Duluth grinding ball plant celebrates 40th anniversary

​DULUTH, MINNESOTA, April 27, 2017 – Almost forty years ago, Dave Pierson was hauling wires and construction material while working on a crew tasked with building a $4.5 million steel plant.

Now, Pierson works at the plant as a sales representative – but not before he worked on the production line as a forge operator then a front line supervisor. He made his way up the ladder, first as a Cargill employee, then as a Gerdau employee when Gerdau purchased the grinding ball plant in 2004.

The plant celebrated its 40th anniversary Tuesday, April 25. Thanks to a history brief in the Duluth News Tribune, the plant was able to learn the exact date of its anniversary after an employee hung the brief in the plant's lunchroom. ​

"It was exciting for Duluth and the community to add a new facility and jobs," Pierson said about the first days of the plant.

Pierson was in his early 20s when he started working on the construction of the plant, which is near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border on Lake Superior. Cargill then hired him as its employee to complete the plant, a North Star Steel unit. After construction was complete, he worked in production. He's been with the plant since January 1978.

In 1977, the plant was shipping about 1,500 tons of forged alloy steel grinding balls and had 12 employees on three lines. When the plant began production, Ronald Bone, the general manager, said the plant would ultimately employ 50 workers.

"Low and behold that is where we are at," John Kuhn, plant manager, said. "What Bone did not know at the time is we would be operating four lines with 50 people, and not three."

In 2000, the fourth production line was added. That's when employee count went from about 40 people to 50.

Cargill sold the plant in 2004 to Gerdau. Pierson said Cargill was focusing more on agriculture and less on steel.

"It was a good change," Pierson said. "We thought it was good for the plant to be owned by a company that's focused in steel."

Under Gerdau, in 2005, the plant made improvements in the chemistry of its grinding balls, improving the wear. That same year, the plant reached its peak in production at 117,000 tons of grinding ball sales.

Grinding balls are used largely in the mining industry to crush materials into powders used in paints, ceramics and pyrotechnics, among others. When the plant first started, it was primarily producing grinding balls for Minnesota's taconite industry. Pierson has an interest in geology and a background in metallurgy and said he enjoys the technical work behind what he does.

 "We make a very high-quality ball," Pierson said. "We've been able to grow in quality and service."


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