On Sept. 15, the Henry Miller Museum in St. Louis opens its doors for the first time, welcoming IBEW brothers and sisters from across the U.S. and Canada.
|Dale Roth, left, and brother Dave Roth, right, with their retired IBEW wireman father, Alvin, 87, are two of the small inner circle who helped make the Henry Miller Museum a reality.
The grand opening, timed to coincide with the union’s 125th anniversary and 39th International Convention, marks the most significant milestone yet in a journey that began with the stunning realization nearly a decade ago that the address on the IBEW’s first constitution was an abandoned brick building sitting rotting and forgotten on an overgrown city block that had seen better times.
And while the museum will long stand to honor the Brotherhood’s 10 founding fathers and the union they created, the fact that such a museum exists at all is a tribute to the hard work of a handful of IBEW leaders who had the vision to turn that simple address on a piece of paper into reality.
“When we first saw this place, we knew in our heart we had to save it,” St. Louis Local 1 Business Manager Frank Jacobs said of the boardinghouse where the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was founded in November 1891. Jacobs, along with Local 1 Treasurer Dave Roth and Recording Secretary John Kahrhoff, first seriously considered buying and restoring the historic building during a summer 2014 meeting to discuss the upcoming IBEW convention.
“We wanted to do something special as the hosts of this convention,” said Jacobs, who had known about the building since the International Office discovered its address back in 2007. “We didn’t know how we’d do it or how we’d pay for it, but once this group of us sat down and started thinking about buying the place, it started to get real.”
In the months to follow, the group researched the ownership of the house and surrounding properties, and began to figure out how they could make the idea work.
Within the year – and with generous donations from 11 other locals from around the country – Local 1 completed the purchase of the boardinghouse at 2728 Martin Luther King Ave. (formerly Franklin Ave.). Extra research and effort from Local 1 Director of Government Affairs Tim Green secured the land on either side of the building for parking lots and the Founders Park plaza, where lineman statues representing the 10 founding fathers will sit atop utility poles.
“A lot of work went into getting us to that point,” Kahrhoff said, looking back, “but I don’t think any of us realized just how much of a passion project this would be.” The treacherous task of venturing inside the run-down building fell to Roth, who volunteered to inspect the second story, which had been boarded up since the 1950s.
“That was probably the most gratifying part of this whole project to me, to be able to get in there and to stand on the floor where Henry Miller and those 10 founding fathers stood … it was breathtaking,” Roth said.
Next, Jacobs approached International President Lonnie R. Stephenson about the project, and, with him and International Secretary-Treasurer Salvatore “Sam” Chilia, the group formed the Electrical Workers Historical Society to fundraise and guide the effort.
“I really don’t know where we would have been without the support of President Stephenson and Secretary-Treasurer Chilia,” Jacobs said. “We’ve done so much of the nuts and bolts of the work here, but their support has been what has made all of this possible.”
When time finally came to break ground, there was really only one choice for general contractor, according to Jacobs. Roth’s older brother, Dale, a 37-year Local 1 wireman at Sachs Electric, was hired as superintendent to run the job site. “Dale became a part of our little team, and he’s done such a phenomenal job,” Kahrhoff said.
Work started on Oct. 17, 2015, and just 11 months later, it’s a whole new building. “We surgically demolished everything inside the four original walls,” said Dale Roth, who considers the project the capstone on his career. “We saved the floor from Henry Miller’s bedroom, and everything else that was salvageable – but this is a new, modern building inside that original shell.”
Dozens of IBEW members from Local 1 and St. Louis Local 1439 worked on the house, and other trades, from bricklayers and laborers to operating engineers and plumbers were on site throughout. “We took special care to make sure all of the work was done 100 percent union and that every piece we could source was union-built in America,” Roth said.
“Through all of it, we’ve really leaned on one another to drive this thing forward,” Jacobs said. “Dave has been to every construction meeting, and John has done so much legwork sourcing materials and learning about the history of this building and this union. I just can’t say enough about this group, and they’ve done it all while keeping up their day jobs.
“Whatever it took to get the job done, these guys have been there every step of the way,” Jacobs said.
Now, with work nearly completed, the foursome are taking some time to reflect on the enormity of the challenge they undertook.
“To have been able to do this for our entire Brotherhood, for the millions of men and women who have ever been a part of the IBEW,” Kahrhoff said, “is just the most gratifying feeling in the world. I don’t know how many thousands of hours we’ve put into this, but seeing it nearly finished, it’s been worth every second.”
“I just can’t wait to share this with members from all over North America,” Jacobs said. “So many brothers and sisters have donated to this effort, and we hope they and others will come and visit and learn about their union’s history standing in the room where it all began.
“And I hope when other IBEW members see the museum, it inspires them to donate and be a part of the revitalization of our history. If it doesn’t give you chills when you walk in there,” Jacobs said, “there’s something wrong with you.”
Visit nbew-ibewmuseum.org to learn more about the museum. Also, visit the ‘Donate’ tab to contribute to the effort. Commemorative gifts are available at dozens of sponsorship levels, including bricks and pavers engraved with your name or your local’s name in Founders Park.