What is the history of AK Steel in Middletown, Ohio? How has AK Steel, and Armco before it, impacted Middletown’s economy?
In Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance tells the story of the impact of AK Steel on Middletown, Ohio. To fully tell his story, JD has to begin by telling his family’s story. Grandparents Mamaw and Papaw were raised in Jackson, Kentucky, which they left in the 1940s when Papaw found work in the Armco steelworks in Middletown, Ohio.
AK Steel, Middletown, and the “Hillbilly Highway“
Mamaw and Papaw were hardly alone in leaving the largely rural and undeveloped economy of that part of Kentucky during this time. Indeed, they were part of a mass exodus of young Appalachian families seeking opportunities in the fast-growing and rapidly industrializing Midwest.
Companies like Armco (which would eventually become AK Steel), where Papaw found employment, actively recruited workers from the eastern Kentucky coal country where Vance’s family had its roots. These companies often encouraged and paid for men to bring their whole families with them, effectively transplanting entire communities.
The wave of migration was so common that stretches of U.S. Route 23 and Interstate 75 became colloquially known as the “Hillbilly Highway.” The numbers of people on the move were immense: by the 1950s, 13 percent of Kentucky residents had left the state.
Middletown: A Community In Decline
When JD was born in 1984, Middletown was still a respectable, prosperous industrial town. It had a vibrant shopping center downtown, long-established businesses that had been going strong since World War II, and most importantly, a major employer in the Armco steel mill. Armco would later become AK Steel, which moved its base from Middletown. As we’ll see, the exit of AK Steel from Middletown, Ohio had a huge impact on Middletown’s economy and identity.
Over the course of JD’s upbringing, the town changed dramatically for the worse. The once-bustling downtown became blighted by abandoned shops and pockmarked by broken windows; respectable family businesses were replaced by cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops; and Main Street degenerated into a haunt for drug addicts and dealers. This was due, in part, to the departure of Armco (later AK Steel) from Middletown, Ohio.
In a potent symbol of the town’s rise and fall, an opulent Victorian mansion that was once home to the wealthiest family in the county was purchased for a mere $225,000: less than what a one- or two-bedroom apartment would cost In Washington, D.C. or Manhattan. Where the once-prominent mansions weren’t been sold for pennies on the dollar, they became chopped up into small apartments by absentee landlords.
What transformed this blue-collar, seemingly prosperous community of Middletown, Ohio into a bleak post-industrial wasteland?
The Demise of Armco/AK Steel in Middletown
Towns like JD’s all over Appalachia are struggling with a new economic order. The Armco steel mill that had drawn countless Appalachian migrants like Mamaw and Papaw to the town was suffering from the same manufacturing decline that plagued Rust Belt towns all across the country.
In an era of globalization, where cheap inputs and labor could now be sourced from all over the world, domestic manufacturing concerns were at a heavy disadvantage. Companies could now easily offshore jobs to low-wage countries, leaving American blue-collar workers high and dry.
The only way they could survive was through mergers and the downsizing of their workforces. Armco merged with Kawasaki in 1989 and began drastically reducing its investment in Middletown.
Seemingly overnight, this pillar of the regional economy had become a shadow of its former self. Armco hadn’t just been an employer: it was the lifeblood of the community, funding parks, libraries, schools, and other public facilities through tax revenue and private contributions. The creation of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania bases of AK Steel spelled doom for Middletown, Ohio.
Moreover, the company and its products were an immense source of pride for Middletonians. JD recalls his grandparents boasting about how Armco steel was used in countless products and used to build some of the most iconic structures across the United States. The decline of the firm didn’t just signal an economic downturn in the town’s fortunes: it was a cultural and spiritual downward spiral that left the community reeling.
The deindustrialization of Appalachia has led to a serious lack of opportunity for people entering their prime working years. People can’t work when there are no jobs to be had: the Armcos of the world aren’t going to provide employment for all the young men to support a family the way they could have a generation ago. The demise of AK Steel in Middletown, Ohio irreparably changed the town.
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- The hallmarks of hillbilly culture and why they hold people back
- How JD Vance broke out of his hillbilly childhood and graduated from Yale
- Why the author thinks hillbillies might be beyond saving