~ PART I: EXTRACTION ~
Have you heard of us?
We made the steel in your refrigerator. We also made the steel in your car, bicycle, office building and washing machine. The steel in your home. The steel in your workplace. In Hamilton, Ontario—Steeltown—you may have seen our name on a park or street sign. Or maybe you’ve heard of Dofasco, the company my great-grandfather and great-great-uncle built, and over which my grandfather presided. It’s that factory across the Skyway bridge, the one billowing smoke and fire. That’s us, killing the ozone layer. But also employing a city! The city that built the middle class. We’re basically the Carnegies of Canada.
Have you heard?
It’s my brother. It’s my mother too. All of us, really—the whole Sherman family. Today, we’re more like the Kennedys than the Carnegies: more cursed than blessed. It started in 1994, when my grandfather died. Neither one of his sons succeeded him. (My father, Jamie, worked at Dofasco for a summer; my Uncle Frank put in 20 years, but never became president.) My grandfather’s estate—a mansion, cars, an island, stock—has since evaporated. My father’s half was halved in 2002, when my parents split up and our house burned down. (The power was out, and the backup generator sparked. The insurance company called it an “act of God.”) In 2006, Dofasco was acquired in a hostile takeover. Then it was the 2008 recession, and whatever money we had left was nearly gone. My brother, Joshua, didn’t take kindly to the news and tried to sue us. We don’t talk to him anymore.
Along with my brother, my two cousins and I are the Sherman family’s fourth generation. They live in the city, and I live in cottage country, three hours and a million miles north. People say I’m like my grandfather: cold on the outside, molten within. Not that it matters. At this point, the only trace of Dofasco left in our family is in my steely-eyed stare. I’ve seen our fortunes change, our lives go up in smoke. I’ve seen my brother lose his mind, my family lose everything.
None of this was supposed to happen. We were Shermans: No substance in the world was stronger than us. We were the family that went everywhere, did everything. Joshua and I had seen six of the seven wonders by the time we were teenagers. We wrote stories, played piano, made puns in Latin. And our house! Its creation, like its destruction, was a supernatural event: built with no expense spared, no detail overlooked. The architect wanted to keep it for himself, but my father, with his powers of persuasion, was able to convince him to sell it to us. It was the perfect house, my father said. And we were the perfect family.
At night, our mother would read to Joshua and me—tales of adventure, bravery and knights in shining armour. But it was our father’s stories that stayed with us. He told us about all the places named after us, the crowds that would part whenever he and his brother passed. “We were princes of Hamilton,” he would say, which meant Joshua and I were what? Dukes? Lords? To us, that seemed more incredible than any fable. Money. Success. Fame. We had been born into a family where all the things people spent their lives pursuing were already ours.
Wealth makes you feel invincible—like nothing can hurt you, nothing can pierce your skin. But all wealth does is shield you from adversity. It keeps you trapped in a fantasy, where nothing bad can happen. Then the money runs out, and there isn’t anything to protect you from the world except your own constitution. That’s when you realize you’re not made of steel, but dirt. And this dirt has been extracted, assembled and mixed together. It will be subjected to various processes: hammered, beaten. Some members of your family will make it out of that fire and be stronger than before. Others never will.
~ PART II: FORMATION ~
Steel is in my blood. My great-great-grandfather operated a steel foundry in New York State. His sons, Clifton (C.W.) and Frank (F.A.), worked in the Chicago, Pittsburgh and Buffalo steel industry. By 1914, my forebears had moved to Canada to start their own castings company. The Dominion Steel Castings Co. Ltd.—eventually known as Dofasco—was capitalized at $6 million in 1917. A labour studies professor at McMaster University, Robert Storey, estimates that “the majority” of the assessment—some $100 million in today’s money—went to my family.
