Rockdale,TX Class of 1965
The Town Where It Rains Money
by George Sessions Perry
Saturday Evening Post, December 27, 1952
What happens to a village of 2000 population when a huge company suddenly starts pouring dollars into it - a hundred million at a whop? That's just what's taking place at little Rockdale, Texas
When, back in the fall of 1949, I prophesied in our local newspaper, the Rockdale Reporter, that lignite coal - a blowzy fuel in the production of which Rockdale, TX once led the nation - would shortly begin to energize a galaxy of American industries, I had not realized the hypnotic effect these words were to have upon the Aluminum Company of America. Had I known then that this previously staid concern was going to get its big silvery tail over the dashboard and begin pouring money into my idea and into Rockdale - pop. 2000 - $100,000,000 at a whop, it would have given me pause.
Right now, Rockdale, its population having tripled in the last few months, could not be more disheveled had one of the Missouri Pacific's fast trains left the track and gone circling through town like a tipsy angleworm. As a result of my all-too-true prophesy, Alcoa has hauled off and rapped old Rockdale on the rump with a chain of lightning.
But for the moment let's leave busy Alcoa out beyond the edge of town, running up its mile and a half of smelting equipment, a power plant that will devour 7000 tons of lignite per day and create more electricity than all of that with which the Texas Power and Light Company had previously supplied the state. Yet just in order that we may not overlook the urgency and speed with which this plant is being erected, we might remember that its builders have not hesitated to have planeloads of special brick flown in from California when needed immediately.
To borrow the phrase of Dr. E. F. Schoch, formerly director of Texas University’s bureau of industrial chemistry, lignite is “the Cinderella of fuels” and, in case of a third world war, it could prove a grimy but essential friend in need. The chief features of this brown coal, which is only one notch better than peat, are its plentifulness - in the United States we have some two thousand billion tons - and its orneriness. Once mined, it is far more perishable than, say, turnips or cabbages; left in its natural state, it simply disintegrates into a useless brown powder in something like ten days. It is 35 per cent water, which is extravagantly juicy for something called coal, and has about as much combustible oomph per ton as three barrels of ordinary raw petroleum. The only thing you can say about it that is genuinely complimentary is that hogs enjoy nibbling it for its effect both as a dentifrice and as an appertizer.
Just as in the past, lignite has played a dramatic part in the town to which I was born and still live, it is likely to do the same thing in numberless towns in Texas, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah and others. But Rockdale, peewee though it so long was, means to lignite what Pittsburgh means to steel, Hollywood means to movies or the French town of Bar-le-Duc means to currant jam.
The real pioneer in the lignite business in Rockdale was Hermann F. Vogel, a portly German American who’d been born near the Black Forest and later fought the French so avidly in the Franco-Prussian War that he received the Iron Cross. More directly to the point, he’d been connected, one way and another, with the coal-mining business in Germany. He arrived, around 1890, in a Rockdale that was all false-front frame stores and muddy streets. He brought with him $500 in gold and came with the purpose of investigating stories he’d heard about surface outcroppings of lignite.
When he found these stories to be true, he moved his family to Rockdale and began to dig. Mr. Vogel successfully opened two shafts and hauled out the coal in wagons. But since a rail connection with the International & Great Northern Railroad was of prime importance, and since his now-shriveled $500 was hardly equal to the task, he formed a stock company, started on a third mine and built a railroad to the mine head.
Soon, then, following the enviable example of Mr. Vogel, who in time had become an extremely prosperous miner, virtually the entire business community of the town went into the coal business either directly or through investments made in the companies of friends.
Near each mine there sprang up camps inhabited by Mexicans, not United States citizens of Mexican descent, but primarily Mexican nationals freshly smuggled across the border. Most mines kept an agent on the border for this purpose. Once the new workers were settled into shacks in the mine camp, they were given to understand that any future departure from the mines farther than Rockdale would be “illegal” and would invite the stern attention of the policia. In this way, a population in the camps of 1500 to 2000 Mexicans was soon accumulated.
These people lived in a world apart and enjoyed certain liberties that the people of the town did not possess. Since one of their few recreations was gambling, a certain leniency on the part of the town constabulary was sought and usually gained by the mine owners. They wished these peace officers on hand only on Sunday mornings to gather up the bodies of those who’d perished on Saturday night. No town gamblers, incidentally, were permitted to participate in the Mexicans’ games.
