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Worldly Weirton celebrates storied steel heritage

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This is Weirton, "We Are the World" West Virginia.

Perhaps as well as any place, this sprawling steel mill city along the Ohio River represented this country's remarkable 20th century "smelting pot." From Ireland, Poland, Russia, Greece – more than 40 nationalities altogether – they arrived in Weirton to make the steel that built America.

The people of the Ohio Valley would celebrate their ethnicity annually during the Festival of Nations. Reaching its peak during the 1930s and early 1940s, the celebration eventually faded into history. Leaders of the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center rejuvenated the festival in 2009. This year's celebration is planned April 13 at the Weirton Event Center.

Labor Day 1934 marked the first festival, which was seen as part of the healing process following a bitter strike, according to Dennis Jones, director of the museum.

"Management of the mill wanted to improve relations," Jones said. "It just really brought everyone together. It was a chance for people to go on stage and demonstrate the customs of their native homeland. They would sing and dance. The Greeks would perform skits and the Russians would be threshing wheat."

This occurred in an era when the steel mills employed 12,000 workers. Weirton had a population of 28,000 that literally span a narrow five-mile stretch from Ohio to Pennsylvania. It is said to be the country's only city that sits in one state and borders two others.

Oddly enough, Weirton was bigger on the day it was founded than it is today.  It was formed in 1947 when four communities merged that occupy sections of Hancock and Brooke counties. The steel industry got its start when young industrialist E.T. Weir moved his operation from Clarksburg in 1909.

An early census revealed local residents from 45 nationalities. A 1940 festival attracted 10,000 spectators, mostly from the immediate area. With the onset of World War II, the emphases shifted to American patriotism.

"They were more like pro-American rallies," Jones said. "They would still have occasional international festivals."

The city's population has since dipped below 20,000 and employment at the steel mill has slipped to 1,200.

Festival crowds are considerably smaller, but Jones said it actually draws from a wider region.

"Nowadays, it brings people from further away such as Pittsburgh, Youngstown, St. Clairsville and Cambridge," he said. "It brings new people into the city of Weirton, which is good for tourism."

The event is returning to its Festival of Nations roots. And as with the original festival, it takes place outdoors at the Weirton Event Center. Hours will be from noon until 5 p.m. In case of bad weather, it will be moved to the Millsop Community Center.

"It's giving the recognition to the many nationalities that migrated to the area make up our city," Jones said. "We will have playing of the bagpipes, a Greek dancing group and ethnic food vendors."

Dan Greathouse is the director of the Top of West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau. He's also a Hancock County commissioner who formerly worked in the steel industry.

"The steel industry brought in all kinds of cultures to work in the mill," Greathouse said. "Weirton is still pretty multi-cultured. It's great to keep that alive."