Sam Proler, Proler Steel Corp., Houston, Texas. Interviewed March 1998. Courtesy of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Transcription by Speechpad.
Sam: Well, I got out of school in 1929 at the age of about 12 and a half years old. And Mr. Earlywine, who was our turn officer, came after me, and my dad told him at the time that he needed me more to help him in the scrap business than I needed schooling. And that’s when I started.
Interviewer: That was at 12 and a half, so roughly seventh, eighth grade?
Sam: About middle of 1929. I was born February 1st in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by the way. I’m an Aquarian, and you know what they are.
Interviewer: That’s [inaudible 00:01:47] country.
Sam: And that’s also inventive country.
Interviewer: So at 12 and a half, you went into the business full-time?
Sam: Yes. That’s when I quit school, went into business full-time. Prior to that, I used to work on Saturdays [inaudible 00:01:59] cleaning copper out of the generators, and anything else that sell for a penny or pound to make some money to [inaudible 00:02:07] to go to the theater, which would [inaudible 00:02:13] and that would take me to the show, and buy peanuts, and a trolley which would cost a nickel.
And prior to that, I used to work for my dad when I was…think I was about six, seven years old. He had a horse and wagon originally and he was peddling for a living. And he would sell produce on the way out and bring back rags and bottles, and whatever he could buy and sell to make a living out of.
Interviewer: So that’s how the scrap [inaudible 00:02:41]?
Sam: That’s how we actually got into it. And he would bring the material back and put it in the backyard, and I would help him sort it, and then we would sell it. And he finally opened a little company called City Junk and Supply Company. That’s the name that he chose. And that’s how business actually got started.
Interviewer: So at 12 and a half, you were working full-time in the scrap business?
Sam: That’s exactly right. Yeah.
Interviewer: And, how did your interest in mechanization come?
Sam: Well, you gotta remember back in…about that time in 1930, there wasn’t much industry in using…and it goes back quite a few years. And most of the scrap was obsolete. There were few small manufacturing plants, but I remember, after we got out of the bottle business, and the rag business, and the bone business, we stayed in the ferrous and nonferrous scrap business. And we bought an old house, and we had the junkyard downstairs, so we lived upstairs, and we had some room in the back.
And as the business expanded a little bit, we bought a lot of [inaudible 00:03:50] next door and tore down some shacks. And, finally, one day, found a hydraulic pump that came from a dairy, and I converted it into a baler, which is the first baler that I’d ever built. And it was about the size of a coffin, and had a hinge door that you open from the side. And it was sort of tapered. And it had wings on the side of the head of the ramp so as you close it, the wings would close the bales tight to each side, as well as pushing it forward.
And then when it made the bale, it made the bale about 12 inches high, and about 12 inches wide, and about…depending on the scrap, about 12, 14 inches long. And the way that I got the bale out of the thing after I opened the door, it had a screw jack [inaudible 00:04:44] on top of the wing nut that I opened up and flipped it over. And I had a foot break where you kicked down, and there was a shaft that kicked the bale out and it fell on the ground. And then we started getting a little bit more scrap. And as we got more scrap, we always had to move the light scrap, it wasn’t a lot.
There was a CAM plant next door to us, and we used to get the tin plate and scrap them in, that we would bale. But moving the scrap around, even though labor was cheap, got to be a problem. So I put the…I bought an old junk fire truck, and tore everything off. I put the baler on the back of the truck, and then we would back the baler into the pile of scrap. Now we wouldn’t have to move the scrap to the baler.
Interviewer: Had you seen a baler before or you developed this idea yourself?
Sam: No. I think I’d seen a baler before. I don’t remember where at that time. There may have been one in Houston, but I don’t remember if there was. I may have seen one out of town somewhere, but I remember when I built that one, that was the first one. And then our business expanded, and as the business expanded, we got into handling some industrial accounts. And that was actually the first piece of equipment I ever built.
But I do want to mention one thing to you, which I think is very interesting, and that is the equipment that I built, at the time I built crane runways, shears, shredding machines, conveyors, everything was built from scrap. Didn’t buy anything. Second-hand motors, second-hand gearboxes, beams that used to be used by the railroad, I bought from the Southern Pacific, that were bridge beams, old beams that I bought that came out of buildings in Houston, that were 5, 6-feet high and 70, 80-feet long, and built gantry cranes out of. Used the pipe to build the uprights, but never bought any new equipment. We used to build all our own cranes and all the equipment came from our scrap.
Interviewer: So the engineering, you did yourself?
Interviewer: With limited training in engineering, you just made it work?
Sam: I think I accumulated some ideas that came along. I saw some cranes and saw some other things that gave me an idea that expand on, but it’s things that, when I look back at it now, because I’ve built quite a few plants in my lifetime. For 20 years, I’ve built 20 some odd plants, I’d negotiated contracts for, which had to do with polarizers, precipitation iron plants, and so forth, all over the United States and one in London.
But for some reason or other, after I had built that little baler, in the early stage in my life, then the next baler that I bought was one in, I think, 1939 from Harris Foundry & Machine in Cordele, Georgia. And that baler was a small baler, also, but it had a gather and a tamper on top, which would take bulky material and squeeze it together, and the tamper would come down and push it down. Then they would fly back, or hydraulic moved back, then the door would close. He would still make a bale the same size you would without the added tamper. It’s just that you’d get more fluffy material in.
And then we took that one from around 1939 to ’40. We took it to the Ship Channel where we moved our scrap operation because we had run out of room on Odin Avenue where we had the original plant. And that’s how we got into the Harris baler, which was a larger baler I bought. That was the new piece of equipment, by the way, and it surprised me.
