A Family Concrete Business ~ Part I

I have been toying with the idea of showing you our concrete manufacturing plant.  The problem is where to start.  Do I tell you the story of how it came to be?  Do I tell you what it is now?  How to do it?  I will just start somewhere and ramble on as a thought about it pops into my head.  I spent the better part of my life in this business.  We started the business in 1979.  I was a social worker and my husband  worked for a plastic drain tile company developing the southern half of the US.  We invested our retirement/savings money and never looked back.  We leased a bare concrete slab at the local airport.  That was our start-up location.  The slab was all that remained of a barracks.  The airport used to be an Air Force base.   We bought a portable office building and built a storage building on the concrete slab, and we were in the concrete manufacturing business.  We operated with old F-600 trucks equipped with rails and a wench.  The out riggers were manual.   We used readymix cement to pour the tanks in steel forms.  We stripped the tanks from the forms with the same trucks that we used for delivery.  This was manufacturing the hard way, folks.  Many people still do it that way today.

When I drive into the business today, I see high chain-link fences with barbed wire tops.  Two huge Rotweiller dogs guarding.  Gates with locks.  A private entrance with an electronic gate that requires me to push the right button on my remote to drive inside.  We didn’t have fences when we started this business.  Now, it’s impossible to avoid locks and fences and dogs.   That’s a sad fact of life.  Times change.

 My office key still works, but I have to remember the passcode for the burglar alarm unless I want to deal with the sheriff.  Survellience cameras watch me.  Do I look like a burglar?  I think I remember the password in case I accidentally set off the alarm.   I no longer keep an office there.  The old lawyer’s desk that I bought from an estate sale years ago still sits in one end of the big office where my daughter now occupies her dad’s chair.   I laughed when I saw that somebody had swiped my ergonomic keyboard.  I laughed until I realized I was the culprit!  My faithful old Buddha is still sitting there smiling.  I have to remember to bring him home the next time I go out there.

The offices are filled with paintings and etchings and antiques that I collected over many years.  I like that.  It feels like home.  After all, they spend most of their lives there.   The office manager used to cook wonderful lunches in the kitchen.   Boy and his nanny spent a year or two there so that he could be with all of us when he was little.  The office manager taught him to crawl by crawling beside him on the floor.  He had his own nursery which evolved into a play room as he grew older.  He still has his own “office”.  Boy met lots of people.  The guys who work there were good to him too.  We took our dogs to work with us. They still take their dog with them every day.

 When I arrived at the business with my camera, the only person in the plant was this guy talking on his phone.  It was lunch time and everybody had gone to lunch .  They all leave together sometimes.  I don’t know why this guy was not with them.  I didn’t recognize him, and he didn’t recognize me.  I asked if he worked there.  He said he did.  I knew he hadn’t been there long since he wasn’t wearing a golf shirt with VPP embroidered on the front.   He said he had been there for a week.  He apologized for being dirty.  He is learning how to do his job without getting the job all over him.  I knew that too.  I didn’t tell him that I used to do his job without getting a tenth as dirty.  He wouldn’t have believed me.  He is fifty-two.  He came from Wisconsin to live with his son in a little town up the highway.  He used to live in Texas.  He went to the University of Texas.  I stopped paying attention.  If he is still there when I go back, I will make a note of his name.  He seemed to be smart and interested in his work.  He kept telling me that we had an amazing operation.  I hope he thinks so after another week.  I think he’s over qualified for the job.  I liked him.

 Directly behind the fellow on the forklift is the side of the break room adjacent to a welding shop.  We built the break room building years ago while we were still housed in a cedar building no bigger than this one.  We had a choice.  We could build a break room for the guys or a new office for us.  The choice was easy.  A break room it would be.  The guys had no clean place to wash up or to eat lunch in a comfortable, air conditioned building.  They all helped to build it, and it still serves them well.  I used to eat there with them …swiping homemade tortillas off their plates and snooping into their lunch bags to see what they were eating that I wanted to share.  We laughed and joked and ate and had fun there.

Across the driveway and beyond the parking area, the old concrete septic tank lids that we inherited when we bought out an old cement business’s equipment and inventory many years ago are still there.  We laid them in gravel to make a “paved” area in front of the cedar office.  It was muddy when it rained on the dirt and gravel of the plant yard.  They were old when we laid them, and they’re older still by many years now.  Weeds have grown up between the pads since the old office was abandoned to storage when we built the new one.   I smile when I remember how delighted I was when the boys laid them out so cleverly and attractively for me.   I could get out of the car without stepping in mud that squished over my shoes.  Life was good.  I had spent the previous winter parking outside the gate and riding to the office porch in the bucket of a backhoe.  An insurance auditor had to take the same ride when he came to audit that spring.  He didn’t write us up for a violation of safety regulations although we didn’t provide a hardhat for the ride.

