This year marks the 130th year of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. For a look inside the early history of the union, IBEW members, NECA members and history buffs may want to visit the Henry Miller Museum in St. Louis.
On November 28, 1891, Miller met with nine other men inside the boarding house where he lived. This meeting was to fulfill an important purpose: those linemen and wiremen, all delegates from American Federated Labor Union locals, formed the first national union of electrical workers and the forerunner to the IBEW.
In 2015, IBEW 1 began restoring the Henry Miller boarding house, which sat vacant at 2726 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive for nearly 60 years. Following the building’s opening as a museum in 2016, it has become a popular venue for retirement parties and events.
“This building hosted the inaugural convention of what became IBEW and the largest electrical union in the world,” said Frank Jacobs, business manager for IBEW 1. “So, when you’re standing here, you’re standing where our founding fathers once stood.”
Besides a recreation of Miller’s upstairs bedroom, visitors can tour a first-floor common area that includes a recreation of John Greb’s Saloon. Bronze likenesses of Miller and fellow delegates can be seen scaling vintage 19th-century utility poles in the nearby courtyard.
Miller worked as a lineman starting in his teens and connected telegraph lines for the U.S. government and electrical lines for power companies. Early on, he discovered the hardships of long days, dangerous working conditions and meager pay, made worse by insufficient training. He also realized that organizing a union provided a chance for a better future.
Miller, a widower with no family ties, enthusiastically touted the benefits of union membership. In his first year as president, locals were chartered in Chicago; Milwaukee; Evansville, Ind.; New Orleans; Toledo, Ohio; Pittsburgh; Cincinnati; Duluth, Minn.; Philadelphia; New York and elsewhere.
Miller served as union president until 1894. Two years later, at age 43, he was fatally injured while working for Potomac Light and Power in Washington, D.C. Even so, his life underscores the message that people can achieve great things when they work together.
Tours of the Henry Miller Museum can be booked with just a few days’ notice. The working bar and first-floor common area support catered meals, but food and drink are not allowed on the second floor. Additional historic artifacts are housed at IBEW 1 headquarters.
For more information, visit http://nbew-ibewmuseum.org/
About The Author
DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].