Interviewer: The story that you told us about the Ford baler…
Sam: Yeah. It’s an interesting story. I got a circular in the mail from Ford Motor Company that said they had a thousand-ton auto press for sale, gave a lot of figures, and so forth. And I didn’t pay much attention to it. Then about a week or two later, I decided, “I better call and find out what this is all about.” And at the same time, I had purchased the largest baler from Galland Henning in Milwaukee, and we had delivery coming to that because at that time we were moving our plant. This goes back to around 1944, ’45.
And we had these baler orders from Galland Henning to move to the Clinton Drive because of strikes, I’ll tell you later about, at the Ship town. We had to move out and get our own operations. So we bought 10 acres on Clinton Drive, and that’s where we were going to put this baler. And I called Ford. I talked to a Mr. Schramm, who signed the letter [inaudible 00:09:51] Schramm with Ford Motor Company, and his assistant was a fella named Carlos Purdue. And so he said, “Well, it’s a big bale if it baled cars with it.” I said, “You bale cars? I thought you use it for pressing auto bodies.” He says, “No.” He said, “We bale cars.” So I said, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
So I got a plane that afternoon, got [inaudible 00:10:12] that night, and the next morning it was freezing. It must’ve been zero, and the wind was blowing, like, terrible. And there I fly up there without even an overcoat. And so, anyway, I went up to Ford Motor Company at their Rouge plant. That’s the plant where, at that time, they had 20 open hearth furnaces in those days. And Mr. Schramm takes me out to the bottom of the open heart furnace. He shows me this large baler, and said, “We’ve got to get it out of here. It don’t work. We can’t get it working.”
And he said, “We put it in here in the late ’30s,” and Logemann built it, by the way, and never offered it to the scrap industry. Had Logemann’s name on it. Anyway, so I said, “What do you want for it?” He said, “Well, what do you pay for it?” He says, “By the ways, I want to let you know I sent out 1,300 circulars all over the United States this year. You’re the only one that called me.”
Sam: So, said, “Well, what are you give me for it?” I said, “Well, I’ll give you $25,000 for it.” He said, “That’s not a lot of money,” you know, that’s a lot…says, “Well, that’s the price.” So he said, “Well, let me talk to Mr. Purdue.” They talked a while. He said, “Okay, you bought it.” So, to make sure I bought it, I gave him a personal check that wasn’t any good at the time to make sure I bought it, and I got a receipt for it right there.
And they tried to buy it back from me, by the way, a few months later. Somebody came…I forgot the gentleman’s name from Fontana, from Kaiser Steel plant, and he wanted to take this baler out in the yard and bale clips with it. And I told him that, “No, no. You can’t bale clips with my baler.” I said [inaudible 00:11:54] how to use this.
So, anyway, we had somebody dismantle the thing, and we brought it to use. By the way, the baler made bale 6-foot 2-inches long, 33-inches wide, and the variable height, and didn’t have a hopper on. We put a hopper out where we could have a dump truck, we have a dump truck run out with a truck load of sheets, or cans, or any kind of material, as well as the crane feeding it, dump it in the hopper. The door would open, it would push the whole truck load of scrap in, door would come down, the baler would come out the side.
Interviewer: How long did you operate that in…?
Sam: We operated that until we got the polarizer running on Wallisville Road from 1946 to about 1956, about 10 years. And it came with two sets of hydraulic pumps, two motors, two sets of everything in case something went wrong with it [inaudible 00:12:50].
By the way, while I was at Ford, when I bought the baler, Mr. Perdue took me out in their plant and showed me an old slag breaker. It was a shear and a slag breaker for breaking up a open hearth slag that came out of the operations. And after he showed that to me, he said, “This may be coming up for sale in a year or two. We’re gonna get rid of it. Do you wanna buy it?” I said, “Well, when you have it right for sale, let me know,” and I’ll tell you about that later.
But, anyway, I did end up buying it for, I think, $7,000 or $10,000. I bought it about two years later in 1947. And at that time, I didn’t have enough scrap, and used to even think of shearing on that monster. So rather than bring it to use, I made a deal with the M.S. Kaplan, my partners. They had to put it in their East Chicago, Indiana yard where they were cutting up railroad cars for storage. And at the time, they didn’t want to put it in either, so it sat there ’till 1951, and I’ll tell you the story about that as we go on.
Interviewer: So this big baler was working and…?
Sam: Oh, the big baler was working, and I named the bales after my dad. We called ’em “Big Ben” bundles, or sometime when we made clip bundles, we would put seven bundles in the car, and that was a car load. And I remember the first time we started shipping the bundles to [inaudible 00:14:20] we started shipping the bundles to Armco, which was Sheffield at the time, Sheffield Steel in Houston, Mr. Street [SP] called me on the phone and says, “Sam,” he said, “we can’t get these bales in our…”
At that time, they had open hearth furnaces before they put in electrics. He said, “We can’t get these damn bales in the open hearth furnace.” I said, “What’s trouble?” He said, “Well,” he said, “we got ’em in the buckets,” that they load scrap into…dump into the…and he says, “It’s so high we can’t get ’em through the door.” I said, “That’s no problem.”
So I jumped in the car and drove out there, and he says, “Where are your bone yards?” They took me to what they called the bone yards where they kept all their old material that was broken up, and so forth. So I said, “Cut the sides, three sides off and make a peel, and lay ’em on the peel,” because they can only put one bale in the charging box. The bale was so large. So, after that they took all their old charging buckets that were broken and made peels out of, and they would take as much as three, four, five, six, seven tons in one bale and just dump it in there. That’s how they started charging the bales in the open hearth.