No, the porch roof  is not falling down.  It’s the camera angle.  The old building was built by a contractor friend for me to use at the old airport slab location where we started the business in 1979.  It replaced a small, portable office building that was very nice, actually.  When we moved our business to the current location, we moved this building too.  It was built on skids so that it could be moved easily.  It has a bathroom, kitchen and very large office area that we converted into two offices.  I prepared lunch in that small kitchen for years.  I got really good at preparing food on a three-foot by two-foot counter space.  You can see the very end of the concrete bench that Eulogio, the unquestioned head of production,  made for me to sit on while I smoked on the porch.  He was as good a  friend as I ever had too.  We often sat together drinking coffee and talking about the business or his grandchildren on that bench.  He  made a precast slab to cover the grave of the first of our dogs to be buried behind the office.  I used to walk around to her grave and ask what in the world I was going to do with that new puppy who barked in the car and didn’t understand not to go onto the office porch.   Eulogio died a good many years ago.  I miss him still.  He was old school.   The boys in production said he thought he owned the equipment.  I replied that he did.

This old building sits at the back of the property.  Initially, it constituted the only storage we had for tools and supplies for the entire business.  We moved it to this location along with the cedar office building.  We stored chlorine in it because chlorine gas destroys metal.  We sold a lot of chlorine in those days for our aerobic treatment units.  I don’t think there is anything of use in it now.  I don’t know why it hasn’t been demolished.  Perhaps, nobody has thought about  the old building since it sits almost hidden near a fence against which broken concrete tanks and scrap metal and wire are kept until they are hauled off  to the scrap yard.

Some of the scrap materials from production are collected here in old steel precast forms and concrete tanks.

These old pieces of concrete are broken or unusable.  They will be sold eventually for erosion control or for some other use.

Old conveyor belts from the cement mixer end up in this graveyard too when they break or wear out and have to be replaced.   There are old concrete tanks stored around the plant that are not in regular inventory.  There is nothing wrong with the tanks.  They were probably built for some special application that never materialized or they are odd tanks that don’t fit any category for one reason or another.

 Car parking blocks used to be made one at the time by shoveling cement into them.  There were lots of them sitting on the slab where the guys walked around pouring cement into them.  They were heavy to strip too since they had to be turned over by hand.  It was dangerous work.  Eventually, we bought what are called gang forms.  That simply means that they are all hooked together and can be poured and stripped from the forms by equipment instead of by hand.  Here is a leftover single form that is still lying on top of the parking block that was precast in it.  I’d bet the parking block refused to come out of the form so the whole thing was dumped here.  Eventually, the concrete block turned loose and separated from its steel form.  They are still together.

In Part II, I will take up the production of concrete  tanks and other concrete products.  Now that I have shown you the old and discarded stuff.  🙂  Although it may seem so from these photographs, the plant really is not composed of rotting and abandoned buildings and equipment.  It is not a storage place for the broken and the abandoned.  It is very much a working concrete plant.   Thank you for taking this part of the memory tour with me.

29 Comments on “A Family Concrete Business ~ Part I

    • Thanks for coming along. I started with the old stuff. Maybe I’ll get around to the real production if I don’t lose interest in it! 🙂

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  1. Loved loved loved the photos and the journey with you in the manufacturing plant.
    I just love reading stories and this one was so beautifully illustrated.
    Had such a great time reading it…specially the break room area.what a wonderful way to bond with people who work with or for you.
    Beautiful memoir 🙂

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  2. What a nice little stroll down memory lane with you…and insight into a life that you seem to have thoroughly enjoyed. Thank you.

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  3. Hi George, this was really interesting. Your photos are very evocative–I love the one of the green things springing up in between the round stones and the pebbles in between–such pretty lines, and stark contrast. I also really enjoyed learning more about you.

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    • Thank you, Lance. There is no other way to tell our story. It is typical of all family businesses. The business and the family are inseparable. I eat at a family business, the China Inn, where the grandparents, the children, and the grandchildren are often eating with the customers. They share the special soup of the day with me. Something different is always in it. I scoop around the stuff with feet… They laugh at me. I call that stuff “bait”. There are millions of us in business. I hope the tradition of family business remains the backbone of this country. I would be sad to think it will go the way of the family farm.

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  4. I so enjoyed the glimpse into life at your concrete business George. I especially like the image I conjured up of the backhoe coming to fetch you and you climbing up into the basket! haha! I know a little bit about trying to avoid those pesky mud holes, as we still have a long gravel drive leading up to our house. I have to get out and open the gate, rain or shine and you can bet if I have on nice shoes, I’m gonna step in the mud. Thank you for sharing this little piece of you, entertaining as always, in true George fashion.

