Cement was once king

(Ohio) — Buzzi Unicem Terminal Manager Steven Gabrielse has hopes for a renewed production life at the former bustling cement manufacturing plant in Oglesby.

“There is a slight chance, if this sour economy ever bounces back, that one day in the future, we might start mining and producing cement here locally again,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be nice??

For more than 100 years, cement manufacturing was king in Oglesby.

Gabrielse remembers when he started at the Oglesby facility 28 years ago, there were 160 or more people working there mining limestone, crushing rock, filling the super-heated kiln and shipping some 600,000 tons of cement product annually.

“Now there’s 10 people working here in what is basically a distribution facility,” said Gabrielse.

Dec. 1, 2008 marked the sad milestone in Oglesby cement history. Buzzi Unicem’s massive kiln was shut down and nearly 80 union workers were laid off.

“Everyone always thought, because the plant had been here producing for more than a century that it would be up and running forever. When the economy tanked, so did Oglesby’s cement business,”Gabrielse said, remembering the day.

According to the well-detailed local history book, “Cement in Oglesby,” the first carload of cement mined in the city was loaded by hand into wooden barrels and shipped in February 1893. Following some lean years where the small Marquette Cement Company was shuttered for awhile, the cement industry locally and in general made great strides in the years after 1900.

Cement manufacturing researchers and Marquette owners increased production by introducing rotary kilns, which greatly enlarged output by more then seven times to 3,600 barrels a day in Oglesby. At that time, cement sold for $2 a barrel.

As the nation grew, so did the need for more quality cement. Housing and other construction increased and roads were laid, making a boom for the growing Oglesby plant. During the decades of profitable production, Marquette Cement eventually evolved into Lone Star Industries, which was purchased by Buzzi Unicem USA Inc. in 2004.

For several decades, the Oglesby facility ran almost non-stop 24 hours a days, seven days a week.

Headquartered in Bethlehem, Pa., Buzzi Unicem USA is one of the leading cement manufacturing companies in the nation. The company’s eight producing cement plants have an annual production capacity of approximately 8.5 million metric tons.

Buzzi Unicem USA, which stemmed from the merger of RC Cement and Lone Star Industries, mostly serves the Midwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast sections of the country.

According to its website, the company operates 29 cement terminals across the US to distribute the cement into 21 states. Buzzi Unicem USA, with more than 1,400 employees, supplies cement and masonry cement to more than 3,800 ready-mix concrete, highway and airport paving firms and many concrete block production companies.

These days, the kiln is cold and the rock quarries silent. The once-busy plant is a relatively quiet distribution center, taking in trainloads of cement product from Indiana for eventually transfer by truck to companies throughout north central Illinois.

“Every work day, we move hoppers full of cement product from a rail yard in La Salle by train engines across the Illinois River and transfer it up into our silos here,” Gabrielse said. “Then anywhere from 40 to 80 trucks a day are filled with cement for delivery all over this portion of the state.”

Gabrielse estimated his facility moves around 250,000 tons of cement in and out of the plant annually.

Asked if mining and cement production would return to Oglesby, Gabrielse was optimistic.

“It could happen. We have everything we need to fire the quarry and plant back up, but the more time goes by, the harder (and more expensive) it will be.”

“If only this economy gets moving again, maybe we can get this place busy again and get people back working here,” Gabrielse said. Looking over the massive buildings and facilities which were once full of people, he repeated himself as if he was making a wish – “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Steve Stout

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