In those days, according to Augustine Garcia, who lost a leg in the mines at seventeen, most of the Mexicans carried pistols when not in town, even wore them to dances. Every man jack of them had some kind of long-bladed instrument always on his person, usually a dirk knife, and bloodshed was frequent.
Even as a child I felt a particular warmth for these people who ennobled their huts with beautiful flowers and beautiful children. We had something in common - a time of celebration, the fifth of May, on which day in 1862 the Mexicans, outnumbered three to one, carried the field against the French in the battle of Guadaloupe near Puebla and on which day, somewhat later, I was born. Thereafter we celebrated together.
Where other town children were reduced to tiresome little birthday parties with cakes and starched, itchy clothes, for me there was always a fiesta. Each year my parents filled the family Oakland with neighborhood kids and took us out to the mines to gorge ourselves on the big fat tomales Mexican ladies had made for the occasion and which they kept steaming in caldrons over an open fire.
Not only was life exciting at the mines in this period but in Rockdale as well. For especially in the fall season, when cotton gins and compresses needed coal, trainloads of lignite were made up in the local yards and shipped out every day.
In town the Mexicans behaved differently, since here the smallest breach of decorum got them locked up. Ordinarily families - mammas and a long row of children - sat on the curb waiting for papa, who was washing the coal dust out of his throat in one or another of the town’s busy saloons. Wait these families patiently did, but to break the tedium they ate bananas and oranges , often given free by the grocery stores, and by noon the streets and sidewalks were golden with banana skins.
Yet while these Mexicans made the town thrive with their custom, it was primarily, of course, the new money brought in by the sale of coal which put Rockdale families in such gaudy horseless carriages as the K.R.I.T., for which there was an agency in town at the time.
According to Sam Yoakum, who was a mine superintendent for a long time, the miners were paid fifteen cents for digging enough coal to fill a mine car- a car which was supposed to hold 1000 pounds but which had in reality to 1400 -that extra 400 pounds to defray all running expenses. The average miner earned $1.75 per day, while those who were especially strong and skilled could earn four dollars. Yet, in addition to their useful toil, these Mexican folk brightened the place enormously with their spirit, their love of color and, finally, of music.
In those days, when you had a friend coming into town or leaving, you did not settle for a mere oral hello or good-by; you greeted him or bade him farewell with a Mexican band. When the town's more socially prominent ladies wished to give a garden party, there was usually a Mexican string orchestra tucked away in this or that alcove, brightening the whole event with lively musica.
But these happy times had to end. The great oil fields near Beaumont had been discovered along about the turn of the century. By 1920 many of the old lignite customers had got around to installing petroleum-burning equipment. By 1925 the change-over was relatively complete. The businessmen of the town, who had invested in lignite and once prospered so lavishly, were now broke and badly in debt. The mines closed and the mining camps lay desolate and abandoned.
Shortly, however, a new era in the lignite business began. Two brothers named Butler, H. G. and William, came to Rockdale, prospected for shallow veins of coal southwest of town, located them and formed the Federal Fuel Company, dedicated to the proposition that it was the high cost of mining coal by hand that had busted the industry. It was the Butlers' intention to strip the overlaying earth from the coal with steam shovels, then scoop up the coal with these same shovels in such a fashion that it would be virtually as cheap as dirt.
In two years' time they'd opened the mine at the community of Freezeout, eight miles south of Rockdale, built a six-mile railroad to the main line, and produced twenty tons of coal, at which point, anticlimactically, they were themselves frozen out by their creditors.
But the stockholders didn't lose heart. They rebought the company in bankruptcy court, changed its name to the Standard Coal Company and the name of the mine community to the more muscular-sounding appellation of Sandow. Finally, they gave a long-term operating lease to McAlester Fuel Company, of McAlester, Oklahoma, of which J. G. Puterbaugh was and is the highly active president.
From the '20's, then, until 1950, McAlester Fuel Company operated this mine, usually at a loss. However, we of Rockdale thought little about McAlester Fuel and considered John M. Weed, the local superintendent, "Mr. Lignite." Was it not he who had those long wide gashes cut in the earth, gashes which, once the coal was removed, became lakes that harbored bass and bream, and were a solace to mallard, teal and wild geese on their long journey from Canada to the Gulf Coast as winter approached? Here mourning doves came to water at eventide as we swam and picnicked and shot the heads off water moccasins so big that when crawling across a dry log their scales rasped audibly.
