July 1992

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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I. M. Ludington's Sons, Inc.

1956 - 1962

In its glory days I. M. Ludington's Sons, Inc., was a large construction operation. Early twentieth century records and photo albums I found in 1956 showed they built part of the Barge Canal, and were major constructors of the rapidly expanding railroads. They were equipped with heavy dredges, barges with tug boats, cranes, locomotives, and tunnel-boring machinery that they used in various parts of the northeastern United States. Their last major project was the construction of part of the Rochester subway system, much of it now roadbed for Interstate 490 as it passes through Rochester. At the end of this era, with the work drying up and the owners growing old, Ludington's went out of business, liquidated, except for a concrete-producing plant on Lexington Avenue that had supplied the subway construction. This the owners left to a few key employees in appreciation for past loyalties, hoping they would prosper and sustain the company name.

In 1939, under the leadership of George Butler, a former Ludington supervising Civil Engineer, they opened the first (or second, depending on who you ask) transit-mixed concrete service in Rochester. Early in the 1940s Mr. Butler died. This left control to Ward Carpenter, a former office manager whose wife had blood ties with the Ludington family.

The new business grew rapidly as concrete delivered to the jobsite, ready to place, became popular with contractors of every size and type, all now released from the slow and laborious process of mixing concrete at the jobsite. For this venture Valley Sand & Gravel, Inc. was the principal supplier of concrete aggregates, and L. B. Finewood Co. was the trucker of these aggregates. When I joined Finewood in 1946, the Ludington account became one of my responsibilities.

By 1954 it became obvious that Ludington was in serious financial difficulties for a variety of reasons that could make a textbook case for modern business consultants. One cause was the rapid entrance into the market of a half dozen competitors who owned their own aggregate supply, and who did not carry a payroll burdened with an excess of old company retainers from the glory days gone by. By late 1955 for these and other reasons, Ludington found itself unable to buy cement or cover the next payroll. Finewood was the major creditor, and Bob Finewood quickly decided to buy out the ailing company. Bob felt that neither he nor I should visit the plant prior to the sale as he feared it could alert competitive buyers, especially Dolomite Products Co., another supplying creditor. So, as far as operations and equipment were concerned he bought a pig-in-a-poke.

I took over as manager in mid January of 1956 and I still visualize the situation I faced on my first visit to the plant and office at 720 Lexington Avenue. Employee morale was as low as the proverbial whale feces. Many of the people saw an impending reduction in headcount as inevitable. The equipment was in a sad state of disrepair, the facilities dark and dirty. The cold dark day, the sad faces, made the dismal scene almost Dickensian. It even threatened my emotions.

I had naively prepared a little speech that I promptly wadded up in my pocket. It was no time for speechmaking, action was needed. I tried to assume an air of confidence, quietly asking each of the four key people what needed immediate attention. The key people were: Wayne Parker, age sixty-four, the plant and yard foreman who doubled as plant mechanic, Paul Hopkins, a forty-year-old feisty little truck repair boss who had spent a year as a German prisoner of war in a camp under Russian control, Charley Nichols, the dispatcher, sixty, and Walter Dugan, the seventy-seven-year-old office clerk. Five of the production people were in their senior years. Clearly the company was not staffed by fast moving youngsters.

Dugan promptly told me that the most immediate need was money to pay, or to arrange credit with, the Lehigh Cement Company in order to get delivery of this most vital material, now being withheld. Wayne Parker had a list of similar difficulties with supplies and repair parts. Shaken, I returned to the Finewood office to meet with Bob and Iris Woodams to arrange for the needed funds. The one bit of luck was that it was mid-winter when the concrete business is at its slowest, allowing time to prepare for the hopefully busy season to come.

The next morning I asked Parker and Hopkins to list the steps, in chronological order, needed to prepare the plant and mixer fleet for spring production. The next day we reviewed the reports and set plans for action. Almost daily we reviewed and revised the work plan over the coming weeks.