Interviewer: Those bales weighed how much?
Sam: They weighed as much as…we loaded those where you take black clip bale, weigh as much as six, seven tons. They were just like a billet, thousand-ton pressure on soft new black lips. But the average ones, the automobiles, weigh about some 3,000 to 5,000 pounds. Sometimes if you used an automobile, and in all sorts of miscellaneous scrap, you wouldn’t always have to use just an automobile. Then we were baling…at the same time, we were also baling number 2 steel and other types of grades.
Interviewer: So this was being fed [SP] almost exclusively to open hearths?
Sam: Yes. The only time that I knew that they would be going to electric furnace is when they would be shipped up North. We shipped some black clip bundles Northwestern steel and wire to Mr. Dylan up in Northwestern.
Interviewer: Which leads us then to the shredder?
Sam: Leads you to the shear.
Interviewer: To the shear. Let’s hear it.
Sam: Okay. I bought the shear in 1947, and I told you they shipped to the Kaplan’s yard, and it stayed there for a while. And we were selling scrap at that time to Leonard Krieger, which…and I knew Leonard, and Bob, and Alan Amper. They owned Southwest at the time that we were dealing with them, and we didn’t know Luria Brothers owned Southwest Steel. We got to find out later, and I’ll tell you how. But what happened is I talked to Leonard Krieger and he said…I tell him about the shear, and said, “Yeah. We’d be interested to cut up railroad cars and scrap.”
So I said, “Okay. I have the shear.” And I said, “You pay for remodeling it and putting a hopper and everything on, getting it to working conditioning, and we’ll be partners.” Said, “This is my shear.” So I sent the shear to Coraopolis Foundry & Machine in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. I had it reworked there, and we set the shear up. I think it was…I don’t know if it was Glassport or…I have to…don’t remember where. But, anyway, we set it up in… I think it was Glassport. Yes. I [inaudible] Glassport if I remember.
Anyway, right on the side of the river. And we got the thing running. I put a hopper on it. And it was interesting. We had this thing set up with the…what do you call the…I’m confused a moment here. Gotta give me [inaudible]. We had the hopper set up so that every time the shear blade went up…and, by the way, it had what we call a nose on the front of the shear blade, which is a big steel casting. And as the blade would come down, it would press the scrap just like it was laminating it, and then the shear would cut it off. And you put piper [SP] beams in it, they would come out flattened and sheared.
And we had a name, I forgot the name that we used to call the scrap. I mean, the shear scrap, it had…everything that we did had a name to it. In fact, we had…tell you later, we built a 25,000-bolt carrier that was named after my mother, “The Rose,” for hauling scrap to Japan. But then when we got the shear running and everything was working, I asked Leonard for an accounting, you know, start keeping a record of everything. And then after a few months, Leonard tells me, he says, “Well, we’ve got a problem.” I said, you know, “What’s the problem?” He said, “Well, [inaudible 00:19:07] doesn’t wanna be a partners with you on the shear.” And at that time, I’m pretty sure it was Ralph, not…
Interviewer: Not Carl.
Sam: Not Carl. Yeah. In fact, I know it was Ralph. So I say, “What do you mean? What’s he got to do with this?” He says, “Well, he own this.”
Sam: So I said, “Well, you know, we had an agreement.” And at those times, just like with Hugo and all my other partners, we had a handshake. We go ahead and build a plant before the lawyers ever do an agreement of. So I said, “Well, Leonard, you know, what do you want to do about it?” He said, “Well, tell me what you want,” you know.
And at that time, I said, “Well…” We negotiated out finally where I ended up for the shear, I got, I think it was $60,000 and a 60-foot secondhand overhead crane, which, was, by the way, the first…the big baler was the first baler in the world for baling a whole automobile, just put in a scrap yard. No vendor had offered anybody in the scrap business a baler that size. They were all small balers.
And no one in the shear business in those days…let me say this, when I got into the scrap business, all I had was breaking balls, magnets, alligator shears…different-size alligator shears, screens for screening borings and turnings to sift out the small borings. They had wheelbarrows, chisels. We would break cast iron in the wintertime because you don’t break in the summertime. There was really not much mechanized equipment. Most of the cutting was done always with torches and lances. That’s how most of the scrap was handled.
And they had pushcarts and wheelbarrows, and different kinds of really dilapidated equipment. In those days it was the best they had, but that’s what they had for moving scrap around, old cranes. And you were lucky if you had a magnet or a grapple because that used to cost a lot of money.
Interviewer: So it was human beings who were doing the work?
Sam: Right. It was all labor, and the labor was very cheap. Don’t forget, in Houston, there wasn’t a lot of volume in the early days of scrap. It wasn’t like in Detroit where they made cars and where they manufactured, you know, material up North, and so forth. Talking about manufacturing cars there…I have a good thing that just passed my mind. We all know that Henry Ford was the inventor of the mass production of automobiles. Well, I want you to know right now that Sam Proler was the inventor of the mass destruction of automobiles.
Interviewer: Oh, it sounds like it.
Sam: I’m telling you.
Interviewer: You’re the change.
Sam: I think that’s a pretty good thing.
Interviewer: You were at the heart of the change of the mechanization of this business.
