Ed Pany points to heavenly cement workers in
Ed Pany points to heavenly cement workers in "The Atlas Spirit" mural.

Atlas Cement Memorial Museum

Field review by the editors.

Northampton, Pennsylvania

"No place in the United States has preserved cement history like Northampton," said Ed Pany, founder and curator of the Atlas Cement Memorial Museum. At one time the Atlas Cement Company in Northampton had the largest cement plant in the world. Ed, a Northampton teacher, felt that Atlas deserved a museum, and realized that he -- already in his sixties -- would have to create it. Individual Northampton businesses and citizens have supported it since it opened in 1997. According to Ed, it's the only cement museum in the U.S.

Each Atlas bag held 94 pounds of powdered cement.
Each Atlas bag held 94 pounds of powdered cement.

Atlas cement is in the concrete that encloses the Empire State Building and the pavement of America's early superhighways. Over three billion pounds of Atlas cement were used in the construction of the Panama Canal. "Cement helped build America," said Ed. "To me it's real emotional."

Paper, cloth, barrels: Ed explains the chronology of cement packaging.
Paper, cloth, barrels: Ed explains the chronology of cement packaging.

Yet cement remains a tricky subject for museum presentation. "You can't be dramatic with cement," said Ed, who has the public-speaking cadence of someone who's spent years explaining things. Ed pointed to a large mural in the museum, "The Atlas Spirit," painted by another Northampton teacher, Roger Firestone. "He stresses people. Look at the people," said Ed. "Men and women who worked there. The fella in the blue jacket is my father, Anthony Pany." Ed himself worked at Atlas Cement when he was in school -- the company once had over 5,000 on the payroll -- but his dad urged him to pursue an academic career and a college education. "I listened to him," said Ed. "If I hadn't, I would've been out of a job when the plant closed in 1982."

There are over 2,000 artifacts in the Atlas Cement Museum, all diligently collected by Ed. Enlarged quotes from former Atlas workers -- also collected by Ed -- line the walls. "When Atlas paid me, I felt like a millionaire," said John Gulka. "I was raised on Atlas cement dust," said Richard Gemmel. "My father used Atlas cement bags for winter boots," said Jim O'Donnell.

Even the painted people in the mural are pointing at things.
Even the painted people in the mural are pointing at things.

"I have a story for every item in here," said Ed. "These are rare pieces; irreplaceable pieces." On display is possibly the world's largest collection of hundred-year-old cement bags, and even older cement barrels. A life-size plaster horse, also over a hundred years old, is a museum centerpiece, and served as a size-fitting mannequin for the Atlas harness shop (Horses worked at Atlas until 1935). "My name is The Atlas Horse. Look how handsome I am," a voice-of-the-horse says at the press of a button. "200 horses worked in the plant," the voice continues, "moving stones... cinders from the boiler houses... powder to the quarries for blasting cement...." Ed beamed with satisfaction. "It's a beautiful piece."

Handsome Atlas horse served as a model for the company harness-maker.
Handsome Atlas horse served as a model for the company harness-maker.

Among the many vintage photos on display in the museum is one of Elsie Troxell, winner of an "Atlas Baby" contest in the early 1900s. "I later had the good fortune of having her as my kindergarten teacher," said Ed. There's a telegram from George Washington Goethals, chief engineer of the Panama Canal, commending the quality of Atlas Cement, and a can and bottle of Atlas Beer, brewed in Panama and still sold today. "I was thrilled when we received that," said Ed. "We passed around that bottle like a newborn baby; that thing was treated with such care."

It was a sad day when the Atlas plant closed in 1982.
It was a sad day when the Atlas plant closed in 1982.

"People, when they find things they call me," he said. "They say, 'Mr. Pany, we've got this. We want to give this to you because otherwise it will be lost and no one will ever see it again.'"

Elsie Troxell grew up to become Ed's kindergarten teacher.
Elsie Troxell grew up to become Ed's kindergarten teacher.

Mounted on one wall is a collection of military-style medals handed out by executive Elbert Henry Gary. "When you worked at Atlas for many years he gave you a medal," said Ed. "It had your name on the back and his face on the front." There's also an uncashed four-cent check from Atlas that was carried by Louis Dreisbach as he fought overseas in World War II. "I kept this in my wallet," he told Ed. "When I looked at it, I thought of home." There's a typical 1920s lunch kettle, which Ed said held bread and lard -- fuel to power a worker through a twelve-hour shift -- and a model of the Atlas Plant made from its original wood by students from Northampton High School, where the sports teams are still called the Konkrete Kids. Resting on the floor is an Atlas cement version of Ed's head, made by an Atlas manager.

The museum even has a sample of the last cement produced at the Atlas plant, on July 24, 1982. Ed was allowed to enter the empty building and gather it personally.

The site of the former Atlas Cement Company is now occupied by a power plant, but smaller firms still produce millions of tons of cement locally and, according to Ed, "we have the raw material to last forever here." Ed said that his daughter, a librarian, will take the helm of the museum when he finally retires -- but whoever runs the place other than Ed Pany will have big cement-dusted shoes to fill.

Atlas Cement Memorial Museum

1401 Laubach Ave., Northampton, PA
On the southeast corner of Laubach Ave. and Smith Lane, in a building that adjoins the Northampton Borough municipal hall.
May-Sep. 1-3 on 2nd and 4th Su every month, or by appt. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
Scrap Metal Ice Cream Cone, Shoemakersville, PA - 28 mi.

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