Email from Sherril "Waldo" Steen to Joe Pryor, Dec. 11, 2007

Subject:  Miller County Concrete Houses



I became very interested in how all those concrete houses were built in Miller County.  Many of our ancestors lived in those houses.  I’ve done considerable research and I don’t find any document that leads me to believe that anyone in Miller County made cement. 


Sue’s discussion at the bottom of page 97 says that John Williams, Jr. was a stone mason and built a home that was burned during or shortly after the Civil War.  She did not provide a date that the new concrete house was built.  I concluded from her account that the concrete house was built shortly after John returned from the War.  I now believe that all the concrete houses were build after low cost Portland cement became available after 1885. 


The invention of the rotary kiln in 1885 was the key technology that led to the construction of all those concrete houses.  Steam power had already solved the transportation problem.  We had steamboats at Tuscumbia and we had a railroad at Richland and Crocker.  Therefore, I now believe that those houses were all built in the 1890 to 2015 time frame.  I say 1890 at the earliest because it would take several years for the investment and construction of enough rotary kiln’s to reduce the price of cement.


We have Patricia Ambrose Mazanec’s account of the Popplewell construction in 1908/1909 documented in the September 24, 1998 issue of The Miller County Autogram-Sentinel.  I recall that Pat recorded many hours of her conversations with Uncle Reagan and I believe her account is as accurate as Sue’s work.


Don Pemberton provided a date for the construction of the Lewis Preston Pemberton house.  He sent an e-mail to Verna on 18 November, 2007.  Following is a copy of that e-mail:


Verna, the house place and old barn you refereed to are now a part of the
farm you live on. In 1907 the concrete house was built by Uncle Lewis
Preston Pemberton who owned 160+/- acres around the house. In 1912
that farm was sold to Dad. We called it the ""Other Place"  and always
used it for a hired man during the years I was home. Among the hired
help who lived there (one family at a time) were Alvie Shelton, Oliver
Plemmons, ______Troxel, Ed Williams, Noble Wall, and Ora Wall. While
I was in the Military in the 40s another family lived there and the house
burned down.  It was never rebuilt.



Lewis Preston Pemberton Concrete House

Lewis Preston Pemberton Concrete House


The Lewis Preston Pemberton house picture shows that the same concrete cribbing form technology was used in the John Williams, Jr. house (see picture on page 26 of Sue’s book) and the Popplewell Farm History described by Pat Mazanec,  “Jim Ike personally carried and poured all the concrete into the 12-inch cribbing forms, which were raised each day.”


I will update the Google Maps that shows the location of many concrete homes (all built with the 12-inch cribbing forms) that I have established locations from e-mails with Don, Verna and Nancy.  Following is a current list:


John Williams, Jr.

Frank Pemberton

Wade Pemberton

James Lewis Pemberton

Lewis Preston Pemberton 1907

Johnny Pemberton

Adam Floyd Wall

Henry David Wall

James Isaac Popplewell 1908-1909


Note that the first six are all located within 1 miles from the John Williams, Jr. house.


The Bank of Brumley, built in 1906 by Henry David Wall is built of concrete blocks and is the oldest example of that construction that I know of.  I’m certain that HDW did not make his own cement for the Bank.  He stated that it took 300 bags of cement.  I’m betting that he hauled it in from Bagnell, Tuscumbia, Richland or Crocker.


I believe that any cement or lime produced in Miller County would have been produced by a “heap kiln.”  If a periodic kiln had been built in Miller County, it would have been on a stream that could have provided water power to crush the cement or lime.  I have not seen any Miller County document that describes anything like the kiln at Griggsville Landing in IL.



Early lime production.  Same technology could have been used to make cement.


The heap kiln is simply a stack of alternating layers of wood fuel and limestone blocks stacked on the ground or within a pit. It is an expedient, although not efficient, means of lime production that was often used in conjunction with land clearing operations. The quality of the burn in log heaps was impossible to control, and the resulting products were of variable quality, mostly suitable for fertilizer. In urban centers, such as Alton, this type of lime production was replaced by use of stone- or brick-built kilns as early as 1818.


The next step up from a heap kiln is the periodic kiln, the most efficient type of which is the stone- or brick-walled vertical kiln, such as the Griggsville Landing Lime Kiln. This upright, bottle-shaped kiln has an opening at the base and at the top. The walls are about three feet thick and appear to have been either dry laid or laid with a mud mortar that has since eroded away. This particular kiln has an inside diameter of 13 feet and walls that rise 17 feet above the rubble-covered ground surface.


Detail of Kiln Mouth

Detail of kiln mouth






The secret of Roman success in making cement was traced to the mixing of slaked lime with pozzolana, a volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius. This process produced a cement capable of hardening under water. During the Middle Ages this art was lost and it was not until the scientific spirit of inquiry revived that we rediscovered the secret of hydraulic cement -- cement that will harden under water.


Before portland cement was discovered and for some years after its discovery, large quantities of natural cement were used. Natural cement was produced by burning a naturally occurring mixture of lime and clay. Because the ingredients of natural cement were mixed by nature, its properties varied as widely as the natural resources from which it was made.


In 1880, about 42,000 bbl. of portland cement was produced in the United States; a decade later, the amount had increased to 335,000 bbl. One factor in this tremendous increase was the development of the rotary kiln. In the early days, vertical stationary kilns were used and wastefully allowed to cool after each burning.

In 1885, an English engineer, F. Ransome, patented a slightly tilted horizontal kiln which could be rotated so that material moved gradually from one end to the other. Because this new type of kiln had much greater capacity and burned more thoroughly and uniformly, it rapidly displaced the older type.

Hot end of medium sized modern cement kiln, showing tyres, rollers and drive gear

Modern cement kiln design