But my great-great-uncle and great-grandfather weren’t like other bosses. As one former employee recalled, “The Shermans worked right out on the floor with the men. They were even bumming cigarettes off the guys.” It was the beginning of the “Dofasco Way,” a corporate philosophy that prioritized hiring immigrants and the family members of current employees over skilled workers, and shared a percentage of the company’s annual profits with its workforce. In this way, Dofasco kept an “open,” or non-unionized, shop, eventually reflected by its iconic slogan: “Our product is steel. Our strength is people.” (One hundred and seven years later, Dofasco remains non-unionized.)
In 1937, Dofasco hosted the first of what became known as “the world’s largest Christmas party,” attended by tens of thousands of workers, their families and friends. (C.W. and F.A. handed out presents.) In 1939, F.A.’s son—my grandfather—joined the company from Queen’s University. Born in 1916, Frank Jr., or F.H., was a young metallurgist. He was tasked with creating and developing Dofasco’s armaments department. Under his guidance, Dofasco made armour plate, a new material used to protect Canadian soldiers during the Second World War. (Though Dofasco steel was used in tanks, the Sherman tank is not named after us.)
My grandfather soon turned to other projects. One was the introduction of a process called basic oxygen steelmaking. Historically, steel was created in open hearths, a time-consuming and labour-intensive method. In 1952, Austrian engineers commercialized a new technique that involved spraying oxygen over molten iron, creating a higher-quality product in less time. (The same amount of steel that took more than six hours to make in an open hearth could now be made in under 30 minutes.) Dofasco produced North America’s first batch of oxygen steel in 1954. By the time Austrian president Franz Jonas visited Dofasco a decade later, oxygen-based steelmaking had been adopted worldwide.
Dofasco continued to grow steadily, expanding its campus and reclaiming land from the waters of Hamilton Harbour. In 1958, a 681-foot freighter ship was christened in my great-grandfather’s honour. The F.A. Sherman became the flagship of the company’s fleet, with an iron ore capacity of 22,000 tons. (Today, 30% of all cargo-carrying ships that pass under the Burlington Canal Lift Bridge are destined for Dofasco.) In 1959, my grandfather was promoted from executive vice-president to president, becoming the third Sherman to run the company.
Workers treated the succession of F.H. as if he were one of their own. After all, in the “Dofasco family,” everyone was equal, and the promotion of a new CEO was applauded just like the promotion of a line worker. This unique culture separated Dofasco from other manufacturers, especially its hometown rival, Stelco. Founded around the same time as Dofasco, Stelco received similar contracts and employed roughly twice the workforce. Unlike Dofasco, Stelco was unionized—which was widely considered a prerequisite for success. But Stelco was behind in other ways. It was late in switching to basic oxygen steelmaking and began to lose its competitive edge. Eventually, Dofasco became the more innovative and successful company, largely because of its people-first approach.
In time, our family became as ubiquitous as the product we made: There was Sherman Avenue, Sherman Falls, Sherman Mine, Sherman Lodge. (Sherman Falls is located on an estate that once belonged to my forebears, known as Shermanor Farm.) Eventually, Dofasco opened the F.H. Sherman Recreation and Learning Centre, a 150-acre park in Hamilton. According to Tim Bouquet and Byron Ousey, whose book, Cold Steel, chronicles the takeover of Dofasco, the complex featured seven baseball diamonds, two NHL-sized skating rinks, a soccer field, a driving range, an 18-hole mini-putt course, a double gymnasium, tennis courts, six training rooms and “facilities to accommodate the 45 separate clubs that fall under the recreational umbrella.”
When prime minister Pierre Trudeau visited Dofasco in 1974, he was presented with a pair of cuff-links made of iron ore from the Sherman Mine. By then, my family wielded significant influence in both business and politics: C.W. had advised Mackenzie King during the Second World War, and my grandfather sat on the board of the Bank of Nova Scotia. In 1978, my grandfather received an honorary doctorate of law from Hamilton’s McMaster University. In 1986, he was recognized with an engineering award for introducing oxygen-based steelmaking to North America. And in 1992—two years after retiring, at age 74—he was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame.
