By Norris Chambers

        By using today’s prices as a comparison the price of cement was cheap in the old days. In the thirties a sack of cement sold for forty to sixty cents, depending on where you bought it. The sacks were made of heavy cloth and weighed 94 pounds. Some brands switched to paper sacks, but the weight remained the same. Many of the old settlers used cement for varied purposes. I have even seen gravestones in the cemeteries made by hand from a strong mixture of cement and sand. Sometimes the lettering on the face of the monument was a little crude, but it told the necessary facts.

In areas where rock was plentiful it was a common practice to build barns, chicken houses, out-buildings and even dwellings out of rock. Just about every farmer acted as a rock mason from time to time. Some of these structures were pretty crude but served the purpose well. Others were almost works of art and also served a simple purpose. After a few years of use some of these buildings disintegrated and collapsed because the mortar used in constructing them became soft and brittle and did not hold the rocks together. Other structures endured and are most likely still intact unless the area’s progress required that they be removed.

A logical question would be. “Why did the mortar in some structures fail?”  Probably the two most popular answers would be, “Not enough cement was used” or “A poor grade of sand was used in the mortar”.  The second answer was most probably the cause. Just about every farmer-turned-mason knew what color the mortar should be, but some of them didn’t know how to pick sand for the mixture.

Clifton and I were aware of the type of sand used for mortar and the kind to avoid. Most of the occasional concrete work that we did is probably still in existence or has been taken away because it was not needed in the places where we built it. The type of sand that the mason should not use was called blow sand and was usually found in a sandy field or in the bed of a shallow stream. The type suited for concrete or mortar use was known as sharp sand and was normally found in larger creeks or rivers. When Clifton and I had need for concrete work we hauled our sand from the creek.

There were two common methods for determining whether sand was suitable for use in concrete. The first method required the use of a magnifying glass. When suitable concrete sand was examined each grain had rough, jagged edges with sharp points. These irregular shapes allowed the cement to flow between the protrusions, thus locking the grains together and making the mixture almost unbreakable. If the individual grains were smooth and round, or oval, in shape the cement couldn’t interlock properly and the mixture was easily cracked or broken. The smooth sand grains constituted what was known as blow sand. The other method was used by those who considered themselves experts in the field of concrete and sand and was performed by picking up a pinch of sand and rubbing it between the thumb and forefinger. The useable sand had a rough, sharp feel that was easily recognized if the tester knew what he was looking for.

Most communities had an expert or two who did concrete work for those who were able to hire them. Most of the jobs were for barn or garage floors, sidewalks, piers for buildings and an occasional corner post to support a long fence line.

The important thing that old timers should have known about concrete work was the type of sand they used. Many of the old fellows thought sand was just sand and used whatever they found for their concrete masterpieces. It is a sad fact that many of the early attempts to use cement properly failed.

The concrete snow man that Clifton and I built out of rock, reinforcing pump rods and a good grade of concrete was still standing and staring foolishly into the woods when we left the country in 1940. He might still be there mystifying modern youngsters as they ride their trail bikes through the wilderness, or he might have been removed for beautification of the area!

Was playing with sand and cement a lot of fun?  When fun is scarce it might be considered as a low grade of fun! You could take out a loan and get a sack of cement then look for some really sharp sand and build a concrete snow man. That would be fun!