Then, in 1950, a year after I had predicted such a glowing future for lignite, the Sandow mine lost its last two important accounts-the University of Texas, at Austin, and Texas A. and M. College, at College Station. Since further operation was out of the question, the mine closed. But because Mr. Puterbaugh, like myself, still believed that lignite must soon come into its own, he bought the 10,000 acres of coal land belonging to the Standard Coal Company, built a barbed-wire fence around it, stocked it with Hereford cattle and changed Mr. Weed's title from mine superintendent to head cowpoke pro tem.
But while the rest of us whittled and relished the shade, Mr. Puterbaugh, acting behind the scenes, was purely zizzing. In the first place, he operated a lignite mine in Malakoff, Texas, which supplied coal to the Texas Power and Light Company's steam-power station there. Here two salient points come readily to light: First, it was apparently feasible to burn lignite in competition with natural gas when its energy was converted into electricity at the mine head. Second, Mr. Puterbaugh and
T. P. & L. were pals.
Working together, this pair had talked a big aluminum-remelting company into moving to Rockdale and using lignite for melting aluminum scraps into ingots. There was but one catch in the proposition-the United States Government, which to Rockdale principally means Congressman W. R. Poage, was willing to guarantee the company eighteen cents per pound for any surplus it might produce. But since the company demanded twenty-two cents, the deal folded.
But now that Mr. Puterbaugh and T. P. & L. had got thinking about aluminum, the production of which requires fantastic amounts of electric power, they just had to have an aluminum plant or bust. What's more, they had something up their sleeves besides their elbows.
For some time T. P. & L. had been financing a set of experiments conducted by the Bureau of Mines with a view to dehydrating crushed lignite and thereby directly increasing its per-ton firepower by one third. More than that, as a by-product of this process, about fourteen gallons of a novel and particularly interesting kind of tar was recovered from each ton of coal. These experiments, under the direction of V. F. Parry, had already been brought to a successful conclusion in the pilot plant operated by the Bureau of Mines, at Denver, Colorado.
Yet the importance of these findings from the aluminum maker's point of view can be fully appreciated only when you realize that the shortage of hydroelectric-power sites in the United States has driven the aluminum companies to other sources of power, preferably natural gas. At present, however, contracts for natural gas for five years or longer are extremely difficult to get. And a fuel-supply guarantee for as little as five years would hardly justify the building of costly aluminum works, of which the power plant is inevitably the heart. For, in case you don't know, aluminum comes into being when the powderlike alumina has been sufficiently “stewed” by electric current to form a liquid that can be poured into molds to harden. Of course, a pinch of this and a spoonful of that is added during the process, but to pursue the recipe in detail would be boring.
In any case, we find that not only were Mr. Puterbaugh and T. P. & L. buddies but that T. P. & L. and Alcoa were by no means strangers to each other. Some time earlier, Alcoa had developed an aluminum cable with a steel core which it felt would transmit big power loads as well as the steel-cored copper cable then in general use. But who would pioneer Alcoa’s new cable and put it into wide-scale industrial use? When the others had hung back, T. P. & L. had taken the jump, and in so doing made the product not merely respectable but a success.
So here we find three amiable conspirators seeking a way to furnish the country urgently needed aluminum - Mr. Puterbaugh with his 10,000-acre package of lignite lands, an established mine, and the ability to supply virtually unlimited amounts of coal at the mine head for something like a half dollar per ton and to keep it up for a century at least; T. P. & L. with a new method for processing lignite, even if it was still only in the pilot-plant stage; and Alcoa, which knew a thing or two about making aluminum. Finally, a fourth friend was invited to join in the plot. That member was the Government of the United States, which soon obliged with a $114,000,000 certificate of necessity.
At that point the personality and tempo of the old, languid Rockdale, a personality hitherto unsullied by excessive ambition or haste and 99 per cent free of the burdens of great wealth, was doomed.
Once a Dallas News reporter broke the story in advance of a planned announcement by Congressman Poage, the fat was in the fire. At the mere mention of somebody blowing into town with $100,000,000 to spend, many citizens were seized by attacks of vertigo. Others merely went off and lay down in an effort to regain their composure. Then things began to happen.