Sam: I would say so, yeah, at the time, because at the time… Another thing is that, looking back now, I didn’t start out with a 100-ton baling press, a 200-ton. This happened to be 1,000-ton. If it had been 2,000 or 5,000, I would’ve liked it better, but that’s as big as it was. And a hydraulic shear, by the way, wasn’t a hydraulic shear when I bought it. It was a steam slag breaker. It was the fella that operated it, just like you operate a steam hammer, the upper part would go up and down, and then when he finally hold it there, the steam activated it.
They would break the slag, and then if it didn’t break it to small pieces, they would cut it. And I threw the steam part off of it, and I took a set of hydraulic pumps off the baler that we hadn’t used, and sent it up the… put on a hydraulic shear. We made a 1,000-ton hydraulic shear out of it. And that was the first hydraulic shear in the world that was ever built for cutting scrap. There wasn’t anything else at that time. There was only alligator shears. And I know I had some of ’em.
Interviewer: You mentioned something about a strike.
Sam: Yeah. What happened is in 1939 or ’40, we moved the yard because we started getting into the industrial account business. That was about the war, and a lot of turnings being produced, and shells, and so forth. And what happens, we need a lot of room, and I least about 15 acres of ground at the Port terminal, which is right there on the Ship Channel. And I have no locomotive cranes, steam locomotive crane, and we moved the baler that I bought from Harris, a [inaudible 00:23:36] Walter Little [SP] from Harris Foundry & Machine came down and helped me get it moved over to the dock and set up.
And we operated that. We handled a lot of an industrial scrap. We started building our own containers, our own trailers for hauling scrap. And during the war, it was really the thing that drove me nuts more than anything else, and we couldn’t get gasoline, we couldn’t get tires, we couldn’t get two…we couldn’t get parts for trucks, and everybody in the industry, they’re screaming, “Get the scrap out, get the scrap out.”
And here we are schlepping with a bunch of junk, couldn’t buy anything new. And when the war was over, I was glad it was over for one reason, is we didn’t have to operate with junk anymore as far as, you know, hauling equipment. After the war, too, when we moved the…well, we were there for…let’s say from 1939 to ’40 ’till 1945, in ’45 we moved to Clinton Drive, 10-acre location. That’s where we put the baler.
And the baler that I had bought from Galland Henning, I gave to Ike Bierman [SP] in St. Louis who wanted a baler, and I gave him my delivery date, so he had that baler coming in. And we put the Ford baler in. And then at yard, also, we took…I had beams that came from the YMCA in Houston. We built a gantry crane. It was 155-foot span. We built the trolley and the hoist, that hoist that goes back and forth 155 foot. We put our own concrete runways and poured everything, our sub-used [SP] sucker rods, with steel reinforcing.
We had an 80-foot span with about 35-foot overhang on each side. What held it up was ship booms which came off old Liberty ships that we had constructed. Everything was built out of scrap. The gearboxes, when we got [inaudible] the scrap to run it back and forth. This runway was 800-feet long, and it came down as far as the baler. So if we had to, we would feed the baler with it, too, but most of the time it was just for unloading cars and trucks, and so forth.
Interviewer: What did your associates in industry think of all of these changes as you introduced them?
Sam: Well, as far as the industry is concerned, after the war, I went to Germany. Lindemann asked me if I wanted to come there and work with them on doing some work on balers and shears. At the time, we hadn’t done anything on a shredder. And I made the trip over there, and then decided not to do anything for personal reasons. And I didn’t have a very good time there.
And so I came back and Mr. van Endert, who was the chief engineer of Lindemann, asked me, could he come look at our baler and shear? And I said, “Yes, you can.” He came there, and I let him copy the thing. Mr. Little at…in fact, I knew Russ Harris real well. I told Russ and Little the same thing. It was nothing secretive about the baler. If they wanted to come copy it, they could. And they did. They fabricated it rather than build it out of stables the way that the shears and balers…
Interviewer: What about the local competition in Houston? What local [inaudible 00:27:01]?
Sam: Wow. To be honest, we didn’t have much local competition because they never got to where we were. And we had most of the industrial accounts in the city, as you used to call industrial accounts, and handle brokerage. And I had industrial accounts that we handled. We had used to [inaudible] a bit.
There was a lot of oil, too, and during the war, a lot of manufacturing, and we had a lot of industrial accounts. And the name Proler was pretty significant in the Houston area, and when anybody came into town, we would set up a system in their plant to handle their scraps to where…in fact, I went into [inaudible 00:27:44] plant one time and scrapped their whole handling of scrap inside, and had conveyors come out to take the scrap from underneath the lays and bring it into our trailers.
And they would drop the scrap in our trailers, which are the size of gondola cars. And we would then haul a…you’ve got all of these trailers, the plant, and set another trailer in its place. And we would eliminate all of the handling of scrap in their plant.
It’s an interesting sidebar, let me tell you about the trailers. We needed trailers to haul shavings, which was pretty early. And so we used to build our own trailers with the new steel plates finally because these couldn’t leak, so we had to develop out a new plate. And the thing about it, we started putting tires on it, we’re blowing tires out right and left.
So, one day I had the idea of taking airplane tires, and I got some B-29 bomber tires. They’re 20 and 24 ply. They were about 18-inches wide. And I had this drill collars machine out, the bearing set in, and the brake drum is about 18 inches on those wheels. And they have an inner tube inside of them that they use in the planes hydraulically, that all go into the inner tube and stop the plane when it runs. Well, I didn’t know that, so I hooked ’em up to air. And we were pulling 30, 40, or 50-ton gondolas, and scrapping, and the driver would operate the little handle under the steering wheel to stop the trailer, and the trailer would stop the truck. We weren’t using the brakes on the trailer to stop the trucks.
