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Atlas Portland Cement

  • Curator Ed Pany of the Atlas Cement Museum
    Curator Ed Pany of the Atlas Cement Museum holds a cement bag with the early name for Northampton, Siegfried, under his fingers.
Published May 27. 2011 05:01PM

When the Atlas Portland Cement Company closed in 1982 Ed Pany went to homes, churches and newspapers to get the names of 2,376 people who worked at the plant. It was to remember these people that he started the cement museum in the municipal building of Northampton Borough. The names were placed on stainless steel plaques in the lobby.

Five cement companies remain in the area but all are foreign-owned: Keystone, LaFarge, Heidelberg, Essoc and Hercules.

He said, during a May 9 visit by the Palmerton Area Historical Society, that Atlas was the largest cement plant in the world.

Pany is a retired teacher who taught for 39 years. He worked at the Atlas to earn his college money.

The museum cost the taxpayers nothing. Some people wanted payment for artifacts but he said if he paid someone, others would want to be paid. Sometimes it meant waiting but he usually got what he wanted.

When workers walked to work they passed through pillars just as people now pass through them to enter the museum. Beautiful etched doors begin the cement story.

Pany hefts a cement bag and it has the name Siegfried on it - the name for the borough until 1902.

A plaster horse welcomes people into the museum. It was the first piece for the museum and was found in a harness shop in l995. The horse wears a blanket with the Atlas logo.

"I went to Mrs. Wright and asked her to donate it but she had an offer of $10,000 from Belmont Race Track. She died and in her will the horse was split in three. The first two pieces were donated but he had trouble getting the third. Eventually it came to the museum.

Workers were Pennsylvania German, Austrian, Hungarian, Irish, Polish, Slovak, Croatian and Ukrainian.

An original switchboard is there with what he termed laughingly, a comfortable chair - a stool without a back. The woman who operated it comes yearly to see if anything has been changed. Phone lines connected the plant to the bosses in the early years before phones were common.

There were 78 kilns on over 200 acres. A building is used as a community center. Others are part of the borough recycling operation, but most are gone.

In World War II the government sent representatives to the tool shops. A flag on the wall with the word Army, an E for excellence, and Navy on it was received for war work.

When people were digging they found some metal bricks with one stamped Atlas. They thought they hit the jackpot and found silver but it was only a cheap metal and was melted to make fish sinkers.

Glasses with thick lenses had to be worn to look into the kilns because they were heated to 2,800 degrees. The glasses were made in Germany because that country had a reputation for good optics.

Horseshoes were studded for winter traction on snow and ice.

Roger Firestone spent a year painting the mural on the wall working at night. Under a blue sky are portraits of 18 "cement" people including Pany's father who came through Ellis Island. Pany is the only person still living and he is depicted as a farmer in a lower corner. On the opposite bottom corner is a blockhouse from the French and Indian War.

Pany has a metal lunch box. The top is a container for beverages. When kids come to the museum he tells them melted lard sprinkled with pepper and fried was a grilled cheese sandwich. Most do not know what lard is, or cracklins which were the potato chips of the era. Bread baked at home without preservatives quickly molded. The mold was scraped off and saved for medicinal use.

Milk bottles filled with powdered milk were sold for 4 cents. More people drank that than any other beverage.

Fire buckets moved on a line creating the first sprinkler system. They are painted red for danger. The museum has the first town fire hydrant and a hand-powered fire hose cart.

If a man lost a leg he received $100 and a prosthetic limb.

Barrels of cement contained 376 pounds which was not always practical so bags containng 94 pounds were also sold. Making the bags provided jobs for women. People received 50 cents for each thousand bags they tied.

They recycled but did not call it that. The bags became sheets, diapers, aprons, swimsuits and tablecloths.

There is information on the Konkrete Kids ball teams from Northampton High School. A few years ago the school wanted to change the name but Pany was against it. The name remained the same. The 1937 team was called the "wonder team" because they ran up such high scores.

There is a complete office with punch clock, check writer, typewriter and lights.

The largest project Atlas was involved with was the Panama Canal which used eight million barrels of cement. Pany interviewed four men who worked on the canal.

It took 418 days to build the Empire State Building in 1931 using 151,000 barrels. The building did not make a profit until 1950. A King Kong movie poster is there because of its relationship to the Empire State Building.

Other major projects were Rockefeller Center and the Holland Tunnel.

The Atlas was always unionized, part of the United Cement, Lime and Gypsum Workers International Union. Pany has the original charter.

He is disappointed that stimulus money was used to improve a port in New York to import cement from Brazil and Peru, believing it should be made locally.

He said the borough council of which he was once a member gave him the authority to build a first-class museum, saying he has received wonderful cooperation. The borough owns everything he has collected because "What will I do with it."

The museum is on Laubach Avenue and is open the second and fourth Sundays, 1-3 p.m., of each month through September.


When I saw the Statue of Liberty I knew I was here and would have a better life.

Paul Eberhardt

Worked at Atlas 42 years

Many times my husband would work until midnight in the office. There was no overtime. It was part of the job.

Hattie Angery

My father lost his pay check on South Lane. It was for 12 cents.

Mrs. David Rank

The plant was everyone's bread and butter in Northampton.

Albert Getz

Worked at Atlas 46 years

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