From the editor: We recently asked readers to help find former workers from the Consolidated Cement Corporation in Cement City. Our hope was to learn a little about the company from a worker’s perspective.
It turns out that Virginia (Ginny) Stephenson’s father, Steve Sollose, worked at the plant for a number of years, often putting in 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Ginny was unable to tell us a lot about the job her father held. However, a look at his life, and how he came to Cement City, offers a unique perspective into the personal history of the Sollose family while providing a glimpse into the cement plant workings as well as the greater community.
We hope you enjoy reading this story as much as we did hearing it. It is our hope that more people step forward and share their unique stories and photos for this column going forward.
By Matt Schepeler
Virginia (Ginny) Stephenson’s parents were immigrants, and came to the United States from Hungary with the intent of landing a job with the railroad. Ginny’s father, Steve Sollose, worked as a steam engineer on the Orient Express and had been promised a transfer to a railroad in America. “Somehow or other, the papers didn’t go through, so he didn’t get the job,” said Ginny, who is now 89 years old.
It was the first of many tough blows for Steve and Barbara Sollose. Life in America did not prove to be easy.
“They came over in 1921,” said Stephenson. “My dad could do anything. He could make bricks. They ended up in Detroit, and he built a brick house, where I was born.”
Ginny was born in 1927, just before the Great Depression hit. Soon after she joined the family, Steve decided to trade the house he built, along with a garage and small lot, for a farm in Dexter.
“My father was a very ornery fellow. He didn’t believe in lawyers, so they didn’t check the background of the farm,” she said. A year later officials foreclosed the farm because the taxes hadn’t been paid, “so we lost everything, the house in Detroit and the farm.”
The family eventually ended up back in Detroit. Steve landed a job at as a die maker at Hudson Motor Car Company, but soon more bad luck hit.
‘He had to have cataract surgery, and back then, if you had cataract surgery, you had to lay 10 days flat on your back. But my father wasn’t the type to lay 10 days on his back.’ He decided to go back to work early. ‘While he was working, he hit his head. About two or three days later he looked up to see what time it was, and he felt something drop in his eye.”
He lost the sight in the eye, and the Hudson Motor Car Company let him go because of his partial blindness. The family was once more out of work.
Sollose always dreamed of farming, so the family made the move to Brooklyn, purchasing the former McKinney farm at McKinney and Riverside roads near Brooklyn from Duane Taylor. ‘My father decided to put in crops. We had to borrow horses and do everything the hard way. We didn’t have any money to buy anything,’ said Ginny.
Making matters worse, her parents spoke Hungarian and Ginny spoke a hybrid of Hungarian and English. This was very difficult for her, and starting school in Brooklyn was one of the scariest moments of her life up to that point.
‘Believe me, it was hard in school for me, because I couldn’t even give a book report,’ she said.
“Marsha Taylor took me to school to enroll me in the seventh grade. You talk about being scared, I was a city girl coming into a little country school, which was the old Brooklyn school. Mrs. Gamble was my teacher. When she introduced me to the class I was so scared, because “I didn’t speak good English” and nobody would come up to me, except for one little girl. That was Jeannie VanCamp (Noel).Â She took my hand, she took me under her wings.”
Meanwhile, making a go of the farm was proving to be difficult. Steve was considering another family move back to Detroit when someone suggested that he apply at the Consolidated Cement Corporation in Cement City.
“He was able to get a job working the conveyors. They were kind of hesitant to hire him because of his one eye, but they needed the help. It was war time, and they needed workers.”
In order for Sollose to work at the plant, Ginny had to drive him back and forth every day. “I was 14 when I got my driver’s license. Five-thirty in the morning I took him, 5:30 at night I would go pick him up,” she said, noting that she would often take the family’s dog along for company on the morning ride.
“My dad worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” said Ginny, “and they paid him $1.25 an hour.”
She noted that the work was hot and dirty. “He was in dust all day, but my father didn’t die from cancer,” said Ginny, adding that she was of the opinion that a medicinal shot of whisky daily helped keep his lungs clear.
He started the job in 1943, and in 1945 the family’s house burned to the ground. After that, company officials approached Sollose to see if he would like to live in one of the company houses behind the silos. The company had five cottages, and Steve and Barbara ended up renting one for five years. When Steve Sollose left the cement plant, it was on good terms. “They hated to see him go,” said his daughter.
He went back to the farm so he could build the house, but before it was finished, Barbara was diagnosed with cancer. “My father had to sell the place,” she said, noting that he sold 60 acres for $14,000.
By then, Ginny had married Don Stephenson, and the couple were farming their own piece of land. Steve Sollose, the tough Hungarian immigrant, came and lived on their property. He died 10 years later.
While her life has had hardships, Ginny has many fond memories of growing up in Brooklyn. She remembers working at the Spot, and her English improved to the point that she worked one year at the Hart and Howell Popcorn Factory as a typist.
Of course, Ginny has outlived most of her childhood friends, but not all of them. She and Jeannie Noel, the girl who held her hand on that terrible first day of school, remain close.
“To this day we are still friends. We are still clasping hands, and we talk just about every night.”