Medora Brick Plant celebrates progress, looks to future

MEDORA

They just don’t make them like they used to.

That could be said for a lot of things today, but it’s especially true for the 54,000 bricks that came out of the kilns at the Medora Brick Plant daily for nearly 90 years.

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Those bricks were used to build everything from people’s homes to Purdue University in West Lafayette.

Even though the business closed in the early 1990s, the pride the workers had in their jobs is still felt by a small group of people who are working to restore the site as a historic landmark, tourist attraction and community focal point.

On Memorial Day, around 60 people, including members of the Medora Brick Plant and Historical Sites organization, supporters of their efforts and people interested in the history of the site, came together to celebrate the progress that has been made and to plan for the future.

Darlene and Michael Bahn of Georgetown in Floyd County had never seen the plant and were interested in learning about the 10 dome-shaped kilns remaining and the brick-making process.

“There’s a lot of things that are interesting with how technology has progressed and how this was way before its time,” Darlene said of the plant. “I think there’s a lot to be said about the way we do things now, and I’m sure the care that they put into brick making, I guarantee the bricks are stronger here than they are anywhere else.”

It was the second Memorial Day event conducted at the plant since the committee obtained the 6-acre site in 2017 from owner Troy Darkis of Vallonia, who also worked at the plant. After nearly 40 years, the site was so overgrown with weeds and trees, it couldn’t even be seen.

Workers from Duke Energy and other community members and volunteers helped clear the area so the property at 8202 E. County Road 425S, Medora, could be better accessed.

The plant provided a good, honest job for many men in the community, allowing them to earn a paycheck to provide for their families.

Pastor Skip Breeden of Medora Wesleyan Church said Memorial Day is not only about those who are called to fight for their country. It’s also about those who helped rebuild the country after war, including Medora brick makers.

“We stop to think about those who gave their time, their skills, their abilities for us to have a way of living,” he said.

The brick plant opened in 1904 as the Medora Shale Brick Co. The name was later changed to Medora Brick Plant.

Now, electricity has been restored to the site with support from a $5,000 Impact grant from RAB Lighting thanks to All Phase Electric Supply Co. in Seymour. Employee Donna Carter-McCoy of Vallonia applied for the grant and said the company has taken an interest in helping the project move forward.

The committee is working to get water service next, and thanks to Jackson County United Way’s annual Day of Caring, a new floor was installed in what used to serve as the plant’s office building. A $6,000 grant from the Owen-Carr Township Community Fund through the Community Foundation of Jackson County helped pay for that work.

The intent is to restore the office building as a meet-and-greet location, to sell merchandise and souvenirs and have historical memorabilia on display similar to a museum.

In 2016, a group of students from the Ball State University landscape architecture program presented several concept plans they had come up with as options for the plant’s use.

Long term, plans call to secure and renovate all of the buildings, including the kilns, and make the experience of visiting the site interactive and visitor-friendly while maintaining its historical integrity.

With any major renovation project, funding is needed.

Claude Bowers helped give tours of the beehive kilns, explaining how it took a day and a half to fill them. He worked at the plant from 1982 until it closed.

“Every brick in there was set two at a time,” he said.

Bowers started out on the yard crew, cleaning out all of the broken bricks. It was hot and dirty work, he said.

The brick plant was a big part of his childhood, too.

“My dad worked here, and I spent a lot of time down here when I was a kid,” he said.

He’s glad people are still interested in learning about the history of the plant.

“I’ve literally brought people down here that I work with at the distribution center that are just fascinated by it,” he said.

He said it’s similar to the interest people have in the Medora Covered Bridge.

Linda Proffit serves as secretary of the organization.

She said with all of the historical preservation going on in Seymour and other places in the county, the brick plant project fits right in.

“We want to keep this for our families and for our community,” she said. “It means something to us.”

Bernard Gray, 89, who still lives in Medora, served as superintendent of the brick plant from 1968 to the time it closed.

“It’s the only operation of this type left in the United States,” Gray said.

The beehive kilns, which were about 30 feet in diameter, were built to withstand the heat needed to make the bricks. The process was replaced by continuous kilns at other locations, he added.

“This was all manual labor,” he said. “It took 45 men to produce 54,000 bricks a day.”

Originally, there were 12 kilns, but only 10 remain standing today.

Gray said it brings him a lot of joy to see people take an interest in the plant and its history and want to restore it.

Although working at the plant wasn’t easy, Gray said it was a good job to have.

“I’ve had a good life, and the brick plant had a lot to do with that,” he said. “It just goes to show you, hard work won’t kill you. I’m proof of that.”

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How to help

To become a committee member or volunteer with efforts to restore the Medora Brick Plant, visit the Save the Medora Brick Plant Facebook page. 

Donations can be made to Medora Brick Plant and Historical Sites, P.O. Box 71, Medora, IN 47260.

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