If the leadership of Dofasco was going to pass to another Sherman, it would have been my uncle. The first son of F.H. and Catharine, my grandmother, he was the third Frank Sherman in a row. He joined Dofasco shortly after graduating from Michigan Technological University in 1970. He held a number of positions, including general manager, and director of business and process quality systems. But in 1992, he left to pursue various entrepreneurial endeavours.
My father’s path was more circuitous. He worked in the company’s hot-rolled steel sales department for the summer of 1968, before attending Humber College that fall. He was supposed to study public relations and then get a longer-term job at Dofasco. He and my uncle would have been like F.A. and C.W.—an introvert-extrovert duo that appealed to the masses. But after stumbling into the wrong classroom, he switched to media arts and graduated in 1971. The following year, he met my mother, Sharon. (He had gone into a bookstore where she worked, searching for Walden, my mother’s favourite book.)
In 1973, my parents bought a 100-acre farm near Bancroft, Ontario, and moved out of the city. For the rest of the 1970s, they lived a Thoreauvian life, raising their own livestock and going “back to the land.” My father had become interested in glass-blowing, an ancient craft that involves heating glass to molten temperatures. (My grandfather was a photographer and patron of the arts. As disappointed as he may have been that neither of his sons followed in his footsteps, he seemed to appreciate the parallels between steelmaking and glass-blowing.) My brother, Joshua, was born in 1983. When my mother was still pregnant with me, in 1986, our family moved to Muskoka.
You should have seen our house! A two-storey Craftsman at the end of a road, at the top of a hill, leaves canopying the driveway, like something out of a fairy tale. At the top, there were gardens, a basketball court and six acres of Muskoka bush that backed onto a nature conservancy. Inside, a set of stained glass doors led from the dining area into the living room, which was filled with plush furniture. Above the fireplace hung a painting of my grandfather’s thoroughbred racehorse, and in the corner was a built-in story nook, where we kept albums filled with photos of all the trips we’d taken: Europe, Africa, the Middle East.
Neither of my parents worked at a conventional job. After Joshua and I were born, my mother homeschooled us around the kitchen table. For most of the 1990s, my father reproduced ancient glass artifacts for the Royal Ontario Museum. He was one of Muskoka’s most successful artists, but we didn’t depend on his income. It was my grandfather we counted on: In 1986, he helped my father buy our house. That same year, he paid for the construction of my father’s glass-blowing studio, a cathedralesque, 1,500-square-foot building with stained glass windows. There were more gifts on special occasions: cash, cars, jewellery.
The money bought us freedom, and with it, we went travelling, sometimes vanishing for months at a time. We’d rent an RV and drive to the American Southwest, a place that inspired my father’s art and many of our homeschooling lessons. We would learn geography as we wound down the interstate, glean history from our guidebooks, count the number of KOAs with swimming pools. My mother was our teacher, and our father was our entertainer, driver and guide. As we hunkered down in our bunk beds each night, he would tell us about the distant land, shrouded in smoke, where he and his brother were princes and their father was king.
The stories might have stayed that way—sweet nothings, thoughts to think before bed—had we not seen my grandfather’s world first-hand. In July and August, we’d boat across Lake Joseph to my grandfather’s private island. And on December 25, we’d make the six-hour round trip from Muskoka to Hamilton. Christmas was my grandfather’s favourite day, and he would hire a design team to make his house look movie-perfect. The outside would be wrapped in a giant bow. Inside, there were maids and a cook. (When my grandfather became infirm, his staff grew to include a live-in nurse.)
Looking back, that’s when my brother must have begun to truly believe what should have always remained a fiction: that we weren’t like other families, even ones who had accomplished great things. That at a molecular level, we were somehow better. Stronger. Unbreakable.
~ PART III: SUBJECTION ~
In 1988, Dofasco purchased Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The $560-million deal was supposed to turn Dofasco into Canada’s largest steelmaker. (It had often been the most profitable; now it would employ the largest workforce too.) Two years later, in 1990, the economy tanked. Demand plummeted, and Dofasco had to return Algoma to its owners, writing off $700 million. Soon after, Dofasco initiated a restructuring program that aimed to cut costs and reduce spending—otherwise known as the beginning of the end.
