Elsie’s Steyr

Published: June 4, 2012 - 13:30

Last weekend was spent in Steyr, also known as Austria’s iron town. It is called iron town because iron ore is mined here since times long before the birth of Christ. Today, the whole world is familiar with bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses manufactured by the company, Steyr Daimler Puch, but once the town was famous for rifles produced by Josef Werndl. 

The story that I bring from Steyr is about this wonder called Werndl, founder of the Steyr Werke Company in 1864. Since Steyr is also the birthplace of my Austrian friend, Elsie, it is she who led me to the millennium-old town founded in the lap of the Alps at the confluence of two rivers with a pebbled stone bed and two different shades of emerald green waters. It is in a leafy green corner and it was at the feet of an imposing monument in iron of Werndl, the rifle manufacturer, that Elsie told me about the love of the workers for the city’s most famous industrialist.

Elsie comes from a family of labourers and is grateful to the socialist utopia founded in Steyr which allowed her to defeat abject poverty and improve her calling in life. Both her mother and grandmother were cleaning ladies. But she also remembers her mother standing at the city square distributing copies of the New Times, the socialist gazette of that time. Elsie eventually left Steyr with all the experiences she had gathered to study cultural anthropology at the University of Vienna. She retired as an accountant from the Vienna office of Air India. 

Werndl is remembered as a capitalist with the heart of a socialist. He may have even sown the seeds of the ideas that are responsible for the rise of the socialist movement of the labourers in Steyr. Being a hub of hectic activities in iron and steel for ages and the home for the same reason of such a large population of labourers, Steyr remains a red city or a socialist stronghold to this day in an otherwise conservative Catholic country. 

Werndl was 24 when he inherited his father’s tool and weapon parts manufacturing business with about 500 employees. He modernised and expanded the business to invent the breech-loading rifle system that was sold around the world. In Austria, the Werndl rifle became the standard small arm weapon used by the armed forces. This meant that Werndl amassed an unimaginable amount of wealth. 

The Werndl rifle was much in demand. Every week 8,000 rifles were produced and the business expanded to 6,000 employees. By 1889, there were more than 10,000 employees. Clearly, economic concern was not the only thought on the mind of this capitalist. As he earned more money he also spent it on row upon row of affordable homes, free medical facilities and higher salaries for his workers. He built schools and swimming pools for the labourers. Werndl is loved because he worked to make industry and capitalism community-friendly.

The homes built by Werndl still stand in Steyr. Elsie walked me to the one where she had spent her childhood with her grandmother and mother, both of whom were employees at the Werndl factory. 

Mesmerised by the technical inventions of the day, Werndl is remembered for investing in generating electricity from water. He was the first to produce bulbs and was responsible for using electricity to light the streets before he did his own home. Since Steyr was the only town in Europe with lights on the street, it made Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, travel all the way from Vienna in 1884 to witness the miracle for himself. 

Werndl died of pneumonia at the age of 59 after he led a flood relief operation and displayed more concern for the plight of his workers than for his own life. In 1935, the Werndl company became Steyr Daimler Puch and, apart from cars also produced tractors and trucks. 

As he earned more money he spent it on row upon row of affordable homes, free medical facilities, higher salaries for his workers. He built schools and swimming pools for the labourers

As we moved on to other parts of the picturesque city, Elsie recalled her grandmother being livid after she was told that the gigantic monument of Werndl surrounded by sculptures of his workers was removed during the last world war. The rumour was that the statues would be melted and the iron used to make weapons. That talk had made the people of Steyr very unhappy. However, ever since the monument has been back on public display, all seems to be well with the community of this iron town of Steyr, in the lap of the Alps.

This story is from print issue of HardNews