Demolition of historical LaBelle Nail Plant stirs memories

Photo by Scott McCloskey Demolition crews dismantle and cut-away sections of the north end of the former La Belle Cut Nail Plant in South Wheeling to make room for the construction of LaBelle Greene III, a town house style rental community. Construction is expected to begin this spring.

WHEELING — Once ranked as one of America’s largest producers of cut nails, the former La Belle Cut Nail Plant in South Wheeling will soon be a memory as demolition is underway to make room for additional townhouse-style apartments.

As heavy equipment crews have begun to dismantle and cut away large sections of metal siding from the north side of the plant over the past few weeks, former employees of the historical plant, Steve Beecroft, a former general manager of the plant from 1994-2001 and Dave DelGuzzo, a plant supervisor from 1988-93, recall vivid memories of an extremely unique plant that employed craftsmen unlike any other.

“The workings were very unique, as we had guild craftsman that maintained those machines,” said Beecroft, who has moved to Grand Rapids Michigan, since retiring. A blacksmith, a machinist and nailers, were just a few of the various occupations at the plant that repaired and maintained the aged machinery, according to Beecroft.

“You couldn’t buy parts for the machines because they dated back to 1852. So all the parts had to be made in-house. Between that group, they made all the parts to keep the machines running. … That type of craftsmanship you just don’t see today with all the modern technology. You don’t have that hands-on expertise that those guys had. It was just amazing to watch,” Beecroft said.

“There was a bond there. It was like a family. … All the fellas, they looked at that plant and the product they made, even though it was just a nail, as something very unique and very special. And I think that’s what made it run so well, at least during the time I was there,” said Beecroft. “You had the feeling that they really cared about that plant and that product,” he added.

Founded in 1852, the LaBelle plant was one of three other local plants that produced nails with the use of cast iron cutting machines during that time. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 but was never designated with “landmark” status (the highest status that can be given to a historical site), according to information provided by the Wheeling National Area Heritage Corporation. Their innovative production process integrated the rolling mill, a furnace, and cut nail machines powered by one engine under one management.

In 1874, LaBelle employed nearly 400 workers. It was nearly fifty years later that it joined the Wheeling Steel Corporation, which eventually merged with the Pittsburgh Steel Corporation in the late 1960’s to form the Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corporation. According to some accounts, like many factories of an earlier era, mules were used for various pulling or hauling tasks on the grounds of the plant at one time.

After ceasing operations in 2010, all of the contents of the plant, including the original cut nail machinery was auctioned off in the summer of 2015. The Wheeling National Area Heritage Corporation purchased all of the paper records from the plant for $5, which they continue to archive today.

Delguzzo, who now resides in St. Clairsville and worked as the plant superintendent at Labelle from 1988-93 said he has many fond memories of working in such a unique setting with hard working crews.

“I loved it there,” said Delguzzo, who began working for Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in 1972 as an electrician and eventually moved to the Labelle plant in 82″ as an electrician. He was promoted to plant superintendent six years later. He said during his time at the plant one shift would consist of 38 workers.

Delguzzo said the cut nail machinery was designed to make various size nails designated by the “penny” size. This was a system of classifying nails by size according to the price by the penny.

“Each machine was designed for three-penny, four-penny, ten-penny, 100-penny, whatever — and one guy would feed four machines,” Delguzzo said. Feeders were the guys who would walk along and feed flat steel rods into the cutting machines to make the nails. “We had flooring nails, we had common nails, masonry nails, finishing nails … a variety of nails,” he added.

Delguzzo said back in the 1800’s there was a stream engine beneath the plant with a “line shaft” that ran all the machines at once with separate connecting belts.

“It started out in the 1850’s with a steam engine, and then when electricity came they had one big electric motor that replaced the steam engine. … Then back in the 60’s they had to go to individual machines because it was dangerous for people to flip the belts off while other machines were running,” Delguzzo said. He said it was during that time each machine received a separate motor. “This way you could shut one machine down and work on it and the other three would still keep running,” he added.

The Wheeling Planning Commission recently approved a subdivision request made by The Woda Group, Inc., of Westerville, Ohio, for the construction of LaBelle Greene III, a new multi-family two-story rental community to be located at the site of the former nail plant. The Woda Group, a regional housing developer and general contractor stated in a press release the new rental community as being the second phase of the already constructed LaBelle Greene apartment complex, located off 31st Street. Construction of LaBelle Greene III is expected to begin sometime over the next few months. Each of the town houses constructed at LaBelle Green III will include an array of modern amenities for families.

Thomas S. Simons, Senior Vice President for The Woda Group, Inc. said, “Being able to provide additional affordable family housing in a wonderful community like Wheeling makes for an extremely exciting time for The Woda Group, Inc. LaBelle Greene III will be a new residential family community that everyone will be proud to call home.”

Delguzzo said he still recalls a close knit group of workers who were each very skilled at their craft.

“They were all good people … and there were only 38 of us so, so it was like a family,” Delguzzo said. “We would have some summer picnics … and it was fun.” He said while it is sad to see the old plant demolished, he realizes it is kind of a sign of the times around the Ohio Valley.

“Even when I was there in the ’80s and ’90s we had a salesman say, ‘I don’t know how long this plant is going to last, cut nails went the way of the buggy whip,’ and I knew what he meant and he was right,” Delguzzo added.


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