A Family Business
When I took the photographs of the old equipment and buildings at our concrete business several months ago, I posted most of them. Then I realized that I had talked about the business, but I didn’t do it in a way that tells you what it represents to me. I hope this post tells you something about me that I believe is essential to who I am. When people visit our plant, I am certain that they never see what I see when I walk out to production. I see beautiful shapes and colors and textures.
The next photo illustrates what I see when I look at an old, steel cylinder cap sitting discarded on a steel beam at eye level next to the oxygen and acetylene tanks.
This hook and chain are critical components of the lifting device that is used to lift thousands of pounds of concrete tank to a level above the crane operator’s head. His life depends on the integrity of this device. She is a beautiful sight to me. She is rusty on the surface, but she is inspected and strength tested, watched and cared for. This device is used to lift smaller tanks. It is the device that I used to load and move five-hundred and thousand-gallon tanks in the old days.
Ah, the beauty of a stick of rebar with its wonderful rust. Steel is a remarkable material. These sticks have been cut with a cutting torch so you see the melted steel at the ends. The welder culled these pieces for some reason so they were leaning against the building when I passed the rebar welding rack.
The next photo is of a concrete pier. We made them to use for leveling houses and supporting small structures of all kinds. This pier has been under one corner of a vibrating table for many, many years. It has layers of old cement and oil and grease deposits much like a stalactite in a cave. The deposits create an interesting texture.
A concrete pier under a lid form that is ready to be poured. (Pouring is the term for filling a form with cement.)
The next image is of an old brace with clamps on each end. It is placed across the steel form and tightened to help to prevent the sides of the form from “bowing” under the pressure of the wet concrete. This brace is used only on the old forms. The newer forms do not require it. This one is many years old and covered in concrete. This simple bar is a clear reminder of the early years.
The next photo is of a lifting device. In the background, you see the other end of this device. Between the two bars with lifting eyes there is a set of chains that wrap around the tank and tighten against the tank when it is raised. This device has safety features to insure that it doesn’t fail and drop the tank that weighs several tons. There is a concrete tank in the background showing an inlet. I never used this device since it lifts the big tanks that I never poured or worked with. To hear the chains and steel whine and clank is an alarming sound to the uninitiated, but it is everyday music to a concrete manufacturer’s ear! It means that production is running smoothly.
This is another view of a stack of rebar waiting to be cut to the required lengths and welded into a flat reinforcement mat to be installed in a steel tank lid form over which wet cement will be poured to form a lid.
There is one item that no concrete manufacturer ever needs to buy. Hooks for hanging stuff. Need a hook? Cut a length of rebar, bend it, and weld it to a steel upright in the plant for instant storage of anything that needs a hook … electrical cords, hoses, wire, chain, apron, hats, anything. Lovely to look at and as handy as sliced bread too!
This is a roll of wire ties. They’re used to tie rebar together for reinforcing concrete in precast concrete production or in slab construction or anywhere that requires holding reinforcement steel together. There is a handheld tool that is used to twist these wires around the joining lengths of rebar to hold them together. I’d like to have a nickel for ever wire I ever twisted! Now, most of the steel is welded together.
One summer, against my better judgment, I agreed to hire the teenage son of a guy who ran a construction business. He was assigned to tie mats of wire mesh together to form “cages” to use as reinforcement in tanks. We were all eating at a nearby convenience store one day, and I was sitting beside the kid who was eating a greasy hamburger and fries. I noticed that his hands were completely covered in rust from the wire. That is, all except the tips of his fingers which he’d licked clean! He effectively ended his career as a concrete magnate later that day when he jumped off the platform onto a stack of wire mesh and stuck a piece through his tennis shoe into his foot. We took him howling to his mama who was a nurse at one of the local hospitals.
This is a valve on a welding tank. I don’t know who Victor is, but he left his welding glasses here…
This is typical of the old days. An old apron hanging with a saw on a rebar hook in production. It looks as if it’s been there for awhile. It probably belonged to Eulogio who used to run production for us. He’d been in concrete production for so many years that he was always clean. The measure of experience in this business is how clean a person can manage to remain. The newbies are covered from head to toe in oil and cement and rust within an hour into the day.
This sledge hammer must be as old as the business. Often, you can hear the unmistakable sound of somebody pounding steel with it. I’d guess that it’s one of the things that has been around as long as I have. Sledge hammers just don’t wear out. When you need one, nothing else will do.
This old pair of wire cutters has survived too. I guess they look too bad to walk off.
This is a corner latch on a steel form door. The latch is a safety feature that is designed to keep the form door from opening when the form is filled with wet concrete. There is one on each corner of every form except the big forms.
As it is with everything employees use, the hard hats end up being tossed aside somewhere. This one has been lying in an unused steel form for a long time. Everybody in production is issued a hard hat, gloves, and eye protection. Nobody wears them, of course. Hey, it’s a family business. We never wore safety gear either.
