Interviews - Bernard Gray
Medora Brick Plant
Indiana 425 southwest of Medora in Jackson County
History Photos preservation BRickMaking People HOME
Interview with Bernard Gray Feb. 20, 2005
Interview with Bernard Gray, July 27, 2005
Interview with Bernard Gray, October 14, 2005
Go to stories people have shared about the brick plant
with Mr. Gray
- Feb. 2005
He became the Superintendent the first of Feb.
1968 and served in that position until the plant closed officially
in January 31, 1992 – 24 years to the day as boss! and a 46 year span
(1946-1992) in total
Plant is about 1.1 miles from Medora town & south along the B & O rail line.
Gray's son, Erridine, became the plant's salesman. He died in 1969. Ralph Gray's son Bernard would follow him as plant manager.
There was a hill that sat behind and between the horse barn and the power plant/workshop that was excavated up through about 1938, said Gray, providing much material. Also to the west across the Brick Plant Road leading up the hill there was a large hill that was excavated.
The Ralph Gray family lived in a house just west of the plant.
§ From the hayloft of a barn near the Gray home 1920 an aerial photo of the brick plant was taken from the hay loft (photo that Paul Carr of Vallonia has and a copy of which was displayed at the 2005 Jackson County Fair - Antiques Building.
§ There was a hill west of the office (and across the road) that
was excavated. Steam shovels but also electric ones were used to excavate
Gray said that all the kilns were not built at the same time (1906 as suggested in an Indiana historic landmarks book). But that by 1936 there were 11 kilns built with #12 in the southeast corner being built in 1954 or 55. The “horse barn” , or what originally was built as such, Gray says was built about 1936-37 and still stands. A 40’ x 70’ small storage shed still stands today in the middle of the complex.
Kiln walls are about 4’ thick.. Kilns (floor, walls and dome) were made of entirely fire brick (also referred to as refractory brick). (Stacks likely also firebrick.)
Domes were self supporting. Dome brick was different in that their sides were shaved (tapered) and by pounding in a key (locking) brick say every 4th or 5th brick at the domes base the those bricks would be secured, then the pattern repeated. By the time the process was at the top of the dome, just key brick were used.
Domes lasted about 24 years, Gray said. Through normal expansion and contraction from firing the kiln 2 or 3 times per week, the dome brick would loosen and make what appeared to be a crack. The dome would be disassembled, and the brick reused in rebuilding the dome locking all brick in tight again like when it was first constructed. Dome brick could be used 2 or 3 times. Domes were constructed from about 15,000 brick.
A look up at a self-supporting kiln dome today and the
hole in the ceiling's center from which measurements were taken to know when
the firing of the bricks was complete.
Gray said that the plant had about 6.4 million brick in inventory on the property (assume in Gray’s superintendent days 1970's & 80's). He spoke about taking inventory regularly from a high vantage point to the west of the property…(perhaps the top of the horse barn - will have to ask).
Coal for firing the kilns came by rail in the beginning and later by truck. (Year range on these?)
In about 1970 (70’s?) the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) came in and required reduction of the smoke to improve air quality. They insisted on 4 stokers per kiln at a cost of $25,000 per kiln. These 5’ x 5’ stoker boxes were built inside the kilns and were fed steadily by machine such that the visible smoke was largely eliminated. But these cut only visible emissions. The result was the brick plant’s cost for compliance on their 12 kilns was $300,000 and the price of brick was raised $13 per 1000 as a result. (Assuming that other plants in Indiana and elsewhere also had to comply – but not verified at this point.)
The plant had 24 hour watch during its six production days per week. Gray said he only got to sleep good one day a week - Sunday night I believe he said. Gray was quick to say that there “are 160 hours in a work week” and that 4 kilns were fired a week. At other times kilns were being loaded for firing or unloaded after firing. And about 48 hours between firings. It is said in other references to be 54,000 brick a day 324,000 a week. (Will have to clarify above to also double check the math involved to verify the kiln firings and output with other accounts as to the number of brick per week that were produced.)
Before motorized forklifts came along plant workers moved brick around by using moveable small sections of narrow gauge steel track. They'd set tracks along various pathways and used 3 foot by 5 foot carts to move 600 brick per cart to the kilns to be fired and out again to rail cars or storage. Track still visible today.