Some of the workers had fallen prey to the rumor mill that held the Finewoods as anti-Italian (not entirely untrue), and one, Mickey Frederico, a driver, had already left. I assembled the men to assure them that as long as I was the manager, there would be no discriminations of any kind. Mickey returned and the rumor subsided. By the end of February I felt informed enough to speak to a group meeting of all employees with confidence to explain our goals, plans for attaining them, and asked for their help, especially for retrieving lost customers and gaining new ones. I continued these rap sessions for the next six years, certain that they were worth the overtime pay to get us working together.

Wayne Parker, tall, thin, gray mustached, rarely without his pipe, was a valuable man with his vast store of knowledge that got him through all problems, albeit by nature he was a bit hard headed. I always knew when I was to be challenged—bright sparks popped up from both his pipe bowl and his eyes. We worked together quite well, he enjoying the new support and activity. By April he had the plant in good running order, and by fall he had installed a new gas-fired boiler that replaced the ancient coal-fired monster that gobbled up man hours for its operation.

As older men took voluntary retirement, deadwood in the plant was painlessly replaced by attrition.

By spring Paul Hopkins had eighteen mixer trucks readied mechanically, and all dressed out with new paint and letters. Paul, also quite stubborn, had a low tolerance for incompetence in his helpers that gave him a reputation of being hard to work for. When orders were slow he was required to use idled drivers for help in the shop, but at one time or another either he had thrown most of them out of his shop, or they had quit in frustration.

I convinced him (Parker had tipped me off) that there was hidden talent in the driver crew, and that he would have to learn to use it without his harsh measures of the past. Sure enough we found two that were fair mechanics, and one Chris Gagliano, was a fine welder. The less talented could handle such jobs as cleaning hardened concrete from mixers to prepare them for painting. Paul became so happy with Chris and one other driver that I was hard pressed to get them away from him for their driving jobs. I finally backed off and replaced them with new drivers.

Operations, I now felt comfortable with, but now faced a new challenge. I knew little of concrete technology, and I correctly assumed that I was supposed to. My predecessor, Ward Carpenter, had opened a liquor store and left for good so once again it was on-the-job self training. I searched for sources that would help, such as literature published ty the Portland Cement Association, The National Ready Mix Association, and the American Concrete Institute. I joined the ACI, and that brought their monthly journal. Yet, I was surprised how little good information there was on the design and control of concrete. I sought and found texts and became convinced that quality control and improved concrete mix designs would yield positive results to a producer's profit.

Locally, our competitors almost ignored the subject to blindly follow the advice of Portland cement manufacturers who held that an extra dollop of their cement, the most expensive ingredient of concrete, would cover most of the problems. To most of the trade, concrete was a simple mixture of sand, stones, cement, and water, that when mixed, was expected to get hard. A dummy's game. Of course this left the user on his own to deal with the complex and mysterious problems of finish ability, shrinkage cracks, compressive strength, flexural strength, abrasion resistance, and long term durability, to name a few.

Most producers seemed to follow or meet the prices of their largest competitor, on the theory that he must know what he's doing. At this time John Petrossi's "Concrete Trans-Mix" was the largest producer, givng him a cost edge that could lead the industry herd to ruin. I was impressed, however, by papers of Ludington's late George Butler that revealed him to be a clever student of quality control. Unfortunately his work had been mostly ignored.

In 1956, the only physical testing laboratory in Monroe County was owned by the City of Rochester who took private work until finally an independent testing lab, Fact Technical Service, moved into town from New Jersey. Until then I carried my 6 x 12 inch concrete test cylinders to the city lab for testing and there met two people who provided the initial key to the knowledge I sought. They were Oscar Marth, the Director, and his able assistant, Don Zolweg. Marth, a slightly built, nervous, introverted academic type with a Ph.D. in chemistry earned at the University of Rochester, was hard to get a definite opinion from for he used his vast knowledge to refute any hypothesis, his own included. Nothing was absolute to Oscar. Denied the coveted teaching posts, he earned a good living in the catacombs of city hall. He was, however, friendly and supportive with me, and encouraged his staff to work with me. Like his staff, I tried to avoid his dissertations on the uncertainties of everything.