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    • Thanks, Lori. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The trip in the backhoe bucket was the least of the inconveniences involved in running a concrete business. I just thought you guys might think it was funny. The reason I remembered it was because I was a little worried that we would fail our insurance audit because of it. 🙂

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  5. A fascinating story, George. I thoroughly enjoyed every word, not to mention the pictures. It’s good to look back over the road we have traveled. Thanks for sharing, I’ll look forward to the next part.

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  6. You were in the concrete business – what an interesting life you have. Sounds like it was hard work and I bet you took care of everybody! I have notes on a post I would like to do about this concrete business that was extracting (?) rocks and sand from the river to make concrete! I’ve done just a little bit of research for it… I found this very interesting. It was good to get to know more about you.

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    • Does this business sell ready-mix concrete or manufacture precast concrete stuff? Or, is the business a cement producer? If they are hauling out sand and gravel, they have to be processing (washing and grading) somewhere before they can use it to make anything. The aggregate (sand and gravel) are mixed with dry cement and water in a mixer to produce a cement mix that can be poured into forms to make concrete slabs, foundations, or precast concrete products like tanks. Rivers should be protected from arbitrary excavations. If this is a big operation and if they don’t have a permit to excavate, they should be reported to the environmental section of your state health department or environmental regulators. People just can’t decide to go out and dig up a river! 🙂 That’s just awful. Good grief!

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      • Oh, George – I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to be so vague..(I KNEW you would be a wealth of information!) It was back in the late 80’s and they were hauling out sand n rocks to be washed and graded (I think) they actually had a train that would come in a haul out loads..they were digging into the mountain, too and they got too far into some private land owned by the VA and a lawsuit insued…it halted their work and the concrete co, just up and left everything! Trucks and concrete mixers etc. It was like a truck graveyard…people came in and stripped everything. Now, 20 years later – there are still some remains (I have some pictures for a post – I just wanted to tell the story as correctly as I could!) 🙂

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  7. I live on Maule Lake in Aventura( NW corner of Miami Dade County). It is at least a mile square. It is a huge rock pit where the Ferre family business had their cement making complex. Jose Ferre has been mayor of Miami and held other offices here. They are bazillionaires. The lake is the center piece for Point East where I live which is a huge condo complex. There is an outlet to the inter-coastal and another to the Atlantic so I am less than 3 or 4 miles from sea. There are more condos as your go east. At least quarter million people in close proximity. Many man made lakes in Miami Dade which were once mined for rock and white sand for asphalt and cement industry and are all surrounded by condo complexes now. The have been many drownings and the main reason is that there is no casual slope at shore line just a straight drop.

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    • Eek! A straight drop? Dade County should have made them excavate to create a usable lake with sloped sides. We have a number of lakes here that are the result of mining for sand and gravel, but they are usable lakes and a couple are maintained by the county as recreational areas. There is a huge lake at the power plant that was a mining site. The power plant was built on it. The lake is gorgeous and well-maintained by the state as a camping park.
      We buy sand and gravel for our concrete production from the family who owns the mining operation here. They are a local family who have a vested interest in cleaning up their excavation sites and making them into community assets. We haul our own aggregate from their sites to our plant. We buy cement by the ton from Capitol Cement who is the biggest producer in Texas, I think.

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  8. When I saw the title I wondered how on earth you would approach such a long story. I think you might need several installments. I just knew I would see my sweet little Button’s grave, for example. Too bad you can’t show you drenched in sweat, trying to do the very hard work involved in the early days. At least we were all fairly young back then!!!!!

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    • I have no idea how to tell a thirty-year saga. I will try to remember some of the funny stuff. I wish I had photographs of the early days of making tanks on the slab at the airport. Or my delivery of the few tanks that I hauled out. Or the job installations when I had to drag the gravel into the trench with a big hoe. I can’t believe I did that. I guess I was a little slow! 🙂

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    • I have no idea where to begin or what to include. I will simply stumble through the story. I’m glad you found it interesting. The living of the story was interesting to say the least. Thank you.

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    • Hi, Charlene. I’m glad you liked the little story. There are too many stories about the business to tell. I will try to recount some of the funny ones next time. Thank you for your absolute support even when I don’t visit as I want to. Bless you too!

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  9. How beautiful photographs dear George, I love the idea, office to feel like home… Thank you for sharing with us, your posts are always so nice and so interesting, I enjoy reading and watching them. Have a nice day, with my love, nia

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    • Thank you, Nia. We always felt that our work was a family thing that included the employees. When you work all the time, a homelike atmosphere makes the work feel more a part of who you are. Since we always worked as a family, we needed a family environment. So, we tried to make our offices into our home-away-from-home. I’m glad you enjoy my posts. I like doing them and it makes me feel good that you like them too. Bless you, Nia.

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