By the time my grandfather retired in 1990, Dofasco was in crisis. Over the next three years, it would lose $900 million. Stelco was struggling too: In 1991, it relocated its Toronto headquarters to Hamilton to cut costs, and the following year it laid off 800 workers. Its share price slipped to less than $1, giving Stelco a market value barely equal to its land and equipment.
My grandfather died in 1994, at age 78. On his deathbed, the story goes, he made a prediction: The days of companies like Dofasco were over, and men like him, his father and his uncle were a dying breed. A new generation was coming to Steeltown, and they didn’t care about parks and street signs. They wanted their names etched into history.
My father and uncle inherited my grandfather’s estate. They split everything in half and liquidated what they didn’t want. That included the family cottage, which sold for $625,000. (Today, it’s worth as much as $5 million.) At the urging of investment advisers, my father also sold his Dofasco shares, which made up the vast majority of my grandfather’s portfolio. At the time, the shares were worth less than $20 apiece. Ten years later, they reached an all-time high of more than $72.
By the early 2000s, European companies had started looking at Dofasco as a way to break into the North American automotive market. One was Luxembourg-based Arcelor. As Cold Steel author Bouquet told me: “Dofasco very much didn’t want to be taken over by Arcelor. I’m not entirely sure they wanted to be taken over by anybody.” Dofasco was then one of the world’s most successful steel companies and had rebuffed countless outsiders.
Arcelor knew Dofasco’s board would never sell. So it appealed directly to shareholders with a hostile bid that traded cash for loyalty. The shareholders accepted, and in March 2006, Arcelor bought the company for $5.6 billion. Three months later, an Indian firm called Mittal Steel, owned by Lakshmi Mittal, the world’s 91st richest man, according to Forbes, bought Arcelor for US$34 billion. ArcelorMittal is now the world’s largest steel and mining company. My grandfather’s prophecy had come true.
In the middle of the Dofasco sale, my parents got divorced. Four years earlier, in 2002, my father had moved out of our fairy-tale home and into town, occupying a house that was supposed to be a renovation project. Not long after, Joshua, then 23, moved into my father’s basement. The two of them were on one team, and my mother and I were on the other.
Then came the fire. On September 10, 2002, a windstorm blew through Muskoka, ripping up trees and tearing down hydro lines. My mother was in the middle of making dinner, and I needed the computer to do my homework, so we decided to start the generator. That had always been my father’s job. I stepped outside—the sky dark, the wind howling—and crossed the driveway to the woodshed. The instructions were printed on the front: Prime the primer, choke the choke. How hard could it be? I pulled the cord, and the generator roared to life. I returned to the house, flipped on the breaker and went back to my homework. When I was finished, I walked down the hall to my mom’s bedroom. I was watching TV when I heard her scream into the phone: “Fire, fire, fire!”
I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the small, white fire extinguisher above the refrigerator. I didn’t even know I knew where it was. I ran through the front door and saw the whole woodshed engulfed—a fireball 10 feet across and 15 feet tall. My mother appeared beside me. She had dragged over the garden hose and was thumbing the nozzle at the fire.
I went back into the house and called my father.
“The house is on fire,” I said.
“I’ll be right there,” he said.
My mother and I waited at the bottom of the driveway. We had our dog, but not the cat. The cat was gone. By the time my father arrived, the fire had travelled from the woodshed to a corner of the house. The roof was smouldering. He ran through the south entrance, closest to the living room, where we kept the photos. A minute later, he was back, carrying a stack of albums. He dumped it on the lawn, turned around, and went back in for more. He ended up saving dozens of them.
By the time the first fire truck appeared, half the house was engulfed. I couldn’t watch. I climbed the hill and sat, the heat still needling the backs of my hands. A few minutes later, my mother joined me. Someone had given her a blanket, which she gave to me.
We looked at the scene below us.
“We’re going to rebuild,” she said. “Rebuild the house, rebuild everything.”
