Cement Plant A Vital Cog in History of Iola

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Iola Portland Cement Plant Early Postcard

This article is reprinted from the Iola Register, April 27, 1938, and discusses the early history of the Lehigh Portland Cement Plant (originally the Iola Portland Cement Plant):

Cement Plant A Vital Cog in History of Iola

Cement Goes Back to Prehistoric Times When Limestone and Shale Were Laid Down Here by the Ocean; Plant Has Operated Here Successfully for Forty Years; Manufacture Is an Involved and Lengthy Process

The history of Iola cement, the most modern and up-to-date construction material, dates back to the very dawn of time. Millions of years ago, when the great dinosaurs roamed through the lush vegetation that grew in the mud and ooze of the prehistoric earth, the seas covered southeast Kansas at various times. During one of these eras, which were thousands of years long, the ocean receded and deposited a layer of limestone covered with mud. These depositions hardened, after eons of time, into the rocks known today as the Iola limestone and the Iola shale.

Sometime in the last decade of the nineteenth century, geologists discovered these two ledges of rock relatively near the surface in Allen County, and industrial research chemists found that they were superior to any raw material for the manufacture of cement. In 1898 the Lehigh Construction company of Michigan began building a large cement plant for a company of men from Detroit and St. Louis, and in 1899 the first cement was manufactured in the plant which is now the Iola plant of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. The original concern was called the Iola Portland Cement Company and its first president and manager was S. H. Bassett, after whom the suburb of Iola which grew up around the plant was named.

The fact that the shale and limestone, the two main ingredients of cement, and natural gas, fuel for the engines, were found abundantly in Iola, made Iola one of the most profitable locations in the country for a cement factory.

This was the first large cement plant west of the Mississippi river, and for many years was the largest west of Chicago. Some of the first shipments out of Iola went to the southern and the mountain states, and even as far west as California and Oregon. The power used at that time was natural gas, and the plant had a capacity of 6,000 barrels per day in the 22 kilns, each one of which was 80 feet long. Today the plant still uses natural gas in the kilns, but the power is furnished by oil burning Diesel engines, and the plant’s capacity is 4,000 barrels per day using only 6 kilns.

In 1915 the plant was changed from a dry process to a wet process factory. The change entailed the purchase of a considerable amount of new machinery and a reorganization of the processes of manufacture, but the owners felt that a better grade of cement could be manufactured by using the wet mix method. Their decision proved wise, for the Iola cement continues to this day to be second to none in the world. In 1917, the Lehigh Portland cement company of Allentown, Pa., purchased the plant. No radical changes were made in the personnel or the method of manufacture, but C. A. Swiggett, a relatively young man but with years of experience in cement manufacture, was placed in charge. The plant has enjoyed a continued success ever since that time. Even in the depths of the depression, the Iola Lehigh mill had surprisingly few periods when it was forced to shut down, and the seasonal layoff at the present time has been reduced to the minimum for plants of this size and scope.

There are at present 150 men directly employed at the large mill south of Iola. The mill grounds cover about 15 acres, but the company owns about 300 acres in the vicinity, to give it, as one of the executives expressed it, “plenty of elbow room.” The plant consists or several huge storage bins, an office building, garages, bath houses and change rooms for the employees, quarries, trackage for the shipping of the product, and the great crushing and mixing mill itself. It is obviously impossible, in a brief newspaper article, to give anything but a very sketchy description of the many involved steps through which the shale, limestone and gypsum rock are taken before they are mixed and sacked for sale as Lehigh Portland cement. The limestone rock and the shale are quarried separately and transported on the plant’s own railroad from the quarry, to the crushing hoppers where they are hammered into a powder by the giant jaws of the monster machines. When they have reached a certain degree of fineness, they are mixed, while wet, in the approximate percentage of 80 parts of limestone to 20 parts of shale. This wet mix is then burned in the huge kilns into the form known as the “clinker,” a small cinder which averages about an inch In diameter, and during this process, the gypsum is added to the clinker. The clinker is then ground into the final form, cement; and the powdery construction material is stored in the great bins to await packaging in barrels, cars, or paper and cloth sacks for shipment.

First Shipment Of Iola Cement Still Unpaid

There is an old legend at the Lehigh Portland cement plant here concerning the first batch of cement which was manufactured in the Iola plant, way hack in 1899. Samples were sent out from the first barrels of cement which were produced, and a New Orleans contractor, doing work on the levees in Louisiana, bought an entire train load of the product. Plant officials smiled as they saw the freight cars move out of Iola destined for New Orleans, and they made quick calculations in their mind concerning the size of the check which would be forthcoming in a few days. The cement found its way into the levees in Louisiana, but the check never found its way back to Iola. Something happened to the contractor after the work had been completed and accepted, and the Iola cement plant’s first shipment proved to be a bad account. The cement gave perfect satisfaction, but the bill was never paid.