Historic brick factory leveled, but Salina's foundation endures

Mary Ann Thomas
| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 1:22 a.m.

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 mthomas@tribweb.com.

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