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A Concrete Demonstration at Old Threshers

Author Photo
By Richard Backus | Mar 13, 2019

 

Steve Alt at the 2018 Old Threshers Reunion with his Triumph (left) and Wizard (right) concrete block-making machines.

If you’re a regular visitor to the annual Old Threshers Reunion, held every Labor Day weekend at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, since 1950, you’ve probably watched Steve Alt give a demonstration or seen one of his engines – even if you didn’t know it.

A dedicated engine man and ardent supporter of the Old Threshers show, Steve, who hails from West Liberty, Iowa, has a particular love for Stickney engines, a fact we documented in the October/November 2017 issue of GEM when we showed off his 1910 3hp Stickney. Steve bought that engine in 2011, and the next year, in 2012, he set up a special Stickney display at Mt. Pleasant for that year’s “Gathering of the Sticks” recreating a scene from a 1912 photo of a Stickney engine dealer.

Setting up that display was really satisfying for Steve, who believes the best way to encourage interest and participation at events like Mt. Pleasant is by actively showing and talking about the vintage engines and equipment he and others collect. A volunteer of many years at Mt. Pleasant, Steve is working hard to make the event more engaging for attendees. “I do a lot of volunteer work here,” Steve says, adding, “and we did some surveys that said we don’t interact enough with people, that we don’t explain enough. People said they walk by and look, but they don’t know what’s going on.”

That feedback prompted Steve to get more involved during the annual five-day event, giving talks about vintage presses at Printers’ Hall in addition to setting up and explaining gas engine displays. For the 2018 show, Steve decided to re-engage with a project he started back in the 1990s: concrete block making.

A 1915 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog showing homes made with its concrete block-making machines.

Block-making machines

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hollow concrete blocks for home construction became very popular. But if you wanted a concrete block foundation for your home, you couldn’t just swing by the local Home Depot and put in an order. Instead, and especially in more rural areas, the concrete blocks were made on site at the time of construction. Gas engines were central to this, as they were used to power rock crushers to supply the needed aggregate, and cement mixers to mix sand and aggregate with Portland cement.

When Steve first learned about block making he was captivated, so in the early 1990s when he came across a 1908 Wizard Concrete Building Block Machine he snapped it up. Offered in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, the Wizard makes blocks 8 inches by 8 inches by 16 inches and was advertised by Sears as “the most rapid block maker on the market and it is strictly a one-man machine.” Those were important points for anyone considering making their own blocks, as even with a Wizard “automatic” (it was automatic only in the sense that you didn’t have to break it down every time you made a block) making blocks was a labor-intensive endeavor.

The Wizard “Automatic Action” concrete block maker doesn’t require assembly/disassembly for each block.

Sears also sold complete home kits, so offering concrete block makers was a natural fit for their catalog. According to a 1919 Sears catalog, 1,300 concrete blocks were needed for the foundation of The Chelsea, an approximately 2,100-square-foot kit home. Sears claimed that one person could make 10-15 blocks an hour using the Wizard. If true, that meant that even at the suggested minimum of 10 blocks an hour, one person could cast the necessary blocks for the foundation in just over two work weeks. According to period reports, with two people operating the block maker that time could be cut in half, if not more. Fifteen different mold patterns were available, including the Standard Rock Face that Steve uses for his demonstrations.

The Triumph concrete block maker ready for a pour and a finished concrete block. Note the stone finish.

A few years after finding the Wizard, Steve located a Triumph Concrete Building Block Machine from the early 1900s, also sold by Sears, which in addition to Wizard and Triumph offered Knox block makers, as well. Making blocks on the Triumph takes longer, Steve says, as it must be completely broken down after each block is formed to remove the block, and then must be reassembled for the next pour. The Triumph makes the same size blocks as the Wizard, and Steve says he has a set of plates for the Triumph to make taller 12-inch blocks instead of the standard 8 inches. “That would be used to make a deeper block for the first level of the foundation,” Steve says.

The Triumph concrete block maker’s plates showing the stone finish for the outside face of the block.

Making blocks

During his demonstrations, Steve carefully explains the process so that those watching him know exactly what’s happening. To make sure he’s heard over the noise of the equipment, he uses a wireless microphone and a small PA. Not surprisingly, the loudest noise comes from the rock crusher, a Braun “Chipmunk Crusher” powered by a circa-1930 1-1/2hp to 2-1/2hp New Idea No. 2 Vari-Speed engine, although in practice it’s only operating occasionally. Although he has the restored Amanco cement mixer, Steve does all his mixing in a standard drum mixer belted to a 1-1/2hp John Deere E. The Amanco is displayed belted to a 2hp Fuller & Johnson.

Steve’s Braun “Chipmunk” rock crusher, named for its small size and eager capacity. Braun is still in business.

A New Idea Vari-Speed engine is belted to the Braun rock crusher.

The process itself is straightforward. Before pouring the cement mix in, Steve sprays the molds with a kerosene/oil mix. This acts as a release agent, ensuring the cement doesn’t stick to the plates. With the plates in position, mixed cement is poured or shoveled into the forms and then left to sit for an initial setup. Steve is using a wet mix, which is easier to flow into the molds, at the expense of greatly increasing the setup time before the block can be released from the mold.

Steve and a helper prep the Wizard for a pour during a demonstration.

According to Steve, a dry mix was the standard practice. The mixture was dampened just enough to make it stay together under pressure. It was poured into the form and tamped down very tight using a tamping tool. The form was then opened up and the block was removed and left to cure for 10-20 days. The process could be sped up by placing the blocks inside a makeshift canvas tent soaked down with water. This made for high-humidity environment and the cement would draw the moisture and set up faster. Steve says that a slow dry is better, producing stronger blocks.

Steve’s Amanco cement mixer belted to a 2hp Fuller & Johnson.

Although the machinery used to form concrete blocks has advanced greatly in the last 100 years, the basic process for making concrete blocks is still practiced today. There are still many places, particularly in developing nations, where building materials must be processed on site, and using manpower as electricity is often unavailable.

Steve Alt’s concrete block makers are a reminder of a time in the U.S. when life moved perhaps a little slower. They required much more labor than most of us are willing to expend today, but 100 years ago, they simplified and made possible a process otherwise out of reach of the average person, making them, at least for a while, extremely popular.

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