Oregon Trails: Brick Upon Brick

By Ron Brown

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — There’s a good chance that regardless of what town you live or shop in around our region, it’s not the same town your grandparents or great grandparents would recognize. Most of the towns of Southern Oregon started with a lot of wood business buildings.

The brick buildings we see now came later, either by design or by necessity. But where did those bricks come from?

Southern Oregon may be in the middle of timber country, but most of the business centers of our area are built of brick. Whether its Grants Pass, Medford, Klamath Falls or Ashland, for more than a hundred years brick has been the building material of choice. And most of those bricks were made right here, not far from the job.

One of the biggest brick buildings ever constructed in Southern Oregon only lasted for about three years. It was this huge sugar beet processing plant that took at least a million bricks to build in the late teens. It was then torn down and moved to eastern Washington. The bricks were made locally.

There were a couple near Grants Pass at various times. One in Central Point around the turn of the century and at least one in Jacksonville that lasted for many years and provided many of the brick to build downtown Medford. This is one of the first brick buildings in Medford, which at first was mostly made of wood buildings downtown. It took about a million bricks to build the old sacred heart hospital in 1911.

Most of the business buildings along Jacksonville’s historic California Street are brick. Many were built in the late 1850’s or early 1860’s. Some on the U.S. Hotel, built in 1880, show the irregularities of some of the early bricks.

Some communities, like Lakeview and Grants Pass, were forced to build with brick following devastating fires that wiped out much of their earlier wood business districts.

Richard Smith’s family operated Klamath Brick and Tile in Klamath Falls from 1917 until it was sold to Jeld-Wen, and then shut down in 1994, some 77 years! Started by his grandfather, Ralph W. Smith when local brick makers wouldn’t sell him what he needed for his brick mason’s business, they eventually shipped in clay from Idaho and California to mix with local clay to make a wide variety of brick products.

A good part of Klamath Falls downtown is made of Klamath Brick and Tile products. The Baldwin Hotel, Central School and the first high school, built in 1905, were some of the biggest projects. George Baldwin set up his own brickyard to get the bricks he needed for his hotel.

The lone remaining kiln at the old brickyard was built in the 20’s and used slab wood from local mills at first, before converting to heavy oil, then natural gas to fire the bricks. It took five days to cook, then 3 and a half to cool down before being removed from the kiln. Now the kiln is cold.

It’s been about 20 years since Klamath Brick and Tile ceased their operations in Klamath Falls That leaves only one or two brick operations left in all the state of Oregon. This old kiln is one of the few reminders of what was a staple industry in the Klamath Basin and Southern Oregon.

Richard Smith says when Klamath Brick and Tile got the contract for the brick to build the hospital at Camp White, which is now the Domiciliary, they had to call upon other Oregon brickyards to help fill the order; he says in the late ’50s and early ’60s there was about a dozen brick yards in Oregon. He says there is only one now, in the Portland area.