In 1872 John Rhys Thomas, a recent immigrant from Wales, established the Niles Fire Brick Company. Located in Niles, Ohio the business manufactured high quality firebrick for the steel and iron industries. This firebrick, also known as refractory brick, lined furnaces used to smelt iron and steel.
The original plant was a wooden structure built on Langley Street in Niles and it produce hand molded, high quality brick in regular rectangular forms and in special shapes. Because of the high temperatures involved in the manufacturing process, fire represented a major hazard. The Number One Plant was rebuilt at least three times between its establishment and 1903. This plant continued to produce regular refractory brick until its' closure in the early 1960s.
In 1905, company management faced with a growing demand as well as the need for a new type of refractory brick made of silica, built a second plant on East Park Avenue. The operation of this plant doubled both the size of the work force and the amount of product manufactured. Both plants were modernized during the 1940s with electrification of plant operations and the switch to natural gas from coal to fire the kilns. The innovations and changes through the years resulted in a growth in production from 500,000 hand-made bricks per year in 1872 to 25,000,00 in 1953.
The company remained family owned and operated until the late 1940s when it was sold to Mexico Refractories of Mexico, Missouri. In 1953, Kaiser Refractories purchased the operation. They continued to run both plants until 1961 . In that year they closed the Number One Plant on Langley Street. It was demolished in 1961. The Number Two continued to operate in a limited capacity through the late 1960s, before it was torn down in 1972.
The Niles Fire Brick Company flourished for nearly one hundred years because of the effectiveness of its leadership and the abilities of its work force. The company's labor pool grew from seventeen to twenty employees during the 1870s and 1880s to an all time high of nearly three hundred during World War II. This growth occurred in stages and reflected the expansion of the company's markets.
The first period of major growth occurred during the late 1890s, culminating with the construction of the Number Two Plant in 1905. The demand that spurred this growth resulted from the development of the local steel industry and the move to open-hearth furnaces. A slower expansion of the labor pool reflected the company's increasing production of silica brick during World War I. A second period of rapid growth occurred in conjunction with the steel boom of the 1920s. Unlike most other industrial concerns the Niles Fire Brick generally maintained its work force through the Great Depression. With the demands of World War II, the work force swelled to its peak.
Ultimately it was changes in the larger steel industry that caused the decline of fire brick manufacturing at the Niles Fire Brick. As the industry switched to oxygen-induction furnaces in the 1950s, the demand for regular and silica fire bricks deceased. In order to withstand the increased temperature produced during this process, the company instituted periclase brick, a new type of refractory material. A lack of space at the two existing Niles sites ultimately resulted in the construction of a new plant located in Columbiana County.
Three divisions of workers existed at the Niles Fire Brick Company. These categories included management, skilled labor, and unskilled labor. The workers were largely immigrants to the area. They came from Wales (1872-1899), the Avellino and Abruzzi provinces of Italy (1895-1924), and the Appalachian regions of Kentucky(1924-1949).
From its foundation the Niles Fire Brick Company acted as a magnet to labor. The actively recruited workers came from at least three areas: the Thomas' native Wales, the Italian provinces of Avellino and Abruzzi, and the Appalachian regions surrounding Olive Hill, Kentucky. These workers came seeking secure employment, general prosperity and greater opportunities for their families.
Immigrant laborers and their families from all three regions had a profound impact on the community. Those who secured permanent employment with the Fire Brick quickly moved out of rented or company housing becoming property owners with a vested interest in the community. Many lived in ethnic enclaves such as Little Italy, which developed on the city's east side in the shadows of the company's factories. Immigrants from Olive Hill established their presence within walking distance of the plant on the south side of Niles.
These immigrants also established a number of ethnic organizations and churches to serve their needs and interests. Among the most visible contributions were those of Italian immigrants. By 1910 they established an ethnic parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and dedicated their newly constructed church building in 1926. Among the self-help associations developed by this group were the Bagnoli Club established in 1932 to promote literacy and citizenship among its members, and the San Filippo Neri Club, a self-insurance association.
The local emphasis on education and the Niles Fire Brick's tendency to promote literate workers also encouraged employees to educate themselves and their children. In addition to sending their children in significant numbers to local public and parochial schools, many adults attended classes sponsored by local self-help associations such as the Bagnoli Club.
Historical Precedence of the Time Period 1893-1895
- Shift from agriculture to industry
- The open hearth replaced the Bessemer process
- Second Transportation Revolution-the railroad boom
- Completion of the trancontinental railroad
- Rise of big business which spurred economic growth
- Internal migration to America from Europe
- Wave of Italian immigration to America
- Depression of 1893