And we did: We built over the ashes of our home. It took months, cost the insurance company $900,000, and led to a civil lawsuit. Just before the fire, Muskoka had installed mandatory 911 signs, and our house—which straddled two townships—wasn’t in the system. Then the first fire truck had mechanical problems, and the second, according to my father, had no water. By the time the third truck arrived, it was too late.
When the new house was finished, it looked just like the old one. But it was still just my mother and me.
~ PART IV: FORGED ~
Shortly after the fire, Joshua moved to Vancouver Island, and in 2006, he enrolled in a two-year program at Selkirk College, in Nelson, B.C. (I never attended university, choosing to stay home with my mother.) According to the terms of our parents’ divorce, our father was released from spousal support in exchange for giving our mother the house, but he paid for Joshua’s tuition, rent and incidentals. Then the 2008 recession happened. He kept writing cheques into 2010 before sending my brother and I each a letter: “At the current rate,” he wrote, “there will be zero [Dofasco] money left in less than 10 years.”
To Joshua, the end of our father’s financial support was a betrayal of his paternal role: His job had been to provide, while our mother nurtured. That’s what parents did. And of all parents, ours should have been capable of doing their jobs. If they weren’t—if we were now poor, as our father seemed to be saying—it was an undoing of everything Joshua had come to believe.
Not long after, our phone rang. “Someone blew crack smoke in my face,” my brother said. “I need to come home.”
My brother moved back in with my mother and me. Within days, he was lashing out. He would catch us in the middle of a conversation and accuse us of conspiring against him. Or I would be in the office and a shadow would fall beneath the door. He seemed to know whenever our father was on the phone.
“You’re not allowed to talk to him,” he would say. “I forbid you from telling him anything about me!”
Two months after moving home, in October 2010, Joshua was diagnosed with “drug-induced psychosis,” a brief loss of contact with reality. But there was nothing temporary about his condition. That winter, he accused our mother of pushing our maternal grandmother into a snowbank and then tried to blackmail her into giving him money. Our father, he told us, was a murderer. (The victim was a reporter who had allegedly tried to investigate our house fire.)
He began making written appeals, telling people he was “the single inheritor of a fortune.” This fortune, he said, came from the sale of Dofasco to Arcelor. “Police have been unresponsive and I have no monies for a lawyer,” he wrote. He signed his name and then added a postscript: “My grandfather owned (C.E.O.) Dofasco Inc., Hamilton, Ont. I am worth millions.”
We tried everything to save Joshua. In a last-ditch move, my mother sent him to the National Outdoor Leadership School, an elite wilderness program in the United States. To do this, she took out a $10,000 loan, which Joshua promised to pay back. He didn’t. A few years later, the debt had grown to $50,000. Other attempts to help him were just as futile and prone to backfire. If we called him, he said we were harassing him. If we didn’t, it meant we didn’t care.
A year into his illness, Joshua showed up at our father’s house. He said he’d been “denied my rightful inheritance,” which he was now going to collect, one way or another. My father called me, and I showed up, putting my body between my father and brother.
The molten thing inside me spilled over, and I screamed at Joshua to back away. “I mean it!” I snapped. “I have a weapon on me, and I’m not afraid to use it!”
“I’ve never seen you act like this,” he said, suddenly tender.
“Yeah, well. Get used to it.”
A few minutes later, we managed to get Joshua into the car. He sat in the back seat, and our father and I drove the car back to Joshua’s apartment. (I kept my backpack, which had a hunting knife, at my feet.) He didn’t take his sunglasses off and cursed at us the whole way there. As my brother was climbing out of the car, our father tried to give him $100.
“I don’t want your f---ing money,” Joshua snapped.
My father and brother haven’t spoken since. In 2014, Joshua moved back to B.C., where he lived in a religious commune, then a homeless shelter, then a tent. He’s been in and out of hospitals, on and off medication. He won’t talk to me or see me. Sometimes, he’ll phone our mother and tell her what a terrible parent she’s been. The last time they saw each other, she dropped off a birthday cake and a few presents. “Don’t you get it?” he screamed. “I never want to see you again.”
