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VAN WYCK – Boral Brick staff engineer Ken Robinson stood watching the old Van Wyck brick plant’s demise. He had a job to do, but you could tell it was getting to him.
At that point in mid-September, only a few recognizable parts of the plant remained: A brick chimney lost without its furnace, a brawny setting machine destined for another brick plant, and the old Ashe Brick Co. building sitting off to one side.
“It’s odd. I never realized how far it was from there to there until now,” said Robinson as he scanned the site.
“There’s a big chunk of my life going to the scrap yard right there,” the former plant manager said as he watched a backhoe load another truck with debris.
The factory that made brick there for nearly 100 years is gone now, the last of Lancaster County’s old industries reduced to a field of dirt.
Despite its absence, though, the factory is destined to live on in the memory of those who worked there, and the region that it shaped.
Boral Brick was the last incarnation of an enterprise that began in the l890s with a young William Newton Ashe.
His great nephews, and former Ashe Brick Co. owners Jim and Bob Moore said Ashe started his business in Rock Hill, baking the brick used to build the earliest of Winthrop College’s buildings.
Operating out of a wagon, the company followed and built many of the region’s cotton mills for years, before setting up shop as Catawba Pressed Brick in 1909 on the banks of the Catawba River near what is now Resolute Forest Products.
Ashe moved his company to Van Wyck about 1926 or so, they said, to take advantage of the area’s clay deposits, bountiful woodlands to fire the old round kilns and shale deposits up the road in Indian Land.
Their father, James Moore Sr., joined the business about that time and his engineering skills helped carry it into and through the better part of the 20th century with several new plants, each more technologically advanced than the one before.
By the 1950s, the company built its first “tunnel kiln,” which produced brick 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Business was good for the most part, but even through tough times like the 1970s oil crisis, the business survived, thanks to tradition in the community.
“I guess our philosophy was to try and hold on to our community and keep our people together,” Bob Moore said.
“It was a big family, and that kept us together,” Jim Moore said. “And when I say family, I mean the factory family. That’s what we were, so we soldiered through.”
The Moore family sold the plant in 1986 when the Australian company Boral was buying family-owned brick plants all over the country.
Longtime Van Wyck resident Betty Broome started doing secretarial work part time at the plant as a teenager. After high school, she did like everybody did back then and went to work for the company until she retired.
An amateur historian, Broome is writing a book about Ashe, whom she calls a “visionary with a Christian heart,” and his company’s legacy.
Ashe donated the brick used to build Van Wyck’s Presbyterian and United Methodist churches, she said. His wealth supported missionaries and his concern for the community allowed locals to use the ferry free of charge that he built in 1928 to carry brick across the Catawba.
“It’s sad to see, because over the years a lot of work went into that plant, a lot of work into making those bricks,” Broome said. “But his legacy, I think, is the way he and his family touched the generations of people who worked there.”
Melvin Rhoney was one of them, an assistant manager and the factory’s last employee when his job ended in July 2012 after 41 years. Rhoney said Boral stopped production there after the economic downturn of 2007 and decided to dismantle the factory in 2011 as a cost-saving move.
“Ashe Brick was Van Wyck, and Van Wyck was Ashe Brick,” Rhoney said. “When the plant was booming, Van Wyck was booming. When it went down, it would affect a lot of people.
“We had Haydens and Crawfords, McMullins, Stewarts, all kinds of people whose whole families worked there. You might say we all grew up there,” Rhoney said. “It hurts to see it gone ... but after all those years, I still thank the people I worked with, including the management, because we had some good times there.”
Like the rest, Jim and Bob Moore said they’re sad to see the plant gone, especially given that it took so many years for their family to build it up to what it was.
But if there’s one thing they know after making literally billions of them, it’s brick. And they know that’s a legacy that won’t easily be undone.
“We shipped brick from Maine to Florida, Mississippi and New Orleans, even have some of our brick in the old Yankee Stadium,” Jim Moore said. “When you dig clay out of a place that long, you learn you’ll never destroy the clay in those bricks.
“Our local plant reached out and touched many places,” Bob Moore said. “It’ll be around long after all of us are gone.”
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151