NEGAUNEE - Ask a former employee about the Pioneer Pellet or Ore Improvement plants and one word you'll probably hear is "dust."
But another word you're likely to hear is "family."
Thursday, dozens of former workers at the two properties - which were located in proximity of each other in Negaunee Township - gathered for their annual reunion at the Ronn Union Hall in Negaunee, informally organized by some of the former miners.
Miners who worked at the Pioneer Pellet and Ore Improvement plants in Negaunee Township gathered Thursday for their annual reunion. This is a photo that shows part of both of the plants, taken by photographer Jim Wuepper in the 1970s. Both plants closed in 1979.
From left, Jim Vallier, Fred Herman and Sonny Sinnaeve talk at Thursday’s reunion of workers from the Pioneer Pellet and Ore Improvement plants. Dozens of former miners from the two properties gathered at the Ronn Union Hall in Negaunee. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
Enjoying a homemade continental breakfast, former miners from the Pioneer Pellet and Ore Improvement plants share memories of working at the properties, which closed in 1979. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
The two properties were operations of what was then Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. The Ore Improvement opened in 1957 and Pioneer Pellet in 1967, with both closing in 1979.
"Everybody should have started out at Ore Improvement," said David Grigg, who worked there from 1970-1973. "Then they would have appreciated everywhere else they worked after."
The mine workers dealt with a continuous supply of pink dust, reunion organizer Dick Salo said.
"There's a saying I always tell about Ore Improvement," he said. "It redefined the definition of a 2-by-4. You walked in 2 feet of mud on a good day and could see 4 feet in front of you at most."
Ore Improvement was a seasonal plant, meaning it was in operation weather permitting, usually from April to October.
Marvin Lummukka, who worked at Ore Improvement from 1957-68 as an ore car dumper, usually took a layoff from November through March.
"I'd take a sauna, trying to get the ore out of my skin, when I was laid off in November, and it was usually out of my skin by February," he said. "It was a dusty, dusty place."
Al McCarthy, who worked at Pioneer Pellet from 1976-1979, said he'll never forget the tint that tinged his skin.
"The dust was what was memorable about it," he said. "But you know, the people were so nice to work with. It was real friendship. Everyone was wonderful. There were small crews so you knew everybody."
Joe Filizetti, who worked at both properties between 1965-1979, said the reunion is a sign of the goodwill shared by the workers.
"Everybody was so nice at the Pioneer and Ore Improvement," he said. "It really was like family. It still is."
Al "Goofus" Ammesmaki worked at the plants as a "summer student" - jobs given to employees' children during college breaks - in 1973 and 1974.
"I went back to school and it didn't work out for me," Ammesmaki said. "I applied to CCI and I wanted to go back to the underground mines, where I had worked before, but there were no openings. But there was one at Ore Improvement.
"I was hired in June 1975 and it was a dirty job in that there was so much dust there. But everybody there looked out for each other. We all wanted to make sure everybody got home safe.
"There was something about that. It was really special."
Renee Prusi can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.