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Steinberg: ‘Come, let us make bricks’

Scott Miracle is regional production manager at Glen-Gery Brick in Marseilles, Illinois. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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“Please excuse any mess,” says Scott Miracle as we step into the Glen-Gery brickworks, “but understand we make brick out of dirt.”

With that in mind, it’s surprisingly clean.

We are in Marseilles, Illinois, 75 miles southwest of Chicago. I’m here due to one of those delightful connections that are made in a great city. Last April, I toured the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on West 63rd Street. IMAN runs a health center, transitional residences, social halls and an art studio. There I met a sculptor preparing the monument to honor the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s 1966 march in Marquette Park, to be unveiled Friday at 67th and Kedzie.

The bas-relief sculpture was being carved from fresh bricks, appropriately enough — King was hit in the head by one of the bricks, stones and bottles thrown by white protesters opposed to his notion that Americans of any race should be able to live wherever they please.

Most know about King. But bricks? I wondered where they planned to fire the monument’s bricks. They pointed me toward Marseilles (pronounced “Mar-sells”) to Glen-Gery Brick, the biggest brickworks in the state, the last of what used to be a busy hub for brick-making in and around Chicago.

Brick-making goes way back; it’s discussed in the Bible.

“Come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly,” the builders of the Tower of Babel announce in Genesis. “Burn” is still a term used to describe firing bricks; Miracle uses it. He is the regional production manager at Glen-Gery, a Pennsylvania-based company that owns eight other brickworks and a decorative stone plant. Most everything else has changed, however. The most dramatic aspect about the Glen-Gery plant is what, or rather who, isn’t there: people. Two dozen employees turn dirt and clay into 36,000 bricks an hour or roughly two house’s worth of bricks. A plant that wasn’t automated would require 10 times as many employees.

“Nobody touches the brick, it’s all computerized,” says Miracle. Unless a brick falls off a pallet, nobody touches it until the mason sets it into a wall. And “they’re working a robot laying the brick,” says Miracle. “I would bet the labor to lay the brick costs as much as the brick itself.”

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Typical brickworks are located next to raw materials, but Glen-Gery is not. Its shale is trucked in from Cornell, 27 miles away, and firebrick clay comes from Starved Rock and Morris. The shale is ground up to the consistency of cornstarch, then stored in dusty hillocks until scooped up by feeders, which blend it with clay — 84 percent shale, 16 percent clay — and extruded through dies that “core” the bricks to create voids in the center. A brick can be 24 percent air by volume and still be considered solid. The voids are created not to save material, but weight. Lighter bricks make them easier to truck. Miracle says “99.9 percent” of bricks are cored. Those that aren’t are for special uses like windowsills.

The line of extruded brick, 8 feet long, “a great big slug of brick” is sliced apart with piano wire. The green bricks are then stacked on automated flatbeds that move on tracks, 10,080 bricks to a truck and baked in one of two enormous natural gas kilns.

The 2007 downturn hit Glen-Gery hard; the stats are almost unbelievable. Before the recession, they operated at capacity, and actually sent four shipping containers of veneer bricks to Japan.

“In 2006, we did 110 million bricks out of here,” says Miracle. “In 2011, we only did 14 million.”

Business is better now; they are back up: 24 million last year, 27 million this year.

“We’re kinda waiting to get out of the recession still,” says Miracle.

What is the brick business all about?

“Normally, it’s about price and availability,” Miracle says. “Nobody is going to wait forever just for a certain price. But they will wait forever for the right color.”

Miracle has been in the brick business for 25 years. It is not without its joys.

“We literally take dirt out of the ground and make a product,” he says. “You can see a house and be proud of it. Even though you didn’t build the house, but you made that brick, you designed that color.”

Miracle says that making bricks is almost a calling:

“When I interview young kids for supervising positions I tell them, ‘Listen, a brickyard’s hot and it’s dirty. But it’s fulfilling. If you like it for a year, it’s in your system, you’ll be a brickyarder. You’re not going to get rich, not going to be millionaire being a brickyarder. It’s rewarding, it’s fun.'”

Fun? How so?

“For me, it’s product development,” says Miracle. “I love making different colors. You can start with a brick almost white in color, ends up coming out a dark brown or a red. All kinds of little tricks . . . with brick, it’s scientific but there’s still a lot of art to it. The [King] mural that the man carved out of bricks, that’s art. But even making the special colors, I could take the same colors and burn them at one of my plants and at another one it’ll be a different color and a different look.”

Glen-Gery Brick made 24 million bricks last year at its Marseilles plant. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
Glen-Gery Brick made 24 million bricks last year at its Marseilles plant. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
Shale, ground to the consistency of cornstarch, is stored in piles until it is blended with clay to make bricks. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
Shale, ground to the consistency of cornstarch, is stored in piles until it is blended with clay to make bricks. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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