The People's Tribune

Brick Plant Mark 100 Years Of Business In Vandalia

The year marks the 100th anniversary for operation of the brick plant in Vandalia.

The business is now owned by HarbisonWalker International but started as the Walsh Fire Clay Products Company with the first bricks being produced in July of 1918.

The company’s current plant manager, T.J. Clary, noted the kilns at the operation still run 24-hours a day and seven days a week. Shipping and other work is done over three shifts five days a week. Clary noted the plant can move up to 2,500 metric tons of product a month.

At one time the brick plant was recognized as the largest of its kind in the nation.

According to the “Vandalia Area Centennial” history book, the Mississippi Glass fireclay operation was reorganized in 1915 as the Walk Fire Clay Products Company, Inc.

“Plans were carefully made and two years later construction was underway about a mile south of the old Salamander for the biggest brick plant in the world at that time.”

Charles G. Daniel and John C. Parrish helped arrange the deal to purchase the land necessary to construct the sprawling plant.

“The Chicago and Alton Railroad Company had to be convinced that building a spur to the plant would be worthwhile. Dr. Parrish, a railroad physician, ade a trip to Chicago to convince them; and the spur was built.”

It’s noted the nation became involved in World War I in 1917 so recruiting labor was difficult in addition to the labor turnover and increasing thievery. Eventually admission to the plant had to be controlled with a chain-link fence.

“Despite difficulties, the plant was finished and the first brick came out of the kiln in July 1918. W. H. Schewe was plant superintendent. he was followed by C. C. Hardy.”

The Walsh Fire Clay Products Company was in operation for nine years. During that time much of the products used at the operation were locally-sourced. Another history book points out that clay from mines in Vandalia were determined to be equal to, if not better, than most veins in the country.

The plant even had houses built in that area of town that were designed for those who worked at the plant. The community even had its own store, which remains standing today, along with many of the old homes.

“In 1927 the plant was transferred to Harvison-Walker Refractories Company, which was expanding out of its Pittsburgh area into the midwest. By early 1828 all the properties of Walsh Fire Clay Products Company, including the workers’ house, had been sold privately or turned over to HarbisonWalker. Many established employees remained, and the Walsh name remained on the brick.”

According to “Vandalia, Missouri – Queen of the Prairie” history book, the acquisition was regarded as the anchor to the future expansion of Vandalia’s leading industry and its success in the industry and for the community is still being realized today.

“HarbisonWalker’s 1927 investment led the way for the other brick plants to later be bult in the Vandalia area, including the North Missouri Fire Brick Company (C&E), located between Vandalia and Farber, along with the brick plant located in Farber (NARCO).”

The plant has employed hundreds and hundreds of people throughout the area over the years.

John Hodde has been with the plant for 45 years and continues to work maintenance for the company. He noted that a lot has changed over the years including the materials that are used. He pointed out that some materials are still local, but that materials from other parts of the world are also shipped to the plant for final production.

Hodde pointed out the plant makes some of the best materials available. He is eligible to retire, but continues to work full-time.

“It’s good. It’s an enjoyable place to work,” he remarked.

He added the company has been a good citizen of the area over the years as well and continues to employ a great deal of people locally.

The program “100 Years of Harbison-Walker” will be performed on the small stage at this year’s Vandalia Prairie Day on Saturday, Sept. 22 at noon. Find more details about the upcoming community celebration on pages 12-13 of this week’s edition.

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