Amid puffs and clouds of chalky dust, a long tunnel kiln churns out bricks in Mica.
Every day, almost 200,000 of the fired chunks of clay find their way through the kiln and onto wooden pallets where they await their final destination. Some are shipped to Wisconsin or as far away as Japan. Others find homes in Coeur d’Alene and right here in Spokane.
Long an industrial landmark in Spokane County, Mutual Materials - better known to most locals as Mica Brickworks - is one of the world’s only plants that custom makes bricks.
“One thing that helps us is that we’re willing to make just about any size brick,” says plant manager Joe Taff.
Typical rectangular-shaped bricks can be found throughout the plant. There are triangular bricks and bricks with rounded corners that are made with a hand-designed die. Others are tumbled with other bricks to make them appear old and used. Green bricks, rose-colored bricks, black bricks, white bricks - you name it, Taff says, and Mica will make it.
The very loud and very dusty plant is abuzz with 70 male workers, young and old, all sweating their way through the brick-making process.
After clay is mined in Worley and Tensed, Idaho, and Usk, Wash., and even right in Mica, it’s piled into large mounds at the western end of the plant. Heaps and heaps of the somewhat chunky, somewhat powdery clay are dumped into a huge hopper and are crushed by massive wheels the size of two truck tires. Those two-ton wheels turn and turn until the chunks have been ground up enough so that each grain is the same size. Different orders call for different-sized grains. The whole process is called classification.
A worker, covered in red, white, coral, black and cream dust, mans the classifier, making sure the temperature is hot enough to dry out the mixture.
Over at the extruder, which looks like a massive Play-Doh toy, the powder has custom-ordered colors added to it. Hot water is added to the mixture to get the right consistency. Then it’s sent through a vacuum, called a pug, which extracts the water so the brick won’t split or crack.
Then comes the fun part. The mixture is squished through a die, which shapes it into a square, rectangle or whatever shape the order calls for.
“We even hand carve orders, when necessary,” said Taff.
After squeezing through the die, the clay is sliced into brick-sized pieces and sent down a conveyor belt where muscular young men grab the steamy, wet bricks and start stacking them onto pallets. Back and forth, over and over again and for hours at a time, the men perform the same task until their shift is over. By the end of the day, they’ve collectively grabbed and stacked close to 70,000 bricks.
Some orders, such as the one for a new building at Washington State University, call for 70,000 bricks. That’s small compared to the 700,000 bricks that the Mica plant pumped out for Microsoft’s quasi-campus in Redmond, Wash.
Once on the pallets, the bricks are sent to a warming room so they can tolerate the sweltering 2,000 degree temperature in the kiln. Every hour, a new car full of pallets must enter the 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year kiln.
Bricks stay in the 399-foot, 6-inch long tunnel kiln for 40 to 45 hours, Taff said.
Sitting alongside the tunnel are stacks and stacks of red and rose-colored bricks. To fill the WSU order, a 22-year-old worker, who’s called a stacker, is reblending the red and rose bricks. He grabs one rose brick, then a red brick and sets them side by side on a new pallet. That way, Taff said, the bricklayer can just grab bricks from the pallet and the colors will be arranged for him.
Once the stacker is done, the pallet is bagged and put in the brickyard, where it will wait to be shipped to Pullman.
A brickful of history
Standing tall on the 15 acres of the brick plant are the kilns used when the plant first opened in 1893.
Back then, the Oudin and Bergman Fire and Clay Manufacturing Company fired up sewer and chimney pipes, firebricks, terra cotta and paving brick.
Now, the crumbling beehive kilns are drafty and cold. The yellow bricks which form the kilns continue to fall off, leaving scatterings around the doorways and on the kiln floor. They’re still in operation - but only to fire tiles for chimney flues, said Taff.
“It used to take days and days to make one kiln’s worth of bricks,” said Taff. Back in those days, the beehive kilns held 60,000 bricks - a far cry from what the plant pumps out daily.
Today, the beehive kilns hold only about 5,000 flues for each firing. There’s no real way to control the temperature inside the kiln, Taff said. Some of the clay gets so hot, he said, that it starts to melt and turn glassy. Flues that can’t be sold are reused - chopped up and crushed in the dry pan again.
Workers and managers alike are full of pride over their labor of love. And rightly so. Their sweat and elbow grease have helped construct some well-known and well-loved buildings in the area.
Much of Fairchild Air Force Base and the downtown Spokane Transit Authority center were built with bricks from Mica.
A number of area hotels and public schools, including Spokane Falls Community College and most of Washington State University were constructed - brick by brick - using Mica’s treasure.
“It’s not a science what we do,” said Taff. “It’s an art.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (2 color)