If you’re a regular visitor to the annual Midwest 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 volunteer of many years at Mt. Pleasant, Steve is working hard to make the event even more engaging for attendees. “I do a lot of volunteer work here,” Steve says, “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.”
Machines used to make blocks onsite
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. 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 one person make 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 unique mold patterns were available, including the Standard Rock Face that Steve uses for his demonstrations. 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, also offered Knox block makers. 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,” he says.
An unusual show demonstration
During his demonstrations, Steve carefully explains the process so that those watching 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.
The process itself is straightforward. Before pouring in the cement mix, 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 uses 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.
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 and the block was removed and left to cure for 10-20 days. The process could be accelerated by placing the blocks inside a makeshift canvas tent soaked with water. That created a high-humidity environment allowing the cement to draw the moisture and set up faster. Steve says that a slow dry is better, producing stronger blocks.
Although the machinery used to form concrete blocks has advanced greatly in the last 100 years, the same 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. FC