Cement Was Only Boom Baby To Survive When Gas Failed

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This article is reprinted from the Iola Register, May 30, 1955:

Cement Was Only Boom Baby To Survive When Gas Failed

In 1899 the gas boom and sprawling zinc foundries held the center of the industrial stage in Allen County. They were so noisy and dramatic that only a ripple of interest was aroused by the appearance of a new industry, cement, which strayed upon the scene almost accidentally. In spite of its unobtrusive beginning, cement was the only one of the gas boom businesses which survived the collapse of the fields and is prospering today, a half century later. With the exception of agriculture the cement plants in 1955 employ more men than any other industry in the county.

The first cement plant was started here because James A. Davis, a special agent for the Santa Fe Railroad, knew something about mineralogy and also had an inquiring mind. He wandered out to the Iola Marble Works one day, kicked up some shale and limestone and took the rocks to his hotel room. After a few simple experiments he decided they had the qualities needed for the manufacture of Portland cement. He sent samples to Holmes Brothers, a chemical firm, in Detroit. They confirmed his belief and within a short time, Davis interested a group of Detroit men in exploring the field thoroughly. They were enthusiastic about their findings and within a few weeks, had organized the Iola Portland Cement Company. In the spring of 1900 they began the construction of a factory on the present site of the Lehigh. Before the plant was completed, the capitalization of the company was increased from $3,500,000 to $5,000,000 and the capacity of the factory was increased to a potential of 5,000 barrels per day. It was to be the largest cement plant in the United States!

Iola was accustomed to “big” events in those days — it had the biggest gas field, the biggest zinc smelters and now was promised the biggest cement plant. Construction of the gigantic structure was pushed rapidly and on May 14, 1900, the first wheels began to turn and the first shale was ground. The plant had four buildings, two 160 by 360 feet in size for the manufacturing center; a headquarters building, 200 by 42 feet, and a store room, 600 feet long and 80 feet wide.

The equipment included three No. 5 .Gates crushers; 42 Griffin grinding mills; 21 rotary kilns with a capacity of 160 barrels each per day; six 300 horsepower gas engines and three 150 horsepower engines. The plant used natural gas for firing the kilns and as fuel for its engines. It owned its own gas well. Before the year was over the number of kilns had been hiked to 42 and all equipment increased proportionately.

One of the reasons for this rapid, expansion was the high grade of the Mississippi lime which underlies this area and is still providing the raw material used by the Lehgih at Iola and the Monarch Cement Plarit at Humboldt. Oscar Gerlach, a chemist, reported that his tests showed that concrete made from Iola cement had higher tensile strength than any other he had tested.

Domestic use of Portland cement was increasing rapidly throughout the nation. As late as 1895 the United States was importing more cement from Europe than was manufactured here. In fact, in that year the production of all American cement plants was only 990,824 barrels: By 1900 it had zoomed to 5,146,064 barrels and production was lagging far behind demand. This new manufacturing plant soon became the largest single employer in Allen County and was the nucleus of a new industrial boom.

The Iola Portland Cement plant weathered the storm but found the going rough at times. In 1917, the plant was purchased by the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, Allentown. Pa., and has operated steadily since then. Little of the original equipment installed in the Iola plant in 1900 and 1901 is still being used today, The mules which pulled the rock from the quarries were replaced with gasoline and electric motors. The 42 kilns had a much smaller capacity than the two gigantic ones used today. One large stack does the work undertaken by the 24 chimneys which were situated on the original site 50 years ago. The gas wells from which the company got its energy free have long been busted and today the Lehigh relies upon oil and electricity for its power. But one thing remains unenhanced. The basic material, the Mississippi limestone which first won fame for the cement manufacturing in this area, still abounds and provides a firm foundation for the plants which are converting it into cement which is used more abundantly now than in any other time in history.

This also is true of the Monarch Cement plant at Humboldt which has spent millions in rebuilding and modernizing its equipment during the past decade. The two represent the greatest assets which Allen County inherited from the gas boom which revolutionized the community at the turn of the century.