
1970: Lodi Iron opens a second foundry in Galt.
1980: The first of three mechanized pouring lines is installed at the foundry. Going mechanical allows the foundry to increase production.
1987: A second, larger mechanical pouring line is installed.
1992: The California Cast Metals Association honors Van Steenberge as its outstanding person of the year.
1999: Kevin Van Steenberge becomes president following Vickie Van Steenberge's death.
2000: The last of three mechanized pouring lines is installed at the foundry.

Nobody was injured. Most of the workers happened to be standing away from the furnace when it happened. But it reminded everyone of the moment's volatility.

"It really shook me up," Berreth said.

Oscar Perez, a part-time employee at the plan, moves a steel bucket of molten iron toward the pouring line. He's protected from head-to-toe: Blue helmet, dark glasses, leather body apron, gloves and metal shoe protectors. The only skin that shows is around his nose and mouth.

The bucket dangles from a wire on the ceiling. Perez pours the liquid fire into the nearest mold. He stops when a simmering glow can be seen just below the charcoal-colored surface.

Perez moves along to the next mold, pouring the iron, then moves along again. Behind him, the molds begin to crack and whiten from the heat and steam.

The iron is coating the core, assuming its shape and hardening. The sand is already beginning to disintegrate. Once the line of hydrants is poured, the remaining iron is recycled in the main furnace.

In the meantime, volcanic orange cools to a dull gray.

Woman of steel

Once the iron cools and hardens, it drops to a vibrating conveyer belt that shakes excess sand from its surface. The process is fitting for a business that shook off its competition during a bad time for the industry.

Lodi Iron not only survived the mass closure of foundries across the state, but it was able to successfully open a second plant in Galt during that time. All with a woman running the ship in a male-dominated industry.

"Back then, people were making bets on how long she was going to survive in the business," Kevin Van Steenberge said of his mother. "She outlasted a lot of them."

Foundries celebrated at Micke Grove museum

A fire hydrant casting from Lodi Iron Works is among the items on display at the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum's exhibit on local foundries.

The display at the Micke Grove Park museum features 2,000 square feet of exhibits on every foundry that has cast metal in the county during the past century. Lodi Iron Works and Tosco Casting Company both have displays, as will the now-defunct Tokay and Pinkerton foundries, said Fred Simonelli, executive director of the California Cast Metals Association.

"It's a look at the foundries within San Joaquin County that helped build the county," Simonelli said. "It covers quite a few of the foundries over the past 100 years that helped build everything from wineries to railroads."

The display is in the museum's Delta Building, and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The museum is at 11793 N. Micke Grove Road, in Lodi. For more information, call 331-2055.

- News-Sentinel Staff

Kevin worked closely with his mother and brother during those years. As a high school and college student, he worked summers in the plant, helping to build cores, melt steel and pour casts.

When he graduated from college in the late 1970s, he immediately took a position in the company's sales department. The thought of working anyplace else just didn't seem right.

"I grew up in this business," he said. "Now my oldest daughter is studying to join the company. She wants to follow in her grandmother's footsteps."

By the 1990s, Vickie Van Steenberge was being honored as a Woman of Steel, receiving accolades from statewide and national industry organizations.

When she died in 1999, Kevin assumed the company's presidency. But Vickie's face can still be seen all over the walls of the foundry's offices, in paintings, photographs and newspaper clippings, a lasting presence at the building she breathed life into.

Across the world

Jagged edges remain on the hydrants once the sand is shook free. These edges are smoothed away by workers in heavy gloves and plastic facemasks.

The iron squeals as grinding equipment smoothes the metal. Red hot sparks and shavings let fly. The scent of burning tin fills the air.

Once the grinding is done, the hydrant is places in the wheelabrator.

Imagine a shower where thousands of steel BBs replace drops of water. This is the wheelabrator, where excess dirt, sand and grime is knocked off in a spray of steel.

There's nothing left to do but package and ship the hydrants. The order is placed neatly on pallets and wrapped in plastic. They wait in the molding department, where their hollow bellies were once made from sand, until a truck comes to take them away.

American AVK will finish the hydrants, installing seals and other equipment to put them in working order. The company orders about 1,000 hydrants from Lodi Iron each year, only a small portion of the nearly 100 it manufactures each day, says purchasing manager Doug Sans.

The majority of the castings AVK uses come from foundries outside the United States, Sans says. It contracts with Lodi Iron mainly to eliminate the delay that comes with transporting castings from overseas. "When we get into a crunch, we have somebody right down the street," Sans said.

There are also situations where a city or town ordering hydrants will demand the items come from the United States, Sans says. Those situations are increasingly rare, however. More often than not, the hydrants made in Lodi are shipped across the world with the others to untracked and unknown locations.

One could end up on a street in Chicago, where hot kids might eye it on a warm summer day.

Another may wind up in some neighborhood in California, where it helps firefighters put out a blazing home.

They'll become part of the landscape again. Faceless as a manhole cover or a stop sign. Unnoticed, anonymous.

Much like the people of Lodi Iron Works, who toil in smoke, dirt and fire to create what the outside world takes for granted.

Contact Business Editor Greg Kane at gregk@lodinews.com.

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