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Picture This, June 2013 Feat of clay

Feat of clay

It’s the pits: Lee Brick still digs what it’s doing on-site, but some others ­don’t have a hole lot going for them.

Hugh Perry’s consortium wasn’t the first to make brick in Lee County. Both Sanford Brick Corp. and Borden Brick and Tile Co. had laid their foundations by 1951, when Perry and 10 Sanford businessmen got in on the post-World War II housing boom. But while others have exhausted their on-site shale, Lee Brick & Tile Co.’s is holding out fine — it will make about 40 million bricks this year. “Don’t worry,” says Mike Lilly, manufacturing vice president. “There’ll be plenty left when I retire. And I’m in my 50s.”

Perry bought out his partners in the late 1950s, and the company remains in family hands. His son Frank is CEO, and Frank’s sons Don and Gil are president and vice president, respectively. Rad Holton, Frank’s brother-in-law, is secretary-treasurer. That’s not unusual. Brick-making is bedrock industry in North Carolina, which is second only to Texas in output, and most of the dozen manufacturers in the state are family-owned. Lee County became the center of the industry due to a 250 million-year-old swath of shale that begins in Granville County and runs almost to the South Carolina line. “A lot of companies located in the shale band,” Lilly says. “There were a lot of ma-and-pa plants.” Lee Brick’s shale comes from its original pit, and it has four plants on the 20-acre site. “Brick plants are usually set up where the pits are out the back door, as close as possible to production.”

Shale, a soft, fine-grained sedimentary rock that can be ground and moistened by nature or man into red clay, is dug from the pit and dumped into a crusher that grinds it to fist-sized chunks. It’s screened, and small particles drop through. Larger pieces that don’t pass through a hammer mill and get rescreened until they do. After, it’s mixed with water to form clay that is extruded into brick-width strips. “When we do tours for school kids, we liken it to a Play-Doh machine,” Lilly says. While still elastic, it can be textured, colored or patterned, including a popular style Lilly calls “beat up,” which is made to look old. Chopped to length, the slugs are dried in a heating room, then fired in kilns. After cooling, the bricks are bundled and typically shipped by truck to distributors, most of which are east of the Mississippi River. Lee Brick buys natural gas on the futures market to get the best price, but the kilns burn about $27,000 of it each month. That doesn’t include the roughly $5,000 a month to Raleigh-based Public Service Company of North Carolina Inc. for delivery.

Many historical landmarks, such as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, are made of Tar Heel brick. But the industry has changed greatly over the last five to 10 years because of factors such as the shift to smaller homes. Low demand has idled two of Lee Brick’s plants. The privately held company doesn’t release sales figures. Brick also has to compete with less expensive vinyl or fiber-cement siding. Vinyl for a 2,500-square-foot, two-story house costs about $8,000, compared with $17,000 for brick, according to Reston, Va.-based The Brick Industry Association. But in the long run, Lilly says, durable, energy-efficient, fireproof brick is cheaper. “Barring any major problems, it’ll last a lifetime — or more.”

— Edward Martin