Perhaps the most alert group of our citizens intent upon sharing in a slice of those 100,000,000 Yankee dollars was our legion of widow ladies. At once they began partitioning their extra bedrooms into cubicles barely large enough to hold a single bed and a dresser in preparation for the inevitable influx of roomers. These new arrangements also necessitated making additional openings into the one bathroom these houses usually had. At present our champion bathroom in this respect, according to the grapevine, is one containing five doors and often surrounded, surely, by widespread frustration.
Of course, the widow ladies' rooms were filled instanter, as was the ever-increasing number of motels and trailer parks that were springing up on the perimeter of town, while every vacant lot inside its limits soon contained a house or two. Outside the city limits, every cow pasture was marked off into lots and declared to be a new addition.
One of the first Alcoa executives to blow into town was a brilliant young engineer and administrator named Len Neubert, who was accompanied by his wife, Nancy. His job was simple. All he had to do was build the Rockdale Works of the Aluminum Company of America. In no time at all he'd got his job started, and he and his attractive wife were known, liked and welcomed all over town.
Out at the mine one of the first of the big subcontractors, Dean Skinner, of Austin, began bulldozing trees and hauling off hills which he reassembled in the form of a dam for Alcoa's 750-acre reservoir and cooling lake, as at the same time he moved distant gravel beds to the plant site-gravel that would go into the foundations of the plant itself.
By now the downtown streets were crowded not only by cars but by taxis, not to mention a fairly large and bewildered-looking green-and-white vehicle which styled itself the city bus. Parking meters had been installed to make life miserable for folks who wanted to park, but hadn't anything in their pockets smaller than a quarter-if they had that.
Most of the downtown stores were remodeled to a point where you no longer felt at home in them. You felt that somehow you should either buy something or leave instead of, as in the old days, keeping the unhurried storekeeper company during his long waits between customers. No longer, for example, in the shoe stores was there a counter containing ladies' pointed-toe laced boots, held over from 1915, and marked down from $16.50 to sixty-five cents a pair.
The Rockdale State Bank, our one and only, had its face lifted and a bustlelike extrusion built on the back in order to attract and handle new business. It even had walnut panels built into the directors' room, which in a moment of high camaraderie it renamed the Community Room and offered to the public for the holding of small meetings.
Then began the round of parties. Parties given by the home folks to welcome the Alcoa executives and at which we had a chance to get to know the fellow who's going to be boss of the Rockdale Works-a casual, straightforward Tennessean named John D. Harper, who is by no means devoid of charm. For a time he was accompanied by his lovely wife, Samma, even if his three boys, at this period, were still in school in Tennessee and had as yet to discover Texas. Most of these parties were extremely pleasant, but even the ones Pete Coffield, our leading local capitalist, gave, resplendent as they were, had no Mexican orchestras in an alcove, as of old.
In any case, we liked the Alcoa people and they seemed to like us. The wives of both native and Alcoa families soon developed the habit of calling on one another in the mornings after the kids were off to school. By the time one house accumulated a half-dozen cars at the curb, the rest of the gals gathered there automatically. Indeed, when two lady friends met at the grocery store, the question, “Where are the cars this morning?” often preceded a civil "hello."
But while the rest of us entertained the new arrivals more or less as we found it convenient, our young mayor, Red Hogan, and our first lady had pretty much to entertain or attend parties every night. The rest of us were glad Red had toughened up by fighting over much of the Pacific in World War II and had apparently been blessed at birth with cast-iron kidneys, for a lesser man would surely have collapsed under the strain.
Yet what had the most fundamentally unsettling effect upon that pleasant old thing previously known as life in Rockdale was a thing I can only call the Pittsburgh gait and which was utterly foreign to our natures. It was a plangent, irresistible, hurried drive which manifested itself five days a week, beginning when the huge trucks started rolling at 5:30 in the morning and ending when an exhausted population retired about nine at night. Never was Rockdale so quiet at night or so deserted on week ends. The week-end feeling was almost precisely that which you get in New York City on summer Saturdays and Sundays when it seems that everybody but you has gone to the country.
We'd had a small oil boom twenty years earlier, at which time many of our unattached visitors had been inclined to get skunk drunk at eventide, invite all comers to fisticuffs and, now and again, spice those proceedings by shooting off pistols at the street lights when happy or at each other when out of sorts.
Our present visitors were wholly different. Both Sheriff Carl Black and Rockdale's erstwhile constable, Ed Sexton, who is now chief of police, aver that the new folks aren't nearly so troublesome as we old-timers. In fact, nobody has shot Ed's hat off since Alcoa came to town, a performance which used to take place with some regularity.