In a kiln firing: after the kiln was loaded with about 75,000 brick the doorways would be bricked up then mudded over to seal the kiln (except for the fireboxes, tunnels and stacks) then:
1st - the temperature would be raised slowly over 24 hours to reach 600 degrees.
2nd - raised steadily again the next 24 hours.
3rd - and finally raised to about 1600 degrees by 72 hours from first firing. After which time the “settle” was measured every two hours. The settle was measure from the top of the kiln dome. There was a metal plate over the ~2’ diameter dome hole and the plate had a hole in it down from which a measure could be made to the top of the brick stack.. (Understood the kiln was almost entirely filled with bricks to be fired…out close to the walls and up near the top of the dome. Notes from earlier Gray conversation said that when there was a 12- ½ inch settle the brick were done. The kiln dome center is about 30 feet off the floor.
But the temperature was not to go above 1850 degrees other wise the brick would burn up – making 'clinkers' a cindered finished brick. Gray said there was a plant in Indiana near Cayuga that specialized in clinkers. Both in the form of roughed exterior brick and by burning up the brick and then busting it up into cinders as in cinder running tracks at high schools and colleges.
Kilns were worked in sequence and one stack serviced 3 kilns via an underground system of tunnels. But a stack could be used in connection with one kiln firing at a time.
In about 1936 the plant equipment was powered by a large 4 piston diesel engine – which required fuel oil and its holding tank. There was also a smaller engine as back up.
There was well water and pond water. Gray said that as a boy in the 1930’s he at times took his bath in those ponds.
Workers in later years would come in with clean cloths and change into work cloths. After work most would shower and re-dress. (May not have been true of workers from 1908 through the teens perhaps - ask Gray.)
World War II and After
The plant closed in the spring of 1942 and reopened in the spring of 1946. James Heller had been in the service during the last part of World War II and Joe Robertson had died.
Photo of Medora Brick Plant circa 1950
During this interview Bernard Gray referred to Mr. James Heller, president of the brick company ~1946-1992 (companies actually since he also owned controlling interest in the Brownstown Brick & Hollow Ware Co. as well), as “a prince of a man”, as “a very private man” and as having a manner that was “strictly business.” Gray said he sat across the desk from Heller (in the small office) for 24 years ... and…never was invited to his (Heller’s) home for example. And on Gray’s last day of work at the plant having served for 46 years the last 24 as Superintendent, Heller handed Gray his last check (for the normal amount of pay due) and said “well that makes us even” - no final bonus, profit share, etc.. Heller died about eight years later (2000) with an estate estimated / rumored to be about 14 million dollars.
Mr. Gray said that Mr. Heller's management style including walking around including on and off the property without prediction. He would arrive to work for example by parking on the eastern side of the plant property and walking in through the complex. He would usually leave for the day at various times and always without announcement to anyone. This would have the effect of keeping everyone on their toes, though Mr. Heller never spoke to managers and foreman about his rationale for this.
October 1984 looking down the brick-paved channel between the what were essentially the plants two rows of kilns and toward the smaller storage shed. Showing at the bottom center of the kiln on the left is the 1970's installed machinery that fed coal evenly to the stokers that eliminated the visible smoke.
A lot of brick in the later years of plant operation went to renovate and brick up windows in commercial buildings in the Midwest and New Jersey, Gray said. These buildings were no longer dependent on sunlight as internal light or on air in from windows – switching over to electricity and air conditioning. Mr. Heller trying to collect a debt from a client in Detroit using a Detroit attorney who offered to use muscle to get the debt collected and as a result Mr. Heller felt that if they’d do that to collect a debt from a client they might send someone his way so he swore off shipping things Detroit way.
Medora Brick Plant supplied the brick to Purdue University for about 20 years (~1960-1980). They became the preferred supplier over the Brazil / Veedersburg plant which had run out of clay and had to get material elsewhere, which change the color of brick that they were able to produce and provide Purdue. And there were some management problems at that plant as well, according to Gray (who himself was Medora Superintendent ~1968-1992). Some brick to Ball State as well said Gray.
