Although newcomers to Tehachapi may know little about “that cement factory” on the east end of the valley that’s lit up at night like some out-of-place amusement park, the cement plant at Monolith has been there for over 100 years and looms large in the consciousness of Tehachapi oldtimers.
Generations of Tehachapi people raised their families from the payroll at Monolith and it was once the largest employer in the area. For more than 50 years there was a townsite across the road from the plant that was once home to as many as 350 people.
Last Tuesday a group of former employees and other interested locals toured the plant to see the historical exhibits that were prepared as part of the plant’s 100th anniversary.
Tour participants examined the display cases, saw part of the plant and visited with employees, including plant manager Craig Mifflin, who made some time to talk about the facility.
Originally built by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to supply cement for concrete used in the construction of the L.A. Aqueduct that carries water from the Owens Valley to Southern California, the plant and town were known as Aqueduct.
When a group of private investors purchased the plant in the early 1920s from the LADWP, the name was changed to the Monolith Portland Cement Company. In the 1980s Calaveras Cement Company purchased the plant and renamed it, and then another name change happened in 2002 when Calaveras became Lehigh Southwest Cement Company.
Still called “Monolith” by many
However, the site is still marked on maps as Monolith so it can be accurately be referred to as “the cement plant at Monolith,” even if “the Lehigh Southwest plant” is more accurate. Many longtime residents still call it simply “Monolith” and everyone knows where they’re talking about.
Last week’s May 19 tour was organized and hosted by John Powell, a repairman and Tehachapi local who has worked at the plant for 25 years. Like many other employees, Powell’s father had also worked at the plant (1954-62).
Powell and another Tehachapi native, Duana Pera, were primarily responsible for gathering together historical information and artifacts for the 100th anniversary. These items have now been put on permanent display at the plant headquarters and additional displays will be forthcoming.
A wide variety of historical objects is on display, ranging from old cloth cement bags to tools to a dynamite detonating plunger and a baseball jersey worn by a member of the Monolith baseball team.
At least five of those who attended the tour had worked at Monolith at some point in the past, and there was much remembering and exchanging of stories and recollections.
With the exception of some office staff, nearly all of the many hundreds of employees who have worked at the plant or the nearby quarry during the past century have been men, and a Monolith culture developed that could be the subject of its own book.
Good pay but hard work
Though the pay has always been respectable, working at the plant is not and never has been for the weak or sensitive — the jobs tend to be hard, dusty, demanding and even dangerous. More than a dozen lives have been lost in accidents at the plant, though none in years, fortunately. You don’t need a college degree to work at the plant, but it requires a basic element of toughness.
Workers have also had to withstand a certain measure of teasing from fellow employees, for an all-male environment tends to produce a “trial by fire “ atmosphere.
“They’d break you if you weren’t tough,” recalls former employee Harold Williams, who was present at Tuesday’s tour. “They weren’t really mean, but they’d give you a hard time and you had to earn acceptance.”
The many nicknames, anecdotes and personality quirks of workers past are to me part of the fascination of Monolith history.
I always enjoy visiting the plant and the people who work there — I grew up and went to school with many of them, including Johnny Powell, who was one grade ahead of me, and they often represent several generations of Tehachapi history.
Equality covered in dust
Monolith and now Lehigh Southwest has always been an equal-opportunity employer, and I firmly believe that the co-mingling of white, Hispanic and Native American workers at the cement plant over the decades has contributed to the general lack of racial strife in the Tehachapi Valley.
I’m not claiming that plant employees have always been one big happy family, but animosity was based on personal disagreements, not ethnic or cultural considerations. When you’re tired, dusty, and sweating in the heat or shivering from the cold, you care more about your co-workers’ reliability than their social background.
Workers at the plant tend to be plain-spoken, down-to-earth men who are not easily fooled — or easily impressed.
Working conditions at the plant have of course improved exponentially during the past 100 years, and with plant automation the employment hovers around 115, down from a high of 450 employees during the years of World War II.
But even with vastly improved safety and niceties like air-conditioned vehicles, making cement from Tehachapi limestone is still hard work and I applaud those employees — both at Lehigh Southwest and the nearby California Portland Cement plant — whose labor allows us to have concrete house foundations, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, etc.
Lehigh Southwest estimates that there is 75 year’s worth of limestone remaining in the plant quarries, so the story of the cement plant at Monolith will continue for many more years, written by the Tehachapi people who work there.
Have a good week.