From the standpoint of the city government, the vast expansion of city services invited by this incursion of thousands has been embarrassing. Like most municipal entities, we hadn't any money and the city council dared offer no more than a $125,000 bond issue for expanding water and sewage lines, a sum hardly in speaking distance with a self-respecting drop in the bucket. When that dab was committed, it was up to the various developers to pay for what they needed themselves. Even so, we did vote $1,000,000 worth of bonds to build some nice new school-houses.
As for recreation facilities, all we had were the same old curbs to sit on and whittle, a couple of domino parlors, a bowling alley and three movies. At night the town was full of tired, lonely men-those whose families were not with them. During the day it was full of bored, lonely women-newly arrived wives of construction workers and Alcoa men who had as yet developed no circle of friends.
Yet we hope to remedy that. For years I've plugged for a swimming pool, be it one only suited for the small fry. Now apparently the city government and John Harper are rooting for a full-scale pool. Besides, sooner or later, from the viewpoint of recreation, we'll have a country club, an adequate city park and, if our new citizens can survive our blistering Texas summers, they'll find themselves right in the middle of the Texas hell-for-leather college-football belt, come fall.
Actually we and our friends from Pittsburgh-they do the work, we do the grunting-contemplate at the moment putting out only about 85,000 tons of aluminum per year. Even so, that's enough to make a couple of thousand medium bombers or 10,000 fighters, with plenty of scraps left over for tea kettles and skillets.
As a matter of fact, this whole experience has been real fun for the town. On the deficit side, we've had a few industrial accidents that turned us green around the gills, especially when the victim was an old friend. Then on one occasion somebody, be it a local person or a visitor, sabotaged a line of trucks during the night-removed the oil from the crankcases and replaced it with molasses, so that shortly after the trucks started running, the pistons would lock for all time to come. That is the only downright venomous incident to date.
Beyond that, even though John Harper points out, "We aren't an unmixed blessing," Rockdale feels it's all to the good.
Besides, now that Alcoa has so clearly got lignite's number, knows how to remove not only its moisture but its tar, a whole new horizon presents itself. When T. D. Jolly, Alcoa's vice-president in charge of production, was in town recently, he said he hoped he would be able to lure some substantial chemical company alongside the aluminum plant to absorb and process its highly individual residual tar.
Today there is obviously more money in Rockdale than ever before. But, at least as much to the point, there is also more wit, knowledge, talent and spirit in the town, more pretty women, more lively, bouncy youngsters than at any time in the past. It's full of good company composed not only of newcomer and nester but, in many cases, of people who earlier had sorrowfully left town out of sheer economic necessity, but have come whooping home and gone to work for Alcoa or at any of 100 other jobs now available.
But what makes us feel best of all is that we’re making a sizable pile of something that the nation needs. At last we’ve found the open sesame to the vast subterranean vaults of energy beneath our very feet. And I’m sure that if the late Hermann Vogel has any contact with this terrestrial scene, he’s overjoyed that Rockdale, Milam County, Texas, once more, as it came to do forty years ago as a result of his own pioneering, is soon to lead the world in the production of lignite coal.
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Saturday Evening Post - December 27, 1952
Photography by Bill Shrout
Downtown Rockdale, with it's remodeled stores and new parking meters, shows signs of its new-found prosperity as the world's leading producer of lignite coal
Pot Room No. 6 goes up for the Aluminum Company of America plant, which will consume about
7000 tons of Rockdale's lignite coal a day
Children of construction workers play at one of the many new trailer courts in town. Housing is tight -
Rockdale's population has tripled in the past year.
Alcoa's multimillion-dollar plant, powered by Rockdale's lignite, will produce 85,000 tons of aluminum a year -
enough for 10,000 fighter planes
Parties are given almost every night for the new arrivals. Among the local folks here, at
Pete Coffield's home, are Mayor "Red" Hogan (center) and his wife, Billie (pointing)
Rockdale newcomers Mrs. William Shephard, Mrs. John Forbis, Mrs. Harold Quigley, Mrs. Herman Thomas, and their kids, at Timmermans's grocery shop.
Since Rockdale has few recreational facilities, the new citizens - like this group at Pete Coffield's Diamond H - are entertained on nearby ranches
For more information on George Sessions Perry (1910-1956) - Rockdale's most notable "Man of Letters" and prolific writer - read the article on him at the link below . I recommend reading all of his books.