THE HISTORY OF LOUISVILLE FIRE BRICK WORKS
Karl Brernhard Grahn, founder and first president of Louisville Fire Brick Works, came to Kentucky in 1866 from Germany. Together with two friends, he purchased land in and around Olive Hill. When flint and plastic fire clay were discovered on this property, Mr. Grahn started a business called Grahn’s Mines from which he shipped clay to fire brick companies.
In 1889 Mr. Grahn negotiated an agreement with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company to build a plant on the railroad’s main line in Louisville, Kentucky, in order to supply the railroad with fire brick for their steam locomotive fire boxes. This was the origin of Louisville Fire Brick Works. The fire brick was manufactured at the plant in Louisville from fire clay shipped in from Grahn (Olive Hill). The company was incorporated in 1905.
The plant in Louisville was enlarged several times but markets nearer to the source of the fire clay prompted the construction of a plant at the mines in Grahn in 1913. During the period from 1914 to 1959 both the Louisville and Grahn plants were operated. The plants were expanded several times over the years.
Manufacturing methods used at both plants included semi-dry press operations for standard fire brick sizes and hand molding for special shapes. The corporation also produced a limited line of insulting fire brick and refractory specialties at the Louisville plant for a number of years.
One of the principle products of the Louisville plant was hand-molded arch tile for the steam locomotives. The replacement of the steam locomotive by the diesel locomotive in the late 1940s made this product all but obsolete. This, along with other economic factors, led to the eventual closing of the Louisville plant. All production was then transferred to Grahn.
Modernization of the Grahn plant began in 1960 with the installation of new equipment for pressing fire brick. The Louisville office remained the headquarters for the company and maintained a warehouse for distributing their products as well as related refractory products produced by other manufacturers.
Louisville Fire Brick’s presidency had changed several times during this period. Upon Mr. Grahn’s death in July of 1922, Louis Ernst was elected president. Mr. Ernst had started with the company as a molder’s helper in 1890 and had worked his way up performing nearly every job connected with brick making. He even assisted in the construction of the plant at Grahn and was the superintendent there from 1914 until 1919.
When Louis Ernst died December 9, 1946, he was succeeded by his son, E. W. Ernst, who had formerly been vice-president. Mr. C. C. Small assisted E. W. Ernst as secretary-treasurer and later as vice-president. The two men managed the corporation until 1960 with the death of
Mr. Small and the retirement of Mr. Ernst.
When E. W. Ernst retired, Norman C. Updegraff, executive vice-president since January, was elected president. Mr. Updegraff was the husband of Elisabeth Patricia Ropke, the granddaughter of Karl Bernhard Grahn.
For a number of years following this time a series of disasters critically affected operations. A flood in July of 1960 put the plant out of operation for three weeks, causing serious financial losses. The plant was rebuilt only to burn down in March of 1961. Fortunately, neither the flood or the fire affected the dry press line under construction. The dry press line was put in to service as quickly as possible and all machine-made brick construction was transferred to it. The fire caused the loss of considerable handmolding floor space so provisions were made for handholding in an already existing building. Other improvements were made to the plant from 1969 to 1975 including the construction of:
- Five steel-cased, thin-walled periodic kilns
- A complete moldmaking shop for the increasing business
- In hand-molded shapes a new handmolding building to replace one lost by another fire in 1974
- Dust collecting equipment
In July of 1985, Bill C. Shuck bought controlling interest in the company and Mr. Updegraff retired as president. Mr. Shuck had been a sales manager for the company several years before and was a member of the Board of Directors.
Although the plant at Grahn has been altered considerably through the years due to modernization, floods and fires, it is still at the same location selected by Mr. Grahn in 1913. The hand-molded fire brick shapes are still manufactured much the same way as when Mr. Grahn first started production in Louisville in 1890 and continue to be one of the principal products that the company offers for sale.
Other portions of the land originally purchased by Mr. Grahn and his friends become the locations for two other fire brick plants besides the ones operated by Louisville Fire Brick Works. Much of the credit for the national reputation Olive Hill clays have achieved is due to Mr. Grahn’s foresight.