Chips off the old block

Eagle Block Company celebrates 61 years in Durango

Don Piccoli, general manager of Eagle Block Company in Durango, reminisces about growing up at a home near the family business on top of Farmington Hill on June 11.  
LINDSAY ABSHAGEN/Herald Enlarge photo

Don Piccoli, general manager of Eagle Block Company in Durango, reminisces about growing up at a home near the family business on top of Farmington Hill on June 11. LINDSAY ABSHAGEN/Herald

Piccoli family members proudly show off the “Eagle Block Muscle.” The tight curve at the wrist – built up from years of gripping and carrying stone blocks – is a symbol of their business ethic. Hard physical labor and family unity have sustained Eagle Block Company for 61 years in Durango.

“There are seven of us. Kids are cheap labor,” said Rita Piccoli Anderson, provoking laughter from family members gathered around an heirloom table on June 11. Her brother Don chimes in: “Yeah, I looked forward to going to school so I could rest.”

The business began as the American Dream of an immigrant family. James and Henrietta Piccoli came to the U.S. from Italy in 1920. In 1943, Gino bought the land on top of Farmington Hill – the Koshak Mesa – from relatives. Gino’s training was as a machinist, and he got into the block business by accident. He intended to use the site for woodworking. Gino and James built cabinets, and found a mold that would make concrete blocks. People kept buying the blocks, so they eventually shifted their focus. They founded Eagle Block in 1951.

“Our longevity is a result of Dad making some great decisions in the ’40s and ’50s,” said Gino’s son, Don Piccoli, Eagle Block’s general manager. “We were never underneath a note. There’s no way we could have bought the land ourselves today, because of the cost and land-use codes.”

Today, Eagle Block Company is a manufacturer of building block materials of various sizes as well as a retail location for rock, cement, lime, sand, landscape pavers and elements, fireplace components, brick, cultured stone, and glass block. There are four other seasonal employees besides family members. All block and some landscape pavers are made on-site.

“That’s the biggest surprise for most people: that we bring in raw material and make the block here,” said Don. “We don’t import things from other places.” He said aggregate materials are put in a machine to make the block. “Because we make our own, the box stores aren’t necessarily cheaper than us.”

Don and his brother Jerry Piccoli, Eagle Block’s president, offered a tour of the cool, dusty shop on June 11. Jerry built some of the machines himself and keeps them running. “He has Dad’s machinist ability to problem-solve on the fly,” said Don.

He says his dad was a product of the Depression. Gino saved every scrap of metal, and could remember its exact location when it was needed. “When we tore down the old shop, he made us save the nails and straighten them for re-use,” said Don. A hard worker to the end, Gino died in 1997 while working in the shop.

Don said it’s a rarity in the industry for a block company to still be mom-and-pop. Most are owned by conglomerates. They found a niche in the market because it can be hard for people to get certain materials here.

The company eventually expanded to include stone and other landscape products. Don said they needed to adapt because building-use codes changed the way stem walls were made, from block to solid poured concrete.

Gino and his wife Wilma had seven children. Four of them – Don, Jerry, Rita and Steve – manage the day-to-day operations of Eagle Block. They say the key to family harmony is having a division of duties. Jerry and Steve handle production, Rita does accounting and office work, and Don handles sales and customer service.

And when they don’t agree?

“We’re Italian. We holler at each other until we figure it out,” said Wilma, the matriarch. Her children laugh.

There are 11 grandchildren between the seven siblings, ages 6 to 34. Many of them have worked at Eagle Block over the years. Jerry’s daughter, Megan Piccoli, is working this summer.

“Everyone has a story about lazy, plugged-in teenagers – that’s not us,” said Don. “We were expected to pay for things we wanted ourselves. We grew up understanding what it meant to work, and we weren’t afraid of it.”

Today, the tight-knit Piccolis camp together on the weekends, and the grandchildren have grown up working and playing together. Wilma says it has been a wonderful place to raise a family. Jerry says the siblings have benefitted because they have been in business so long, things are paid off.

But the ultimate secret to longevity isn’t about finances. According to Don, it’s a numbers game.

“Have a lot of kids,” he said, laughing.

Photo courtesy of Piccoli family
From left, Annie Bellutino helps Eagle Rock founder James Piccoli in the shop as his wife Henrietta Piccoli stands by in this photo circa 1951. Enlarge photo

Photo courtesy of Piccoli family From left, Annie Bellutino helps Eagle Rock founder James Piccoli in the shop as his wife Henrietta Piccoli stands by in this photo circa 1951.

LINDSAY ABSHAGEN/Herald photos Jerry stacks bricks on a warm summer day. Enlarge photo

LINDSAY ABSHAGEN/Herald photos Jerry stacks bricks on a warm summer day.

Wilma Piccoli, center, stands with her children: Don, left, Jerry, second from right, and Rita, far right, at Eagle Block on June 11. “It has been good for Mom to have her children all around her on a daily basis,” said Don. Enlarge photo

Wilma Piccoli, center, stands with her children: Don, left, Jerry, second from right, and Rita, far right, at Eagle Block on June 11. “It has been good for Mom to have her children all around her on a daily basis,” said Don.