This is a step. It hangs on the side of steel forms that are too tall for the employees to reach. They step up onto this hanging grate to work inside the form and to level the wet concrete when it is poured into the form. It’s been around a long time too. It’s beaten and battered and covered with concrete, but it works. I’d like to know how many guys have stood on this step. I no longer remember where it came from or who made it. The bigger forms have boards that run along the entire side of the form. One of our employees was acting the fool during a pour one day and stepped off the platform. He fell flat and broke his collar bone. It had to be surgically repaired. He was out of work for six months. Silly boy. Believe it or not, he still works for us. We call him “Giggles”.
This is a rebar bender that we use to bend handles into a u-shape to use as lifting eyes for concrete tank lids. The lifting eyes are tied or welded onto the rebar mats and placed into the steel lid forms before they are filled with wet concrete. I have no idea why somebody wound a rope around it. Dry cement dust is constantly settling on everything in the production area. It is corrosive in the humid air and rusts everything it touches. Our production is in the open air. It is under a twenty-foot overhead building, but the sides have to remain open for ventilation. I suppose this bender could be cleaned up, but it wouldn’t work any better. I’m certain that it will outlive me.
I’ve shown you some of the old stuff from my end of the production area where the five-hundred-gallon to twelve-hundred-gallon tanks are made. I am familiar with the manufacture of these tanks along with parking blocks, cattleguards, and other pads and miscellaneous concrete stuff . If we walk further down the slab, we come to the big tank forms that are components of the aerobic treatment plant. One tank weighs twenty thousand pounds. The crane operator punched “down” on the controls one day while one of these tanks was suspended mid-air. She came down all right. Straight down, non-stop, and crashed on the concrete floor. The controls had failed. Chunks of concrete, wire, steel and every other component inside the tank flew off in all directions. Miraculously, nobody was hurt. This stuff is too big for me.
This is one of the steel forms like the one in which the fallen tank was made. The tool leaning against it is used to punch the wet concrete down into areas of the mold evenly. Concrete has to have a specified “slump” which means that it does not pour into the form like milkshake. This is a bigger and a more complicated form than any that I ever worked with. I stopped working in production when we moved to our present location and began manufacturing larger thanks. I am not familiar with the operation of this steel form. It has several compartments. The tanks that are made on it are used in the aerobic treatment plant that we sell.
I still love the sounds of production. The clank of steel against steel, the clatter of chains, the ominous creak of chain against concrete as the wenches grumble and the chains settle into the tank grooves as they are lifted onto the trucks, the sound of the concrete mixer running, the guys’ banter, the radio blasting over the din of production. Then the heightened alertness when the big tanks are being turned over; the crane operator releases the latch; the monster tank hesitates and moves tentatively; then she flips over in what looks like an uncontrolled roll accompanied by the sounds of groaning chains and clanking steel; she rocks back and forth and finally settles down; the tank is safely lowered to the plant floor; the banter and noise resume. That moment before the roll always reminds us that we are ants on the other end of a leash trying to control a twenty-thousand pound lady with an unforgiving attitude!
To a concrete manufacturer, this is “liquid gold”. There is a “recipe” for making it, but anybody who works with the mix for very long knows how it should look. The principle is the same whether the person is a baker working with dough or a batch mixer working with wet concrete. Each knows how his mix should look. Each is equally satisfied when the mix “cooks” and comes out in a lovely form.
This stuff is dusty, dirty, wet, caustic and very heavy. It sets up fast leaving little room for mistakes. When water is added, it begins to cure. Nothing can stop it at that point. Wet concrete is fickle and susceptible to heat and cold and all sorts of variables. When she works, she works well. When she fails, she fails big time. I don’t know how we who work with her come to love her, but we do.
When the heat subsides here in South Texas, I will take you out to the plant to see how precast concrete is manufactured.
Here are other photos of miscellaneous stuff around the production area of the plant:
Water settled in a steel lid form covering some odd washer-looking pieces of steel.
Edge of a cement pour bucket after it has emptied its load into a steel form.
Oxygen and acetylene tanks for welding and cutting steel
Safety lock on a steel form
The ever present chains are a reminder of the danger inherent in precast concrete production.
Safety devices and chains hold the production world together!
Sealant between the lid and the tank. It has melted in the heat and the excess has run down the tank a bit. Once this sealant is applied, the lid cannot be removed.
This steel form is called a gang form because it allows us to pour twelve parking blocks in one form. We used to pour the cement into single forms to make one block at a time. This was a messy, difficult business and the blocks were heavy to lift creating the potential for back injuries, smashed fingers and crushed toes. With the introduction of the gang form, the new generation has eliminated much of the labor and the danger involved in the production of these blocks. I suppose this steel form alone represents the transition from the old to the new … from parents to children … the forging ahead of generation after generation of American family businesses.
This young man is the face of a new generation of young business people in this country. They are second-generation operators of family businesses. No, they don’t start out with a dream, their life savings, a couple of trucks and a few steel forms on a bare concrete slab with a portable building for an office. They miss the sweat, the long hours, the uncertainty. But, they also miss the adventure. They inherit far more complicated problems than the first generation encountered. Their responsibility is a heavier load to carry in many ways because they must work through the transition from the old to the new to find their own voice and their own vision for the future. That is the way it has always been and it is my real hope that is the way it will always be.
Thank you for sharing my reflection on my life in the concrete business and my vision for the future.