When I ask our parents how they’ve dealt with this, our mother smiles sadly and then leaves the room in tears. Our father stares off into space. No one knows what to say, where to begin. But there’s no time to reflect. Our mother is fighting off tax arrears, credit card debt, the $50,000 loan. At 65, she’s facing the prospect of having to work for the first time in 46 years. Because she never paid into a pension plan, there’s nothing for her to collect. Our father, nearly 70 now, is fixing up his house, getting ready for the day he’ll have to sell. Sometimes I think we’ll all end up like Joshua. Four people with no name, nothing.
~ PART VI: STEEL ~
One recent summer’s day, I drove from cottage country to Hamilton. I hadn’t been back to the city since 2012, when my father, uncle, cousins and more than 150 employees gathered on Dofasco’s front lawn to celebrate its 100th birthday. A letter from the prime minister was read out loud, and a time capsule containing various Dofasco artifacts was set aside to be buried, with instructions to be opened in 2037.
The whole time I was there, I kept wondering what had become of my family. Twenty-five years earlier, we were made of steel. How had we gone from that to where we were now? Where would we be when the capsule was opened? If my father or uncle had succeeded my grandfather as the next Dofasco president, would any of the same things have happened? You weren’t supposed to think like that, but with so many things lost, how could you not?
On this latest trip, I wanted to see more of the company. At Dofasco headquarters, Marie Verdun, the company’s manager of corporate affairs, was waiting for me. We took an elevator to the executive floor, where she pointed out the Group of Seven paintings Dofasco had purchased during my grandfather's tenure. Then she retrieved my great-grandfather’s top hat and a silver cigar box that belonged to my great-great-uncle. These and other things were in a closet Verdun affectionately called the “Dofasco archive.”
We walked to the main boardroom, where portraits of C.W., F.A., and F.H. still preside over meetings. There was also a large antique clock. The company’s Italian workers had given it to C.W. in 1937, as a symbol of Dofasco’s commitment to hiring immigrants. It stayed in the boardroom until 2005, when someone contacted my father to see if he wanted it. With rumours of a takeover swirling, no one knew what would become of the clock—whether it would be sold or auctioned off. My father agreed to take it to Muskoka. He says it worked perfectly until around the day the company was sold in March 2006, when it suddenly stopped ticking. Now it was back where it belonged and seemed to be working fine.
My grandfather’s old office is occupied by Dofasco’s current CEO, Sean Donnelly. He and I stood in the doorway, talking business. Dofasco remains one of ArcelorMittal’s most profitable mills. But its future, like my family’s, is uncertain. Trade wars, new environmental laws and obsolescence are constant threats. The company has had bad years (such as 2015, when it lost US$8 billion), and many have said the industry itself is dying.
After we finished at the main office, we suited up in safety gear and drove across the street. The bright light faded away as we entered one of the plants, where men in tiny booths moved cranes and lifted ladles of molten steel. Verdun told workers we met that I was Frank Sherman’s grandson. “Your family has meant so much to us,” Sanjay Sagar, an engineer, told me.
When the tour was over, I drove up Hamilton Mountain, taking Sherman Access and Upper Sherman. In a park overlooking the city, I saw everything my family had built. It all looked so arduous—the product of such pain and punishment. But that’s steel for you. It’s created by the injuries inflicted upon it. The harder you hammer, the stronger it gets. And when it finally can’t take any more, steel is recycled. I could just barely see a pile of it from where I stood: a mountain of shiny scrap, waiting to be turned into something new.
~ PART VII: AFTERWORD ~
This story was originally planned for the September 2018 issue. As I was writing it—and after the photos had been taken—my mother ended her own life. I’m publishing this story now, a year later, as an act of moving forward. Writing is what has provided me meaning, earned me an income and made my mother proud. “Just keep going,” she would say. My father and I get together every week and are getting by as best we can. If you see my brother, tell him he is loved.
Zander Sherman is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist. His features have appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire and many other publications. He is the host of “Uncover: The Cat Lady Case,” an investigative series from CBC Podcasts.