So, one day I got a call from the Air Force, and they said they wanted to come out and talk to me about bomber tires that I was using. And so I said, “Fine. Come out.” So they came out to the plant, and they said they’d like to see those B-29 bomber tires that we were using on the trailers. And I showed them about 20 or 30 trailers with these bomber tires on them. So they looked at ’em, and everybody was looking at the trailers and how they were hooked up, and all, and said, “Whatever gave you the idea of using air instead of oil for brakes?” I said, “I thought tubes were supposed to put air and not oil. I didn’t know that.”
Interviewer: [Inaudible 00:30:22] We’re ready to begin?
Sam: Let me know when you’re ready.
Interviewer: I’m fine. You finish up whatever story you were talking about and we’ll take [inaudible 00:30:39].
Sam: Okay. Well, this is a different story than I was talking about, but I remember also when I was about 17 years old, I drove down to Galveston in a pickup truck to buy some scrap. And I went into a machine shop, they call it McDonough Iron Works, and I asked McDonough, I asked him if he had any scrap to sell, and he said, well, he didn’t have any.
The shop across the water [inaudible 00:31:04] on Pelican Island, they had a ferry to take you over to Pelican Island, and Todd Shipyards had a dry dock there, and a ship repair shop. So he said, “Come on, I’ll take you over. I got some scrap there on the island where I’ve been wrecking some ships.” So we drove over there, and got out and walked around, and it looked to me like about a barge load of scrap. Looked like about 250, 300-ton.
So I know we always used to buy scrap, like that lump sum. And so we negotiate the price, and I bought it from him, and I paid him for it. And I told him I was gonna order a barge and ship it across the water to Texas City. And at that time, David J. Joseph Company had a yard in Texas City, and the fella that ran the office at the time and was handling the scrap was Charlie Jacobson.
So I told Charlie I had a barge load of scrap I was gonna ship over there, and I ordered a barge to be delivered to where the scrap was on Pelican Island. And they called me about 10 days later and said, “Well, we’ve got the barge at Pelican Island. Now you can come on over and load the scrap.”
So I went over in my pickup truck, and the truck with gin poles on it that they used to load scrap in buckets, and load…yeah, with high gin poles, and loading the barge. Went over with the crew, and went across the ferry and got to the island, and I couldn’t find the scrap. The barge was there, but the scrap was all gone. And I was frightened to death. That’s the first big deal I’ve made in my life to buy, you know, this much scrap, and paid for it, and here it’s all disappeared.
So I got back in the pickup and went over to see McDonough Iron Works. And he said…probably says, “Scrap is there.” I said, “Well, I just left there. It’s gone. There’s not a piece of scrap left.” He said, “Oh, that’s strange. You know, let’s go see.” So I got in the car with him and we drove back, and drove up to the barge, and the people were all…crew was all [inaudible 00:32:54] and waiting to load the scrap.
And he said to me, “Oh,” he said, “scrap’s there.” I said, “Well, where is it?” He says, “You bought it at low tide. It’s high tide now.” So we had to wait ’till the tide went down to start loading scrap on the barge. For a while, I thought I was really in trouble.
Interviewer: That’s great. Well, one of the best stories I think that you can tell us is your part of the development of the shredder. And that’s one of your great claims to fame in this industry. So, please tell us about how that all came about from the very beginning.
Sam: Well, the way the Prolerizer…and I call it Prolerizer shredder because we produced a product, patented the process called “Prolerize.” And I had a company, by the way, for hauling railroad cars. I called it Proleride Transport System, so let’s you know we’re pretty proud of Proler. And what happened is that I was in Salt Lake City at Kennecott Copper Company visiting one of our people. We saw precipitation iron to [SP]…that was back in about 1954, ’55.
And I was flying to Omaha, Nebraska that night. We had a CAM plant where we were recovering CAM cans with incinerator residue in Omaha, Nebraska. And at that time, we must have had 25,000 or 30,000 tons of “Big Ben” bundles in our yard, all over the yard, and we couldn’t move ’em because the bales at that time, all number 2 bales were naturally contaminated. And the mills weren’t buying. They were getting more into electric furnaces about that time, and they couldn’t use a lot of the bales of contaminated scrap.
So, while I was flying from Salt Lake to Omaha, I was thinking and thinking, “How can we break these bundles open and decontaminate ’em, so to speak, and all the rubber and, you know, everything that was in and out of it, and make clean scrap?” And after about four screwdrivers, it got very easy. I mean, it was very simple. All I had to do, I say, just shred the cars instead of baling them. And that immediately sparked. Man, I got some pencil and paper, and started making notes and what this plant would look like, and about what horsepower it would need, and what it would do.
And by the time the plane landed in Omaha, I had already drawn an idea of how long the conveyors should be, and just about everything about it, in detail, but not exact way. And the idea was not to shred the bales, but to shred the cars. And so, when I got back, I told my brothers about it, and for a while they thought I was nuts. And we talked about it some more, and I said, “Look, we have to do this. This is the thing we need to do.”
So, nobody…at the time, all they made was shredders, the American Pulverizer, Jeffrey, and Allis-Chalmers, and it was about this Pennsylvania Engineering. Those are the four that I contacted. And they made shredders for rock, they made shredders for crushed turnings, they made shredders for tin cans. They made shredders for different things, but nobody made shredders for shredding automobiles.
