New Castle News

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July 23, 2013

Bessemer at 100, Part 1: Cement plant jump-started the borough

NEW CASTLE — It’s the stacks rising into the sky that you first see upon entering Bessemer.

The silos, used to store cement, are representative of the plant known by several different names throughout the years, including Bessemer Cement and ESSROC.

The sight was very familiar to Harold Lipp for more than four decades.

The 87-year-old resident of East Palestine, Ohio, started his 44-year career there in 1954 as a a master millwright and then an engineer in the office. He retired in 1998 as plant manager.

“I learned that plant from one end to another,” Lipp said, adding that in those days, it was a 24-hour operation.

He also remembers vividly being called out at all hours of the night for emergencies such as a fire on a beltline and going in before 7 a.m. to see what had happened overnight.

CONCRETE FACTS

The plant rolled out its first batch of cement in 1920 at the colossal facility on Poland Avenue.

That time span brought lots of changes. Like a roller coaster, the cement company had its peaks and valleys. It slumped during the 1930s, only to regain momentum in the 1940s and 1950s.

At one time, there were more than 300 workers, Lipp said.

Bessemer was incorporated in July 1913 and grew quickly. The original name of the town was Walford.

Industry was always the driving force.

In 1887, a group of blast furnace operators from Youngstown discovered limestone on the farms and opened quarries there to supply limestone for their furnaces. Subsequently it was named Bessemer Limestone Co., and the name came from Sir Henry Bessemer, an English inventor who discovered the method of using limestone in the smelting process to make steel.  

Bessemer overflowed with other natural resources — coal, clay, sandstone, shale and oil.

The Bessemer Brick Co. — a division of the Bessemer Limestone Company or BELCO — opened in the late 1880s, too. Part of its paving brick operation included one of the largest brick-making kilns in the world

And industry kept driving down the prosperous road.

In 1905 the Pennsylvania Railroad built a 3.5-mile extension off its mainline at Covert’s Crossing to reach the limestone, cement, brick and oil industries at Bessemer, and started building homes for its employees.

GLORY DAYS

For 40 years, John Kliem has lived close to where the train station was once located.

Kliem is president of the seven-member Bessemer Borough Council. Paul Martin is the outgoing mayor and the incumbent mayor is Ray Penwell.

“Everyone had some connection to the cement plant,” Kliem said.

The plant kept Bessemer a boom town for many years.

But when Metro Brick closed down in 1963, Bessemer went through another down period.

Lipp recalls how Bessemer Limestone and Cement was merged into the Diamond Shamrock Corp. based in Louisville, Ky., in 1960. Eight years later, the company was sold to Louisville Cement Co.

“The quarry had its own personnel and the plant had our own personnel but we worked together.”

At one time, Lipp was plant superintendent overseeing the factory and the quarry — a total of 150 employees.

Trucks took turns loading cement, he explained, adding he designed the loading chutes.

In 1982, the plant closed again and furloughed more than 200 employees. It reopened as Standard Machine and Equipment or SME a year later and in 1990, a French cement firm acquired the facility, calling its operations ESSROC. Two years later, it was acquired by an Italian firm.

“It was a nice plant to work for,” Lipp reminisced. “The town revolved around the plant.”

Lipp said he befriended many in the borough, including police officers, plant supervisors and business owners such as Spencer “Spence” Carr — also longtime mayor — who ran the hardware store.

The last orders were taken in 2009, which meant the remaining employees were furloughed as the plant prepared to close.

Today, SME, or Standard Machine and Equipment, has just a few employees who haul cement from other plants.

It was a blow, but longtime residents in the 1.5 square mile borough know resiliency.

GOOD TIMES, GOOD MEMORIES

Paul Tenhula has lived just ouside Bessemer, close to the Ohio-Pennsylvania line all of his 61 years.

After graduating from the Lawrence County Career and Technical Center in 1970, he worked at the cement plant until December 1972.

As part of the labor gang, “I was introdued to every dirty place there,” he laughed.

Tenhula’s father worked at the plant for 40 years and so did his grandfather.

“They knew what a hard day’s work was.”

Stan Grebenz’s father was also a lifelong employee of the plant, and Grebenz put in a summer stint while attending college.

“My uncle was the union president,” Grebenz said, noting that the summer work consisted mainly of cleaning up and driving a truck to the quarries.

At the other end of Poland Avenue from the cement plant is the town square or diamond. Along that street is the municipal building, the post office, businesses and Kennedy Park, which will be the site of activities during the centennial celebration, according to Diane Nord, secretary of the Bessemer Municipal Authority.

When the plant was in full operation, businesses also did well.

Terry Busin owned Terry’s General Store on Main Street where Cowlicks is located.

His daughter, Brenda Frazier, said plant workers used to stand in line at lunchtime to get a sub sandwich in the deli section of the store.

“Customers came in to get magazines and cigarettes in the morning and after work, I sold newspapers from all over the area,” Busin explained. “I averaged 425 customers a day.”

Busin said he knew just about everybody in town and people were friendly.

Lipp also enjoyed having lunch at different places, including Isaly’s.

And today, he carries strong feelings about working in Bessemer.

“I loved that old plant. I still have lots of wonderful memories.”

The four-day celebration will give people an opportunity to recall some of those days and other aspects of growing up in Bessemer, Kliem said.

He pointed out that Bessemer — a community of about 1,200 — is low on crime and is still a good place to live.

“And there are no red lights.”

(Email: lhudson@ncnewsonline.com)

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