A 235-FOOT SMOKESTACK towering over a Concord development is the only thing left of a multimillion-dollar plant that could turn out 5,000 barrels of cement a day.
“It ran 24 hours a day,” remembered the late Louie Ferreira of Concord, in 1988. He spent his early years in the company town of Cowell, and his first job out of Mt. Diablo High School was at the plant.
“They blasted every morning, about 7. The charges were set at night, 10 at a time. Then in the morning they’d go off, one after another. The whole valley would shake. The ground would crack. The wells and streams on the mountain went dry. Got the farmers really mad.”
The blasts, which were used to take rocks out of a nearby quarry for the cement, weren’t the only reasons the farmers were mad at the cement plant. They had had an ongoing battle with the giant company from the moment it opened and its smokestacks started spewing smoke mixed with dust. The battle took 25 years and two long court fights to settle.
In 1910, after farmers complained that the dust was ruining crops, and housewives complained that they couldn’t hang their clothes on the line, the company was taken to court by Contra Costa County for creating a public nuisance.
The case didn’t get to trial until June 11, 1913, and then was heard on and off for a total of 52 days, until July 7, 1914.
After the trial briefs were filed and refiled, the judge finally decided in favor of the company, in 1917. He ruled that the dust, while a bothersome problem, was not a public nuisance but a private affair between the company and whoever owned the property the dust landed on. Then in 1933 a group of local farmers hired a young Concord lawyer, John Garaventa, and San Francisco attorney W. F. Williamson to take on the giant again.
The farmers took their dust-encrusted prunes to court as exhibits to show the judges just what they were talking about.
The farmers said that the dust was ruining 6,000 acres of walnuts, grapes, prunes, berries, tomatoes, peas, apricots, and pears in the Ygnacio Valley, affecting the lives of 350 people.
Ferreira remembers the awful sore throats he used to get when he worked at the plant in 1934.
“I only worked there three months. I had to leave, cement poisoning on my ankles and legs. They never supplied us with masks. I demanded a mask. And (the plant superintendent) asked ‘What’s the matter with you?”‘ said Ferreira.
Ferreira ended up soaking his red handkerchief in water and tying it around his nose and mouth to keep out the dust.
The company said is was doing all it could to control the dust. It pointed out that 225 families were supported by husbands and fathers who worked at the plant and that local merchants needed the $30,000-a-day payroll the company generated. If the company had to install expensive equipment it would go out of business, officials testified.
This time the trial lasted 53 days. At one point the company offered a compromise with the 13 farmers who brought suit. It would reduce the dust by 50 percent. The farmers said “no.”
On January 10, 1935, the judge ruled that the company had to reduce its dust output by 85 percent or close down.
The tall cement tower, built to withstand 90-mile-an-hour winds and a force 10 earthquake, was completed by 1936.
The little community of Cowell comprised six blocks. The streets were paved with sand. Each company house had a lawn and a garage.
“We lived in a double-ender,” said Ferreira, describing what later would be called a duplex.
“Two families shared the bathroom. It was out back in a shed. There was a flush toilet.”
The single men had to live in the company boarding house. It cost them $1 a day. There never was enough food.
“They’d give you three pancakes and a cup of coffee for breakfast,” said Ferreira.
He said the coffee was sugared in the kitchen. There were no sugar bowls on the table.
Cowell Historical Society