The William G. Masterton Building was the first building constructed from the newly formed bricks cultured at Molalla Brick and Tile. Molalla Brick and Tile was the dream of two brothers from Ohio, Charles W. and Ellis W. Key. In 1921, Charles Key was 43 years old. His brother Ellis, was 28. Ellis had just returned from a 1917 to 1919 tour of duty in World War I. There he served as a master signal electrician. Both men were married. Their father, a brick maker, had recently died and they inherited enough brick making machinery to start a new company. Having heard that farmers in Oregon had a need for drainage tile, they set out to investigate the venture.
Charles and Ellis Key, first arrived in Molalla in early 1921. It wasn't until October 26, 1922, that note of their venture was made by the Molalla Pioneer: "Tile and Brick Plant for Molalla - Ellis Key and his wife returned from the east last Sunday night. They journeyed both ways by auto. They came here from Bryan, Ohio. Mr. Key shipped a very complete set of tile, brick and building block machinery which will arrive in a short time. Mr. Key expects to have everything in readiness to set the machinery up as soon as it arrives. There is a great demand for tile here and it will increase greatly when people can get it at home. Molalla is a clay center and there is a great variety of clay deposits here, varying from red brick clay to that which is being used for making china. There is a big field for development along this line and we expect to see a very large business built up."
Indeed, Molalla was a clay center. The Key brothers were able to buy five acres of land from Bernard Frederich, on Highway 213, about two miles south of the Molalla River Bridge. Lying beneath their feet was an eight foot deep layer of gray clay. When the bricks were fired, the clay turned a beautiful deep red color. But I am getting ahead of myself. It would be another three years before the brothers would be able to fire a saleable brick. They were starting with bare land. A drying shed needed to be built. It would house the newly formed bricks until they were ready to be fired. This 48 foot by 120 foot drying shed, unique of itself, has three shelves to hold the bricks while drying. Along with Ab. Russell, Charles and Ellis spent the winter of 1922 to 1923, running the Schafer sawmill on the Molalla River to process the lumber for building the drying shed. When production started, the brothers used a temporary, open kiln. The final plans for production included building a 24 foot diameter brick kiln. This final kiln had twelve fire boxes that would be kept fired all night long.
In these early years, the Key brothers were looking at a business that was almost all manual labor. They dug the clay from the ground with a dragline. The clay was hauled in wheel barrows. To mix and form the bricks, the water and clay was pushed through a large auger, similar to a meat grinder. The brick or tile was cut by homemade wire cutters. The bricks would then be stored in the drying shed until they were ready to be fired. Twelve fire boxes were fashioned by digging pits around the outside of the kiln. These fire boxes were kept hot throughout the night. The first firing in this new kiln was July, 1925. After the bricks were fired, they were hauled to the drying shed in carts similar to ore carts. The shelves of the storage building had tracks similar to railroad tracks so the carts could be pushed along.
In 1947, Oregon did a study on our brick and tile industry. It gives us important information about Molalla Brick and Tile Company. In 1947, "the 24 foot kiln was loaded from two levels, via a trestle from the drying shed. The capacity was 20,000 4-inch drain tile; but usually stacked with 12,000 tile and 6,000 six by six by twelve inch building bricks. The normal cycle consisted of two days to stack, four days to fire, six days to cool and two days to unstack. With three men operating, it was fired once every three weeks. Twenty cords of slab wood was used for each complete firing. The normal season ran from April to October."
By the summer of 1925, the Key brothers were ready to sell their first building brick and tile. The first building constructed in Molalla City of this brick was Masterton's Garage. By the late 1940s, plastic pipe came on the scene and the drainage tile industry went into a slump. The Key brothers sold the property and business. The large brick kiln was taken down about 1996. The drying shed and several small houses built from the brick remain today.
Recently, I was fortunate to be able to talk to Charles Key’s grandson, Marvin Key. Most people in our area know Marvin from the business he operates on Highway 213 called Key Motors Towing and Auto Wrecking. Marvin bought his first piece of property when he was 19 years old. Somehow, over the years - he is not sure when or how- his hobby of collecting cars turned into an auto wrecking business. In 1986, it just happened that the opportunity arose for Marvin to buy back the property where his grandfather started Molalla Brick and Tile. It was also the place of Marvin’s birth. He stocked the shelves in the drying shed with used auto parts and, as they say, the rest is history.
Many thanks to Marvin Key for his help with information and the photos for this story.
Photo #1: The 24 foot diameter brick kiln was torn down in 1996. This photo remains from a Clackamas County survey done in 1984. The kiln was in front of the drying shed and had twelve fire boxes on the outside, which were kept hot throughout the night. The openings along the bottom of the kiln held chimneys that ran up the side of the kiln.
Photo #2: Marvin Key stands near the first brick laid from Molalla Brick and Tile. It went into the corner of the large drying shed. This building and several others, made of the brick, still stand today. Photo from the author’s collection.
Photo #3: Marvin’s reproduction of the original Molalla Brick and Tile sign. Photo from the author’s collection.
Photo #4: One can still see the three shelves of the drying shed where the carts ran along tracks to shelve the bricks to dry. Photo from the author’s collection.
“Brick & Tile Success Assured”, Molalla Pioneer, September 18, 1924
“Charles Key” Obituary, Molalla Pioneer, April 19, 1956
“Charles Key” 1930, 1940, Liberal, Clackamas, Oregon U. S. Census, Ancestry.com
“Frances Llewellyn Key”, 1870, 1880, Tiffin, Defiance, Ohio U. S. Census, Ancestry.com
“Marvin Key”, Recorded interview by Gail J. McCormick, June 30, 2017
“Molalla Brick & Tile”, Molalla Pioneer, July 23, 1925
“Molalla Brick & Tile” – Ad, Molalla Pioneer, October 15, 1925
“Molalla Brick & Tile”, State of Oregon GMI Short Paper, 1947
“Molalla Telephone Company Building”, Molalla Self-Guided Walking Tour, Judith Sanders Chapman & Lois Helvey Ray, 2009
“Molalla Soon to Have Tile & Brick Plant”, Molalla Pioneer, May 10, 1923
“Molalla to Have New Modern Garage”, Molalla Pioneer, January 28, 1926
“Molalla Yesterday & Today”, Sam Engle, 1927 Arrow Year Book
“New Fireproof Garage”, Molalla Pioneer, July 30, 1925
“Tile & Brick Plant for Molalla”, Molalla Pioneer, May 26, 1922
@ 2018 Gail J. McCormick