In the five years or so from when I photographed the mill towns to when I began to write about them, the mills had closed, mill workers were out of work, an entire way of life was gone. Beaver Falls where I was living was struggling to survive along with the other valley towns, mill towns now without mills. But rather than the obvious though no less heartbreaking stories of the unemployed steel workers who were devastated with the loss of their way of life, I wanted to tell the stories of those who were fighting back, who were struggling to keep their town alive, who were trying to find a new way of life for themselves and those who were left among the ruins of the mills. Those stories seemed to me heroic and universal: the effort to live with life as it is, as opposed to the way it was remembered—life as it used to be and that we wish it could be again. A different kind of furnace, to be sure, than the one portrayed in Bell’s book Out of this Furnace, but no less a hardening process for those who were living it.
As I was thinking about mills and mill towns and trying to come up with a name for a fictitious town, I was still toying with the name Furnace despite its being too easy and obvious. Then the story occurred to me of an early workman who couldn’t spell making a sign for the place and the incorrect name sticking. Furnass. Perfect. It even incorporated the harshness of the Western Pennsylvania accent that turned the lyrical Monaca into Ma-nacka, Coraopolis into Corry-opolis. Fur-nass. Marty and I got such a kick out of the idea that we even had matching athletic jackets made up, all the fashion in Beaver Falls. Ours were of silver satin, with Furnass Stokers, the fictitious high school football team, written in script across the back. On the front each jacket had our name in script on the right side; on the left side mine had the name of a fictitious lodge, Sons of Allehela, named for the river that ran through the town, and Marty’s had Sons of Allehela Auxiliary, in deference to a woman’s place in the culture at the time. When people questioned us about the name, I’d say, “You know, down the Ohio toward Pittsburgh,” and more often than not the questioner would nod and say, “Oh yeah, I know where you mean.” All went well until one day at Kroger’s a guy read the name wrong, “Fur-ass? You saying you’re a Fur-ass?” and I guess thinking it a homosexual announcement, wanted to kick my ass. After that, we put the jackets away.