So, we had an American Pulverizer at the time, that we used for shredding cans. We had one also for shredding turnings. There was our yard at Clinton Drive. So I visited American Pulverizer in St. Louis, and I sat down with them and said, “I need you to build me a shredder that will shred whole automobiles.” And they thought I was nuts. And they kept telling me all the reasons why it wouldn’t work. Then I went to Jeffrey, told ’em the same thing. They kept telling me all the reasons why it wouldn’t work.
Then I went to Allis-Chalmers in Pennsylvania, and they kept telling me, you know, “What’s gonna happen is you’re gonna grind up the hammers, you’re gonna grind up the grades, you’re gonna grind up the lines, you’re gonna grind it up.” And they said, “It’s just gonna wear it out.” And I kept saying, “You know, I don’t understand this. When they built electric furnaces, which cost a lot more money to build and maintain than an open hearth, the electrodes break, electricity cost money, refractory cost money, and they keep building these electric furnaces. And I don’t understand that.” You know, that’s the way of the future evidently.
So, after they couldn’t convince me that it wouldn’t work, I came back and decided to do it on my own. And I got a local machine shop, Long Reach Manufacturing Company, which was a division of Anderson Clayton Company in Houston, they had a large machine shop, and gave them the drawings and the design to build a first shredder. And I bought two 2,500-horsepower motors, one for a spare if one of them is gonna go in a hurry, and readied Pennsylvania for some used dealer there.
The first Prolerizer, other than a couple of conveyors underneath that were built new, everything was built from scrap. The shaft of the Prolerizer, built from an old Liberty ship. The outside shell was built out of a secondhand plate that I had bought at Oak Ridge, Tennessee for the Atomic Energy Commission. The castings, we had made patents made for.
The conveyor, 350-foot-long conveyor feeding the cars into the Prolerizer was made from scrap. The compactor that compacted the individual pieces to make ’em more dense was made from scrap. And then the 20-foot high corrugated-iron wall around the whole place was made from scrap, corrugated to keep the predators out. And that’s basically how we built the first one.
And we went out one Sunday morning with our electrician. We weren’t gonna actually start it for a while, and we went out with our electrician and told him we’re gonna run a car through. And I remember it was an old Buick, and everybody, my brothers and I all [inaudible 00:39:27] the change for good luck, and threw it on a conveyor.
And the Buick went over, and went in, and the scrap was flying in the air about a hundred feet high, and the dust came all out of it, and the motor kicked off. The relays kicked out, and the motor shut off, and all my… Gosh, everything went wild, and everybody ran…we all ran around underneath the shredder, look on the conveyor, and it was most beautiful pile of shredded scrap you have ever seen in your life, rear-end, motor part, everything.
And then we adjusted the taps and all, and got the thing fixed up to where it would work continuously without shutting down. And we eventually got rid of the motors. Well, I’ll tell you that story later, which is a very interesting story.
Interviewer: You mentioned the fence to keep out the predators. Who are you talking about?
Sam: Well, competitors. You know, after all, the baler was not anything…while it was significant, it wasn’t anything proprietary. The shear, while it was also significant, you know, everybody can make a shear. But when you talk about a facility like this, the shear wasn’t a [inaudible 00:40:37]. This was a process. This thing was 500-feet long, and it did a lot of different things. It magnetically separated. In other words, it changed the way scrap was produced.
It made a new type of scrap that’s never been on the market before, and it made it at such a volume that it changed the whole technology of steel making in a way because I remember Jim Street, first he gauged [SP] it for Sheffield when they first started using it, he called scrap a melter’s dream. They used to bed down with it, not break the refractory, fill in the voids, among the other scrap they bought, and the electric furnace people loved it. The Foundry people loved it. So, you know, we knew we had a good product.
Interviewer: Who else was interested in this? Or were other people also on the same track developing this kind of equipment at all at the time, or how did they catch wind of what you were doing?
Sam: Well, in the scrap business, there’s no secrets. You have to hide, you know, whatever you don’t want ’em to see. We had helicopters, little planes flying over our yard, and I’m not joking, people looking down to see what’s happening. And the story that I kept saying is, “Well, we’ll make it with atomic energy.” And I wasn’t telling a lie because the steel plates that house the thing came from over at Tennessee at the time of [inaudible] plant.
But that was the first one that we had built. And we had a crane runway over the top of it that was about 1,000-feet long, 90-feet wide, everything built of scrap. The cranes were built out of scrap, the 14-inch diameter pipe, half-inch wall was scrap pipe. Everything that we built in that plant in the use of that basic, was built out of scrap that we had found. And you’ve got to remember now, there was not one vendor that was making big balers to bale automobiles, guillotine shears to shear scrap, or shredders to shred automobiles before we did it.
Interviewer: That brings up a point. You never did commercialize your shredder and become a manufacturer of it. Talk a little bit about why you decided not to go into that.
Sam: Well, I could tell you a lot of things that we should have done that we didn’t go into, and I probably will before this is over. But we did build a lot of equipment, but we build it for ourselves. We built nine shredding plants, Prolerizer plants, we built 10 precipitation iron plants, among many other things that we built. That’s the periphery of type of equipment that goes along with this.
But we never were in the…we thought a number of times about even buying a foundry to start making our own castings. It’s very difficult sometimes to run a business where you have a large family, and we had a large family in the business, and the family business is real difficult to run when you’re a large company and you depend on a lot of the people, not easy.
Interviewer: You decided you wanted to stay in the processing side more than, you know…?
Sam: Basically, that was our forte, was the ability to buy and sell scrap, to process it. I remember from the time I started in the scrap business even, most of the scrap dealers were traders. They never were processors. They would buy and sort scrap out by hand, and then they had a magnet, and they would take it from an industrial account. But the money that was made basically in the industry had to do with buying and selling. They were [inaudible] traders. That’s all they were, peddlers. Even when they first started, that’s all they did, is bought and sold. There weren’t any processing.