Don Zolweg, younger, outgoing, an unlicensed civil engineer, was Marth's guardian, interpreter to laymen, and friend who made the decisions that Oscar could not. The materials lab was the authority for control of construction materials used in the city, and Marth and Zolweg welcomed my enthusiastic interest in concrete technology, a subject they saw as too long ignored. They brought about a turning point in my life.

In 1957 Ludington won the order for 12,000 cubic yards of concrete to be used in the city-owned Mortimer-Division parking garage. The five-story structure was the first to use lightweight aggregate. Concrete made with lightweight aggregate weighs about 1000 lbs. less per cubic yard than conventional concrete, an amount, if used in a multi-story parking garage, that would offset the weight of the cars parked in it, which allowed significant economy in the design of the structure.

The lightweight aggregate used was made from shale expanded by firing at a temperature of 2200 degrees F. It passed through fire on a belted grate. After crushing and screening the shale takes the appearance of large gray popcorn. The material was mined and processed in Warners, New York, by the Onolite Corporation, owned by my former employer at the Syracuse Air Base project, D. W. Winkleman, and was shipped by rail to Ludington's Lexington Avenue yard. The concept had been promoted through structural engineers by Ken Oelfke, Winkleman's representative, who was also to become part of my destiny.

Neither Marth, nor Zolweg, nor I, had had any experience with this new material, so together we set out to learn its secrets. We went to the aggregate plant to inspect the manufacturing process. Don Zolweg and I worked in the basement lab in city hall, often until past midnight, mixing lab-sized batches to make samples for compressive strength tests and other tests until we worked out the methods for proper control of the concrete mix.

In the next eight years Ludington's furnished lightweight concrete for the Clinton-Franklin Garage, buildings in the Civic Center, several buildings for Eastman Kodak, Strong Memorial Hospital, and others. Ludington's annual concrete production increased from 28,000 cubic yards to 80,000. I became a local authority on lightweight concrete. Others studied the subject, too: Bob Sheridan, Bill Merkel and Harley Burgess at Eastman Kodak—Kodak Park was built with reinforced concrete. Two others, John Weekes and Joe DeFrancisco, both Alfred University graduates, joined the DeWitt organization. Cement manufacturers hired professional engineers for customer service, and one, Gene Rebbisher, worked hard to promote quality control for concrete. I assisted him with many seminars organized for the construction trade. Rochester, still enjoys a reputation as the most informed city in the state on quality concrete.

In 1958 Ludington's opened a small concrete plant at Valley Sand's Scottsville location. I had objected to this move, pointing out that we would be directly competing with our good aggregate customer, B. R. DeWitt, who for years had operated a concrete plant on Valley's Avon property, and who would not be pleased. Further, the available market could not support another producer. Bob Finewood persisted and of course prevailed. The plant closed within two years with a considerable loss of investment.

In 1960 Ludington's bought the concrete producing segment of Whitmore, Rauber & Vicinus located at 135 Mt. Hope Avenue in Rochester. It was Bob's idea, and, in fairness, it did give us the capacity to bid on the 20,000 cubic yards of conrete for the south half of the city's new Midtown Mall underground parking garage. The Kelliher Company of Boston awarded us the order, and on one day in 1961 we delivered 1000 cubic yards of concrete to that project, a new record for Rochester that stood for several years. I designed and pretested the concrete mix proportions myself and "Stubby" Joe Flynn, the architect, had enough confidence in my work to approve them. This was an unorthodox procedure. Believe me, it would never happen today. In retrospect I am amazed (as others were then) at my unmitigated gall.

© 1992, Edwin N. Harris
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