West Virginia’s only brick manufacturer is still standing strong after 100 years.
If you were looking to build a house in the 1830s, you had a few options.
You could use limestone, the gravelly, sedimentary rock. Or you could use big American chestnut trees. But both were challenging. Limestone was heavy and hard to cut, and human activity and disease were taking a toll on the number of chestnut trees available.
Enter brick, a lighter material that was easier to make and easier to transport. Nearly 200 years later, brick remains just as popular, says Jeff Hollis. He would know. He’s worked at West Virginia’s only brick manufacturer, Continental Brick Company in Martinsburg, for 46 years as an office clerk, dispatcher, and general employee—he says the company doesn’t care much for titles, and that he’s “jack of all trades, master of none.” A century after its founding, Continental Brick is the last brick manufacturer in the Mountain State.
The company’s roots trace back to 1917, when a local lawyer and newspaper editor named F. Vernon Aler opened the company a little east of Martinsburg on WV Route 9. The company has changed hands and gone through bankruptcy twice—once in the 1920s and once in the 1980s. And the process of making brick has also evolved, from beehive kilns to coal to natural gas. But the company is still going strong.
Today, Continental makes bricks by grinding shale into a fine material and mixing it with water. The mixture is formed into a long column, sliced into brick-sized chunks, and lifted onto kiln cars that take the brick through a 1900-degree Fahrenheit kiln. After it cools, the brick is packaged and shipped off. The entire process can take between a week and 10 days.
The company sells to distributors, which then sell the brick from New York to Ontario and as far west as Minnesota and Texas. “There’s still a good market out there because there’s a lot less brickyards,” Hollis says.
But it’s competitive. Continental Brick isn’t competing only with other brick companies— it’s competing with other materials, too, like stucco and fake stone. Hollis says the company has done well because it’s maintained its flexibility. If a client wants a special kind of brick, the company can experiment with colors and shapes and provide that product. He attributes the company’s success to its variety of colors and bricks that can withstand harsh weather.
Continental’s brick clads public and private buildings throughout West Virginia. Many structures on West Virginia University’s Morgantown campus, including the Erickson Alumni Center, as well as Shepherd University’s newer buildings, incorporate this Martinsburgmade product.
One of the company’s recent innovations, Thin Brick—a thinner and less bulky brick—has become extremely popular and is especially useful in smaller places that can’t handle the weight of a full brick, like a smaller interior wall. Hollis added that the bricks work especially well indoors and are easier to place into walls.
If Hollis were building a house, he’d follow the example of the three little pigs. He wouldn’t use straw, and he wouldn’t use sticks. He says, “I’d opt for brick—a reliable, sturdy material that’s a good investment.” Brick from Continental Brick, of course.
Written by Kate Mishkin
Photographed by Michael Mills