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Bricks Built Riches for N.C. Companies

April 30, 2003

SANFORD, N.C. (AP) _ The Brick City Chop House. Brick City Motors. Brick City Child Care.

The shops in this small city take their identity from an industry that sprang up here, was changed by automation and robotics, but remains fundamentally the same since ancient Egypt. With U.S. home construction up this year and expected to stay strong, bricks continue to build strong revenue for their makers.

For decades, Sanford and a dozen other North Carolina communities were the heartland of America’s brick makers thanks to nearby veins of near-surface, pliable shale that date to the days the continents pulled apart to form the Atlantic Ocean,

``The material’s here, so that is the reason,″ said J.R. Holton, secretary-treasurer of Lee Brick & Tile Co., the last family owned manufacturer in Sanford.

Sanford had the added advantage of being on railroad lines, making it possible for the heavy products to be sold far and wide once the local industry took off in the 1930s, said Hal Siler, a local historian and past chamber of commerce president.

``It could have started somewhere else just as easily, but one reason was the railroads,″ Siler said. ``It just happened where the first fella started and had the transportation to go with it.″

The veins of clay left after Africa and the Americas separated about 200 million years ago are called Triassic basins, named for that period in Earth’s history. The clefts collected mud, silt, sand and gravel from streams. Dense deposits resulted in the shale clay that is mined and processed to make brick, sewer and drain pipe, and structural tile.

The Triassic basins stretch from New Jersey to Florida.

The clay has the right amount of petroleum to make it sticky when truckloads are pushed through a grinder, watered and extruded like Play-Doh onto a conveyor belt at the Lee Brick & Tile plant. The clay contains iron oxide, which gives it the rust coloring Holton calls ``schoolhouse red″ once the tawny clay is fired.

As late as the mid-1990s, North Carolina ranked first in brick production, according to the Brick Association of North Carolina.

Thirteen companies produced about 1 billion bricks in 1995 _ about 16 percent of all the brick used in the United States _ worth about $125 million. About 40 mines supplied the clay in 1995, according to the North Carolina Geological Survey.

Last year, North Carolina manufacturers shipped 1.3 billion bricks _ about 15 percent of the nation’s supply _ but about 100 million fewer than Texas, said Pete Cieslak, the executive director of the trade group for manufacturers in the Carolinas.

Thirteen manufacturers operate 25 plants in North Carolina _ the most of any state, industry groups said.

Though the materials and the basic product have not changed much for decades, the brick business and the technology has changed mightily in recent years.

Foreign-owned companies have bought up half the country’s manufacturers.

The industry remains solid.

U.S. shipments grew by about 1 percent in 2002 to about $1.57 billion despite a lingering national economic malaise, the Brick Industry Association said.

A third of that was sold by makers in the eight-state South Atlantic region that includes North Carolina. More bricks are sold in North Carolina than any state other than Texas. (For competitive reasons, the association doesn’t collect state-by-state data on production.)

That’s despite the U.S. industry adding the capacity to make nearly a billion additional bricks since 1999 as manufacturers kept up with the country’s building boom.

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On the Net

Brick Industry Association: http://www.bia.org/

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