ShareThis Page

Historic brick factory leveled, but Salina's foundation endures

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 1:22 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Crews work to demolish the rest of General Refractories next to the Kiski River in Salina, Bell Township, on Jan. 22. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Historic photo of the General Refractories plant. Date unknown. Courtesy of BELL TOWNSHIP HISTORIC PRESERVATION SOCIETY
Valley News Dispatch
The well-weathered sign for General Refractories stands by the entrance to the plant next to the Kiski River in Salina, Bell Township on Jan. 22. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Crews work to demolish the rest of General Refractories next to the Kiski River in Salina, Bell Township on Jan. 22. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Historic photo of the General Refractories plant from the 1940s. Courtesy of BELL TWP. HISTORIC PRESERVATION SOCIETY
The interior of the General Refractories plant in the 1950s. Courtesy of BELL TOWNSHIP HISTORIC PRESERVATION SOCIETY

General Refractories, the former brick plant near the Edmon bridge in Bell Township with its broken windows, sagging spine and overgrown weeds, is now a memory.

A local developer razed the sprawling, dilapidated structure to clean up the place and hopefully attract a new business to the site.

Now, it's “concrete-pad ready” and situated next to an active Norfolk Southern rail line.

“When the building was up, you'd come down the hill toward the Edmon bridge and all you could see was this rusty building,” said Jason Harchuck, 40, a Washington Township-based real estate entrepreneur, who bought the site a little more than a year ago.

“Now you can see the beauty of the landscape,” he said. “I think that the town has a lot of potential and hopefully this cleaned-up site will bring more future potential and jobs to the area.”

Industrial entrepreneurs

The brickyard's last active owner, General Refractories, bought the business in 1930 and operated it until it shuttered the doors in 1981.

The historic brick factory, established as the Kier Fire Brick Co. in 1874, boasted an auspicious beginning.

Its founder, Samuel Kier, is credited with developing the process to refine oil. Kier was the son of Thomas and Mary Kier, who owned the famous salt wells near Saltsburg.

Years earlier, Samuel Kier teamed up with President James Buchanan for another brick refractory in Bolivar, Westmoreland County, as well as a merchant line of canal boats.

Also, Kier was one of the investors in some iron foundries that went on to become the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.

In fact, when Harchuck was demolishing the structure in the past several months, he found steel beams bearing J&L stampings.

The Kier Fire Brick Co. had been a fixture of industrial brawn and innovation in the village of Salina.

The brick plant was known internationally for building the first continuous tunnel kilns for producing fire brick. The new kilns allowed streamlined manufacturing of the brick, which was more efficient than the traditional beehive-shaped kilns.

A vital part of the Industrial Revolution, fire brick companies were busy in the late 1800s and first half of the 20th century producing the fire brick to line equipment in steel mills and locomotives, both industrial processes involving high heat.

The site's former grandeur was evident by its sheer size, commanding a hollow along the Kiski River: Harchuck reported clearing about 200,000 square feet of building remains.

Most of the approximate 90 homes in Salina were built as company houses starting around 1900.

And consequently, most people in the town have some kind of connection to the brickworks, according to Steve Nelson, 64, of Bell Township, president of the township's Historic Preservation Society.

“We need to preserve that history,” said Nelson who, along with other society members, is collecting archival photos, newspaper articles and artifacts.

Bustling beginnings

The Kier brick site was one of the oldest refractory brickyards in the state, according to Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, in 1993.

The facility was situated in Bell Township because there was clay and coal to be easily mined as well as railroad lines, according to Larry Steuart, a retired educator in Washington Township who wrote about Samuel Kier for his master's thesis in history at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, the coal mine was only steps away from the bustle of the brickworks, according to former worker George Sucke, 95, of Salina.

“We had a real nice coal mine and you entered it at the exact level of the shop,” Sucke said.

He remembers the mules that would haul the coal and clay out the mines in wagons. The company would allow one of the three mules in a rotation to opt out of work to a local farm for rest and relaxation, according Sucke.

The mules eventually were replaced by motor-driven wagons.

Speaking of hard work, Sucke would try to move as many wheelbarrow loads as he could, because he was paid by the load. Each wheelbarrow could carry 50 finished bricks, which weighed about 300 pounds.

“It was a place to work,” Sucke said. “And the harder you worked, the more money you made.”

And for Sucke, that was about 45 cents an hour in the late 1930s with “no perks.”

“It was good,” he said. “There was a helluva of a Depression then. We didn't have a car, and the company treated us well.”

Sucke's earliest memories of the brick yard were of his father, Steve Sucke, who arrived from Croatia in the early 1900s.

As a boy, Sucke would walk from their house rented from the company perched on the hill above the plant to visit his father at work: “I could see the steam coming off my father's back when they fired up the kilns,” he said.

The labor force was multi-generational and stable.

“There were a lot of fathers and sons who worked there,” Nelson said.

“My uncle was very proud of producing the Salina No. 9 fire brick, which they claimed is the best fire brick ever made,” he said.

Community connection

In the early years, there was much synergy between the Kiers and the people of Salina.

For example, the factory had a conveyor system running up the hill near the present day Salina Inn to ship up ash and cinder, spent from the boilers, to spread on the roads in the winter, according to Harchuck.

And the Kiers built a large meeting house, that has since burnt down, which held bowling alleys, a basketball court, pool tables and other recreational amenities.

There were baseball teams: “Salina's company-sponsored baseball team was an important focus and expression of community life through the 1930s and 1940s. Good players were sought as employees and given preferential treatment at work so they were in good form for important games,” according to the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Women's clubs held dinners and shipped their food from the basement kitchens to the main dining hall via a dumb waiter, according to Sucke.

In his youth, Sucke was a pin boy at the bowling alley, earning 2 cents a game resetting the pins.

He went on to work most of his life in the plant, marrying and raising a family in a company house that he eventually owned.

He retired when the plant closed in 1981.

“I enjoyed it,” Sucke said.

To this day, he still lives in the same home.

“I made some real good friends,” he said. “The company treated me real well. I have no complaints. I was into something that I knew and understood.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.