The modest brick boarding house where Henry Miller founded the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (NBEW) 125 years ago will reopen in September as a museum to create a lasting testament to the rich history of the union, now known as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
Construction on the $6 million project began late last year. The former boarding house, located at 2726-2728 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, will be transformed into the museum and an adjacent lot will feature a park honoring the union’s 10 founding fathers.
“We hope that all IBEW members will be inspired by the house and the history it holds, and see it as a home for everyone in the Brotherhood, said IBEW Local 1 Business Manager Frank Jacobs, a fourth generation IBEW member and grandson of the district’s first international vice president.
“We’ve come a long way since Miller and the other founders started this union,” Jacobs added. “It’s important that we don’t forget that. We need to know where we came from.”
ABOUT HENRY MILLER
Miller dedicated his life to organizing electrical workers. After speaking with other workers at an expo in St. Louis in 1890, he saw a pattern of long and dangerous days for meager pay, with little training. A union was the clear answer, and with help from the American Federation of Labor, Miller and others came together and formed the first St. Louis Electricians’ Union, Local 5221 of the AFL.
But Miller knew that true bargaining power could only come from a national union. So he set out to make it happen. In 1891, in the unassuming boarding house he called home, the first convention was held with 10 delegates in attendance. It was there that the NBEW was born, and Miller was elected as the first president.
Everywhere he went, Miller talked about the benefits of organizing a union. In his first year as president, locals were chartered in more than 10 major cities. His tenacity and courage were recognized by many of the people he encountered, including fellow officer J.T. Kelly, the union’s first secretary-treasurer.
“He was generous, unselfish and devoted himself to the task of organizing the electrical workers with an energy that brooked no failure,” Kelly wrote in a memorial on Miller’s death in the August 1896 issue of The Electrical Workers Journal.
QUEST TO PURCHASE THE BUILDING
In 2009, the IBEW International Office released a six-minute video on the union’s origins, which included the story of Miller and the Brotherhood’s early days in St. Louis.
It also discussed the role of the boarding house, and perhaps more importantly for Local 1, that it was still standing just six miles from the flagship union’s current office location.
Realizing that this structure was one of very few tangible items left from the Brotherhood’s birth, Local 1 leaders set out to bring the building home. In August 2014, they embarked on their mission to buy the house and finalized the purchase less than a year later for $53,680.
Soon afterward, the building was evaluated and the structure was found to be in surprisingly good shape. However, the interior – having been abandoned for decades – would require extensive work. The long-vacant property came with a leaky roof that rotted the entire interior wood structure.
MAKING HISTORY COME ALIVE
Although the building bears the marks of its previous incarnations, like weather-worn signs relating its time as a corner market, little is known of its history since Miller’s time, or how it evaded demolition when everything else on the block has since been torn down.
While some of those answers may be lost to history, Local 1 has been digging into the past to determine what the building looked like at the turn of the last century and is committed to returning it to its original style as much as possible so visitors will see what Miller saw in his day.
The first floor, which was originally a saloon, will be converted into the actual museum and will showcase treasures from Local 1’s collection, including personal items of the founding fathers and a copy of the original minutes from the AFL affiliation. Miller’s room, located on the second floor, also will be restored, and plans are in the works for meeting and event rooms.
“We’re going to be able to bring the building back to the way it was,” said Local 1 Business Representative John Kahrhoff, who also directs business development.
In addition to the building renovation, Local 1 has purchased an adjacent empty lot and plans to include a Founders’ Park, an idea first proposed by Jacobs and Local 1 Business Representative Dave Roth, a second generation IBEW member. The park will feature 10 utility poles, each with a statue of a lineman to represent the 10 founding fathers. The park will have granite benches and commemorative stones and will be surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.
Roth and his brother Dale, a Local 1 member working as superintendent on the project, promised their father they would leave the IBEW in a better place that when they found it. “This museum is part of that promise,” Dave Roth said.
ELECTRICAL WORKERS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Shortly after purchasing the building, Local 1 turned the project over to the newly formed Electrical Workers Historical Society, a 501(C)3 tax-exempt organization which is managing and raising the funding to cover the cost of the renovation as well as ongoing maintenance.
The society is governed by a board of directors, including: International President Lonnie R. Stephenson; Secretary-Treasurer Salvatore J. Chilia; 11th District Vice President Curtis E. Henke; Jacobs, and James I. Singer, a Local 1 attorney.
If all goes as planned, the society will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony around the time of the international convention, which is scheduled for Sept. 19-23 in St. Louis.
IBEW INTERNATIONAL PRESIDENT LONNIE STEPHENSON
“When we meet in St. Louis to celebrate the 125th anniversary of our founding, we will be able to do something we have never done before,” Stephenson said. “We will be able to walk down the hallways our founding father Henry Miller once walked, adding our footprints to the foundation of our union.”
Stephenson said that while a lot has changed since 1891, in some ways the union is still fighting the same fights by negotiating for fair wages and working conditions and respect in the workplace. He said being able to visit the house where it all started will serve as a reminder of how far the union has come and how possible change can be.
“The Henry Miller house will be our touchstone for inspiration,” Stephenson said. “By visiting and learning from the history of this great union, we can move forward with the knowledge and strength to fuel our current battles. Our tool chest may have grown over the past 125 years, but the principles remain the same.”
For more information on the project or to donate, visit nbew-ibewmuseum.org.