Nerves of steel
Norma Marani Harris
At 78, Norma Marani Harris remembers her father as a great hunter and fisherman who got his family through the Depression by feeding them from his garden and working for the Works Progress Administration while Norma’s mother worked in a cannery. Harris also remembers attending McClatchy High School right as it opened; she’s about to attend her 60-year class reunion. She worked her way up to supervisor of the State Personnel Board’s mailroom when she was only 20, and she met her husband as he returned from World War II. She then followed him into the iron and welding business, where she’s been ever since. As the owner and chief executive officer (CEO) of
Auburn Iron Works and Harris Industrial Gases, her motto is: “We can weld anything but a broken heart and the crack of dawn.”
Your family has owned the Auburn Iron Works for—
And you’ve been the owner, manager for—
Thirty years. I inherited the business because my husband and I bought this in conjunction with our other business in Citrus Heights. But three months after we bought it, he passed away from a massive heart attack. He was 52 years old. So, I became the owner. But you know, without the help of my four children, I could not have done this alone. They all have different jobs, except for Kathy. She stayed with the business. She is now the president, and I am the CEO.
Why did you and your husband get involved with the iron works?
My husband had always been an old blacksmith buff, a ghost-town buff, and when the opportunity arose to purchase this business, the Auburn Dam was just going in. They’d already done part of the dam work and all that stuff, and he thought it would be a good time to buy Auburn Iron because then we could sell gases and steel and things for the Auburn Dam. But when the dam stopped in ‘78 completely, we were amazed. We still kept going.
The sign on the building says the business has been here since 1865.
Yes, it has. I had it researched when I purchased it. This was after my husband died. I had a private researcher go through. She couldn’t go back to 1865. She went back to 1899 and did find the owners and the record that it was here in this one location all that time. But I have a picture of when the old depot got burned, and it shows Auburn Iron Works on the corner, right across the street, so we know it was here in 1865 when the railroad came into Auburn.
Do you know what other industries they served?
They did wagon wheels. The blacksmith did brands for horses. They shod horses. I kept this wall like it is [indicating wall behind her] because it has the rings where they used to tie the horses so they could shoe them. And I can show you the original blacksmith’s shop. It’s still out there.
Do you weld?
Well, I took welding because I didn’t know too much about it. And so, to take over a business like this, I wanted to know the proper words to say to people—to men. Because they would call up, and they’d say, “Can I speak to a man?” I’d say, “Sure.” And then finally one time, I got brave enough, and I said, “Why don’t you ask me? Maybe I can help you.” And I did.
That’s the original forge [pointing]. You can see the original anvil. There were two forges, and we had to take one out, but I refused to take the other out with the bellows and all that stuff.
I see your name on all these awards. What were you recognized for?
Oh, gosh. I was the California Legislature’s Woman of the Year …
Why were you named Woman of the Year in 1991?
Well, [Assemblyman] Tim Leslie nominated me, so I became Woman of the Year because he thought I was fantastic, I guess. … This [reviewing awards] is a certificate of appreciation from the Supreme Lodge of the [Order] Sons of Italy in America, because I am Italian; Who’s Who in the Historical Society; and the annual President’s Award from the Auburn Chamber of Commerce. And these are all the things I’ve been president of: I’ve been president of Auburn Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been president of the Sierra College Foundation. I’ve been president of the Soroptimists International of Auburn. … And I was president of the Golden Chain Council of the Mother Lode, and that is a really historical thing. It starts at Vinton, and you follow the golden chain, which is the gold rush, down to Oakhurst. And we used to have meetings every month at places along the golden chain. … And I received the Woman of Achievement Award from the Auburn Business and Professional Women club, and I was also Placer County Woman of the Year, and I have been honored by receiving the McCann award from the Auburn Journal—a very prestigious award here in Auburn.