Until I developed this, you might say the three new technologies that had to do with taking scrap on a [inaudible 00:44:35] grand scale, and changing the quality of it, and making a product that the industry…again, it was getting away from open hearths into electric furnaces and induction furnaces, and so forth, where they needed high-grade scrap. And it seemed to fit in as the times went on. And I always had a…I’d been feeling that if I made higher quality and better type of scrap that I should be compensated for it. And I was. The scrap that we made, basically, always brought a premium.
Interviewer: What happened in the industry after you developed the Prolerizer? How fast did that type of processing catch on, that type of material?
Sam: Well, you have right now, I think there’s about 200 shredders in the United States, and I started the first one 35 or 40 some odd years ago. So that takes…I would say it took a long time. Originally, they started building a few shredders. After all, don’t forget the industry had never built big shredders. They didn’t know where to start. So they were trying to get some idea about what we were doing and maybe find out, you know, what they should do. And I can tell you now some of the shredder manufacturers didn’t know what to do, and some of the people who manufacture motors didn’t even know what kind of motors they want.
I’ll tell you good story. After we had our motors, 2,500-horsepower motor running our Houston plant, I bought about 35 or 40 destroyer escort motors, new ones from United States government. Some were in Seattle and some were a couple other places. They weighed about 70,000 to 80,000 pounds, brand-new, surplus. And these motors were 6,000-horsepower, at 257 RPM, and I bought ’em from scrap. And we brought them into Houston and stored them there, and we wanted to change the motors over on the Proler. We wanted to change the motors that were on the Prolizer to a higher horsepower.
And so, one day I called who had manufactured these motors, the vice president of General Electric, connected in New York. Got the name off the main plate on the motors. And I told him that I bought these motors from the government, and I wanted to get their winding diagram on because they were only 257 RPM, and we wanted to get them up to 450 RPM, to get the 500-plus-mile hammer tip flying. And so, after about five minutes, he explained to me. He said, “Mr. Proler, we can’t give you that information.” He said, “We sold those to the United States government. You’re gonna have to get that information from the United States government.” “It’s okay.”
So we got a hold of fella named Herschel [inaudible 00:47:41] Electricity, was a friend of ours, and he charged us $10,000 for taking one of these motors loose [SP], and check the windings, and then finally rewound it to give us the 450 RPM. And we changed it over to the Houston plant. We changed the motor over. And then when we built the plant in Kansas City, we started out with these motors in all our plants because we had so many of them, but about five, six years later, some seven years later, after some shredders started to be built, and people wanted to buy shredder motors, then somehow they got the idea that we were using these destroyer escort motors.
And so I got a call one day from the same gentleman, from vice president of General Electric, and he said, “Proler,” he said, “we understand you took one of our destroyer escort motors and changed the windings on it to 450 RPM.” I said, “That’s right.” So he said, “Well, could you tell us how you did that?” I said, “No. I can’t do that.” I said, “You got to go to the United States government. That’s who we bought the motors from.” And I’m gonna tell you something. I had myself a day.
Interviewer: Sure. Have you kept up with shredder technology, and how do they differ now versus how it was when…?
Sam: Well, originally, we built the shredder where you could drop the whole car in one right after the other, and shred the car up. That was the way that I wanted it done. I didn’t want to play piecemeal. Then the other shredder manufacturers and some other people started building shredders that would hold the car back either with a cable, or with a chain, or something, and build shredders that would nibble piece of the car off in small pieces.
And now they build shredders that are even larger than the ones that I had built, but they took 30, 40 years to do it. In other words, they didn’t have the guts at the beginning to get out there with it. So they played with it, and over a period of 40 years, they finally got a shredder that’s [inaudible 00:49:49] a lot larger than ours, probably has 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 horsepower.
And, well, first of all, it takes guts. It takes some belief in what you’re doing is right, and you have a gut failing. And I don’t have any engineering background, but whatever I’ve done, I felt like it was the right thing to do, I was gonna do it. And before I made the decision, I would try and find out what was wrong with it, because knowing what’s wrong with it is more important than knowing what’s right with it before you make it. So I’ve had some very good luck.
Interviewer: So you had no engineering background, and yet you still create these very detailed machines? It’s pretty impressive.
Sam: I don’t know about that.
Interviewer: Can you tell me where that [inaudible 00:50:38]?
Female Speaker: [Inaudible 00:50:40] so it’s getting [inaudible].
Interviewer: Okay, that’s fine. I just want to make sure we don’t run out of tape and not [inaudible 00:50:48] know since I’m not [inaudible].
Interviewer: Sam, is there any other related equipment story you want to tell us beyond the shredder story, or we can go into other topics?
Sam: Well, no. Other than the fact that, you know, we built 9 shredding plants, 8 in the United States and 1 in London, and we built 10 precipitation iron plants for [inaudible 00:51:11] non-recovery. Oh, yeah. We built the first, also…when we built the plant…yeah, I’d like to mention this.
When we built the first plant in Houston, and the second plant in Kansas City for Armco, by the way, who wanted 100% of the production of the plant contracted for, they didn’t want anybody else to have any of it, the third plant, we made a negotiation with Hugo Neu, who is our partner in Los Angeles, it’s a Terminal Island plant. And Hugo came to Houston, and saw what we were doing, and he really liked the operation.
