Salvaging a legacy: Group working to develop plans for former brick plant



For nearly 90 years, a crew of about 45 workers turned clay from the Medora area into bricks that would adorn the exteriors of many buildings, including those on college campuses in Indiana and surrounding states.

Although the equipment used to make those bricks was sold after the last brick was made on the day before Thanksgiving in 1990, many of the structures — including 11 brick kilns — used in the production process remain.

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A group hoping to turn that site into a tourist attraction to bring more people to the small western Jackson County community recently turned to some Ball State University students for help.

Members of Save the Medora Brick Plant recently sat down with students from the university’s landscape architect department at the Medora Senior Citizens Center.

The first order of business was finding out a little bit about the people involved in trying to save the plant, said Peter Ellery, an instructor of landscape architecture at Ball State in Muncie.

“We’re conducting some preliminary interviews and some focus groups with the idea of determining what it is they would like to see done with the brick kilns and why the want it done,” Ellery said.

Ellery, who is married to former Brownstown resident Jane Gillespie, said the hope is that the input from those involved in the project would give the students some inspiration and ideas as they began working on some design ideas for the six-acre site.

As part of the planning process, Ellery said the students would need to know a little bit about the history of the plant, and that’s when a Medora resident who spent his life working there spoke up.

“My dad started working there in 1925, and he was superintendent from 1935 until 1968, and then I took his place from 1968 until February of 1992,” Bernard Gray said. “That was when they closed the business.”

The last day of production was the day before Thanksgiving in November 1990, but it would take another year and a half to liquidate the stock and sell a lot of the machinery, the 84-year-old said.

Gray said the equipment was sold to a brick company in Cayuga, and the land was sold to Troy Darkis, who lives in nearby Washington County and still owns the six-acre site.

{&subleft}Company’s history

The Medora Shale Brick Co.’s history dates to Aug. 2, 1904. In 1924, the plant was bought out of bankruptcy by the owners of Jackson Brick and Hollow Ware Co. in the Brownstown area.

Gray said he worked for James Heller and Joe Robertson and spent 10 hours a day at the plant five days a week and often spent more time there on Saturdays.

Daily production was 54,000 bricks, and weekly production was 324,000, Gray said, and it took about 45 workers and three trucks.

Production began at the plant in 1906, and at that time, Medora had a population of about 300, which meant a sixth of the community worked at the plant, Gray said.

“That would be like a factory coming into Seymour with thousands and thousands of jobs,” he said. “It was a big boon.”

Gray said Medora brick was made from clay dug near the plant, and when that ran low, it started getting clay from north of town on State Road 135.

The brick-making process required 10,000 gallons of water a day to make the 54,000 bricks. That water came from wells.

“It was a big thing when there was a drought,” he said.

Gray said Medora brick was not shaved and had a firm surface, which kept moisture from getting into the bricks.

The kilns were 30 feet diameter inside to allow 54,000 bricks to fit inside, Gray said. He said the dome shape is the same as that of the West Baden Springs Hotel.

“I think the kilns were probably built first,” he said.

Gray was born and raised in Medora and still lives two blocks north of the plant.

“I went to work there in 1946 during my sophomore year of high school,” he said. “I worked there those two summers, and then I went full time when I graduated from high school in 1948.”

Gray worked at the plant for most of his life, except for the year-and-a-half stint he spent in Germany during the Korean War. After the plant closed, he went to work for Excello Bag in Seymour before retiring at the age 65.

He said he supports the efforts to preserve what remains of the plant.

“Because there is a lot of history there, and I would like to see it restored as a pictorial site like the covered bridge,” Gray said in reference to one of Medora’s other claims to fame — the longest historic covered bridge in the country.

{&subleft}Finding a new life

Ellery said the students were go back to Muncie and gather as a larger team and use the goals and objectives gathered from members of Save the Medora Brick Plant and others on hand to come up with some themes and possible uses for the site.

The Ball State students plan to return to the Medora Senior Citizens Center on Nov. 21 and bring along some plans to present to the community, Ellery said.

Additional input will be gathered from the community at that time, and four plans will be made available two weeks after that meeting, he said.

Ellery said the hope in the end is that those interested in saving the brick plant will take a look at the final four designs — use some or parts of them — and come up with a final plan.

“This is really some discussion points so they can build on their dream and their desire to fix the kiln,” he said.

Greg Sekula, director of the Southern Regional Office of Indiana Landmarks, attended the meeting and sat in on one of the focus groups.

He said he recently returned from a trip to his hometown of Chicago and was amazed by the number of sites throughout that city where creative reuses of buildings has taken place.

“To me, we could be on the map with this site in Medora, and it could be a national model that could get a lot of attention,” Sekula said.

Before the meeting with students, members of the Save the Medora Brick Plant organized with Tim Reynolds being elected president. The group also agreed to apply for nonprofit status.

Others elected to officer include Dale Shoemaker, vice president; Linda Proffit, treasurer; Lynn Cowles, secretary; and Chuck Mock, Brad Cowles and Shelby Cowles, trustees. Gray also was given the honorary title of lifetime superintendent.

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For information about efforts to save the Medora Brick Plant, visit “Save the Medora Brick Plant” on Facebook.


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