You’ve seen the T-rex. Here’s the bittersweet story behind Rutland’s iconic Mac Steel
Even if you’ve never done business with Mac Equipment and Steel in Rutland, you’ve probably seen their whimsical sculptures out front along Route 7.
The T-rex, the jazz band, the goofy-looking robot.
But after 70 years, the iconic three-generation business is closing.
The cramped and dusty office of Mac Steel is like a wood-paneled time capsule. And it feels warm on a recent cold and rainy Saturday.
"It's organized chaos," explains Israel Mac, who's dressed in a flannel shirt and blue jeans.
There’s an antique blue scale from the Howe Scale Company, a major manufacturer that operated in Rutland in the 1800s and 1900s.
There are old family photos, framed music posters for Buddy Holly and Meat Loaf, and a creaky wooden desk chair that leans so far back no one can sit in it.
"That’s Pop’s chair, he kept it," laughs Israel's wife, who's always gone by the nickname Cookie. "Israel's dad, that was his chair and Joshua refuses to part with it. It's the worst chair!"
Cookie, Israel and their son Joshua laugh and banter easily in the small space. After moving furniture to sit in a circle, they tell the story of the Mac family business.
It began with the kind of loss that’s hard to imagine.
“My father's and mother's story are similar," says Israel. "They were both Holocaust survivors.”
David and Sonia Mac were born in Poland in 1915. They were Jewish and when World War II broke out they were married to other people and each had a young child.
“They both lost their families in concentration camps," Israel continues. "My father was the only one of his entire family to survive.”
David and Sonia met in a displaced persons camp and created a new family. Israel was born in Seefeld, Austria in 1946. His two sisters came later.
The Mac family emigrated to Rutland in 1949. They were sponsored by the local Jewish community and a prominent member, who ran the Rutland Railroad at the time, gave David a job.
But Israel says his father soon set out on his own. “He decided he would start a peddling business, because it was familiar to him," explains Israel. In Poland it was common for peddlers to travel from town to town buying and selling pots and pans and other odds and ends. Israel says his father saw an opportunity to create something similar in Rutland, where many in town still spoke Polish.
“So he started collecting scrap iron, and at that time newspapers, cardboard, glass, cloth — and then consolidate it and sell it — and that started in 1953," Israel says. "And while he drove around in a used GMC pickup my mother ran the business, so to speak.”
Israel says his parents never wanted to return to Europe and never spoke of the Holocaust, which he admits left a gaping hole in his family history. Israel says he's grateful that a niece, who did family research, was able to fill in many of the missing pieces later.
He says his parents loved Vermont. The people in Rutland were kind to them, and by the 1960s Mac’s scrap business had grown to include its present steel yard and more than 60 acres of land along Route 7.
Israel says as a kid, his parents didn’t want him in the family business. It wasn’t professional enough. So Israel went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute and studied engineering. He spent time in the Army Corps of Engineers, got his master's degree and later found a job he loved in Atlanta. He was even working on a doctorate degree.
But his mother got sick and his father needed help running the business. So Israel and his wife Cookie came back to Rutland and both went to work at Mac Steel.
Their son, Joshua, began working there in the late 1990s.
“I did not expect to work in the family business," Josh Mac says. "Quite honestly, I think it was a rocky start."
Josh said he had dreams of living out west and becoming a professional skier. But he says working alongside his father and mother has been a gift. “It has been an awesome lesson and it remains so.”
While Israel managed the steel yard, Josh ran the scrap business, which he opened to artists. Over the last 20 years, sculptors and others have come from all over the world, not only bringing new revenue, but creative energy.
“Because they brought in so many, for lack of a better word, just funky, interesting people that just wanted to make art — and day in day out when you're buying scrap, you lose sight of what it is you're buying and selling,” explains Josh.
Their art made working at the yard more fun, he says, and it was a feeling he wanted to share.
"I said to myself, people fly across Route 7 every day, wouldn't it be fun to mess with them and put some cool art in there, and that's literally how it started," laughs Josh.
The family has commissioned several sculptures and put them on display along Route 7 at the steel yard’s entrance, and passersby love them.
"They call it visual therapy," Israel says, smiling.
“If you’re having a really crappy day, whether you’re coming here or commuting through Rutland… I just thought it would be fun to give people something nice to think about.”
Josh says he loves the artistic connections he’s made over the years and is proud to be part of a family business that’s spanned three generations.
But the time has come to close, the family says.
“It’s numbers, just plain and simple numbers, " explains Israel. "There is no fourth generation.”
It hasn’t been an easy decision, and the family understands it will impact their staff and the community.
But Cookie says the work is exhausting and it's time to slow down. “I would like to think that Israel's dad is proud of what has been done here. I don't know that he would have ever thought it would have gone on this long. And I know I'm very proud of the of these two. They've worked so hard and invested so much. So it's bittersweet, it’s bittersweet."
Mac Steel's last day is Friday, March 31. The family says they plan to sell the steel yard and equipment, but nothing is on the market yet. And no, the statues out front are not for sale.
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