So he had six Japanese steel companies come to Houston to observe the process and the product that we were making. And they were very much impressed in the standpoint that we negotiated a contract, which I think is the largest scrap contract that was ever made. It was for 1,250,000 tons to be delivered at 250,000 ton a year for five years.
And I won’t forget that these six…the Japanese gentlemen, after they were out in the plant, we had ’em come in for a delicatessen lunch after they had washed up from being dusty, and one of them holds up a glass of wine. He says, “Mr. Proler,” he says, “I wanna pay you a compliment.” And I said, “What’s that?” He says, “You’re the only scrap dealer I know in the United States that takes the dirt out of the scrap. Everybody else puts it in.”
Interviewer: That’s great.
Sam: So, after that plant, then we built another one with Hugo in Jersey City, which was the Prolize [inaudible 00:52:57] Neu, and then we built one in Everett, Massachusetts [inaudible 00:53:02] Boston with Hugo. And when we built the Los Angeles plant, everybody load scrap in the old days, where they would load scrap. They would load it on railroad cars, or buggies, or something to take it to the ship side, and then the cranes or grapples would load it and dump it in the hold of the ship.
And what we did is we built the same type of conveyor, big steel conveyor that fed the Prolerizer. We built the same conveyor that went up in the air, and had a boom that would come down, and the scrap would go up the conveyor, and when the boom came down, it would follow the scrap over to the end. And we had a big 36 or 48-inch pipe where we’d drop down to the hold of the ship, and on the bottom of it, we would have what we call an elephant’s trunk. It was a big elbow where it would swing up and would trim the ship.
And we were loading at the time about 1500 tons an hour, which is loading scrap with bulldozers. We were loading engines, Prolerized scrap, and turnings, and [inaudible 00:54:04] scrap with bulldozers, not magnets or grapples. And you could stand on a dock and slowly watch the ship go down as it was being loaded. And we would take a day and a half to load 25,000 tons of scrap on the ship. Normally it would take about two, three weeks at least, working night and day, when you’re working off a dock with cranes.
And, also…oh, yeah, when we had…we leased…as soon as we got the contract with the Japanese, they had Prolerizing laws [SP] in Terminal Island that we lease the ship for a couple of years to haul scrap back and forth. We would haul the scrap over and come back empty. And so we decided, Hugo, and myself, and Frank Horn, who worked for Hugo in Japan, we formed a corporation called Maru Shipping, and we built a 25,000-ton new ball-carrier, and we named it The Rose after my mother.
And that ship was, I think, one of the first ships just exclusively built to haul scrap. It had four or five huge [SP] hatches on it. And the way we would unload the scrap off of it, we put gantry cranes on it with big pancake magnets, and the magnet would pick the scrap up and drop it on a shoot, and the shoot would shoot it in the lighters on the side of the boat. In the old days, what they would do is they would get on a boat by hand and try and take Prolerized scrap off. We had a lot of bleedings. The Japanese people, they would load it in basket or buckets. And that’s how they unloaded scrap in Japan in the old days, by hand, back in the ’50s.
Interviewer: Incredible. Now, how long were you in the business? Did Herschel…?
Sam: Yeah. I started the business in mid 1929 when I got out of eighth grade in school. And I quit in June 3rd, 1969. I was in the business about 40 years. I quit when I was about 52 years old, and decided that I had it, at that time.
Interviewer: You know, what was the business like then, even compared to, you know, what you know happened after you got out of it as far as [inaudible]?
Sam: Well, let me bring you up to date. When I got in the business, we were peddling, had a small yard, and our volume was zero. And then when we started accumulating scrap, we would accumulate sometimes 500 or 1,000 tons of scrap. And they didn’t have big ships in those days. In those days, they didn’t even have Liberty ships. They’d [inaudible 00:56:57] load 2,500, 3,000 tons of scrap on a small boat going someplace, and they would have four or five dealers, some from Dallas, some from Houston, or San Anton. They would ship scrap in, and they were loaded on a boat.
And in those days, going back in the early ’30s, the company we sold export first was Charles Dreyfus Company, I don’t think they’re in business now. There was a company called Harry Harris & Company, they’re not in business anymore. George Hartman used to work for Harry Harris, and went to work for MS Capital in Chicago, real nice guy. And as the volume increased, got to be quite a bit, I remember…I think when I quit in 1969, all our joint ventures had shipped that year. I think it was in excess of 2 million tons of processed scrap that year. So we weren’t small fry.
And, also, I remember where Hugo would call me, and says, “The Japanese want to buy 300,000 tons of scrap,” you know, and get out the market. And so I said, “Hugo, who’s got it?” And he said, “We’re the only ones have it.” He said, “They can’t buy 300,000 tons from anybody else. There’s nobody that accumulate that much and ship it.” So, we had an edge there because we controlled a large volume off the East Coast, and the West Coast, and the Gulf Coast.
Interviewer: What was the competition like back then? I mean, you all were big player [SP] in the market, but…
Sam: The competition…in 1969, we pretty well had the competition tied up as far as where we operated. First of all, in 1969, there were a lot of shredders around. The first one that I built was in…went in operation about 1956. 1956, it went in operation. So it took quite a while. So, when I quit in 1969, were a few shredders around, but not many shredder manufacturers…a lot didn’t know how to build ’em.
I remember American Pulverizer built two of them for Luria Brothers. They were bigger than ours were, but they were monsters. I don’t think they even…I don’t know if they’re working today. But the shredder manufacturers had had to learn the business the same way that we had to learn the business, but I think I had an edge on them because, you know, I used to talk to scrap.