The industry average in the 1960’s to 1990’s was that brick plants produced about 60% of their brick for architects (commercial) and 40% for residences. Medora’s percentage through those years, said Gray, was 50 -50.
There weren’t many accidents at the plant, Gray said. They had a good worker’s comp rate as a result. “A mashed toe now and then but that was about it.”
Gray said by the 1980’s men did not want to work as hard or have to work as hard as one had to at the brick plant. There were easier jobs elsewhere paying as much or more with benefits, etc.
There always seems to be a market for all kinds of brick Gray said and that once, they combed the plant to fill a client order for 11,000 of the most misshapen marred bricks they could find to be used for a unique look in construction project.
Gray commented that the brick business is a good business even for the future. “Brick doesn’t go out of style and the industry isn’t going to be moved out of the country because the cost of shipping the heavy product would be to great (back into the United States and elsewhere).
The two biggest producers of brick nationally (1960's - 1980's) Gray stated were General Shale and Acme Brick in Ft. Worth, Texas. General Shale provided all the brick for the Oak Ridge Tennessee nuclear power plant project at a phenomenal profit.
By early 1990 the brick plant had 22 shares holders dividing 750 shares. Gray said there was dissension within the Board as to whether or not to close the plant but in the end, production was stopped at Thanksgiving November 1990 and officially in January 31, 1992.
It was mentioned that
some if not all of Medora's brick making
machinery and equipment after its closing went to a brick plant in
Brazil, Ind. (near Terre Haute).
If you have photos, stories, corrections to what's shared here, etc. here's how you can help tell the Medora Brick Plant story.
Interview from a talk with Bernard Gray on a bench in front of his garage and Medora home late afternoon Saturday Oct. 14, 2005. Paul Carr there as well having toured me around earlier that afternoon including a visit with Mrs. Jim Heller at her home. - Steve Graves
Regarding Jackson Brick and Hollow Ware Co. (JBHW) in Brownstown:
"Now follow me on this - " said Bernard Gray. "Across the road and train tracks from what was to become the Jackson Brick and Holloware Co. was the (Jonathan "Jont") Robertson farm (NE Brownstown area). His son was Joe (Joseph M.) Robertson. The site for that plant was on land owned by Thor Heller, brother to John Heller."
John Heller had a farm SW of Brownstown about 1 mile south of Rt 50 on the along the road to Vallonia where in addition to primarily farming John Heller made and sold brick and tile. (According to Paull Carr the little pond that can be seen there now is said to be the pit where the shale was ground up by a horse).
The Deal: "In exchange for stock in the Robertson’s JBHW John Heller would cease his operation in favor of JBHW. Basically they bought up the competition" said Gray. JBHW was born (and at about the same time the founders of Medora Shale Brick Co. were organizing their company - July 1904).
In the 1920's with an economic slowdown that preceded the Depression, Medora Shale Brick Co. went bankrupt. The Robertsons and John Heller purchased it about 1923. Joe would run it while John farmed. In the 1930’s Joe would mentor John Heller's son Jim Heller (b. 1910) to take over the operation of both the Brownstown and Medora plants - which Jim did after serving in WWII.
Not particularly wanting to farm like his father Jim Heller went to work at the brick and holloware plants in the early 1930’s. Bernard Gray said that Jim would later say that he had inherited enough that he wouldn’t have to work the rest of his life but he wanted make something of his life.
Joe Robertson developed JBHW which primarily produced drain tile from become 9 kilns and 5 stacks, machine shed and an office (which may have been Thor Heller’s home and did serve as the administrative office for both the Brownstown and Medora operations.) (Interviewer's note - Joe Robertson's management of the plants including the Medora plant from about 1923 through the early 1940's put things on a solid and profitable road. And after WWII Jim Heller's watchful eye and business acumen took the operations even further.)
Interviewer's research about Joe Robertson and some more information from Bernard Gray –
On Jim Heller:
According to Mrs. Jim Heller, a typical morning for her husband was to wake at 4pm and head down to the Brownstown plant (to check on things). Bernard Gray said Jim Heller would often (then) be down to the Medora plant by 5:30am when a new crew and the plant manager would be coming to work. Heller would head home for breakfast and go on with his day.