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Brick works synonymous with rise of Gresham
There have been Olbrichs and bricks in Gresham nearly as long as there has been a Gresham.
Franz Olbrich Sr. was 19, a hardworking farmer's son from Germany, and only 5 feet tall.
'But with a brain on him that he could have run General Motors,' says his son, Albert. The senior Olbrich came to the United States, landing at Ellis Island to be met by his uncle, Alois Klose, who had a job for him 3,000 miles away on the banks of Johnson Creek near the newly incorporated city of Gresham.
Just whose idea it was to make bricks from a bank of clay along Johnson Creek is unknown. The land had previously been part of the Eli Hogan donation land, but Olbrich applied his knowledge of geology to launch Columbia Brickworks on 80 acres on Johnson Creek at Hogan Road in 1906.
One of Gresham's earliest industries, it made 9 million to 10 million bricks a year and employed 45 to 50 workers. The family sold the business to an employee in 1973, and after his death it became part of Mutual Materials out of Bellevue, Wash., and continues today.
'My dad took geology in Germany,' Albert Olbrich says, 'and recognized the value of the Johnson Creek clay.'
Over the years the brickworks dug up nearly 40 acres of clay. In the beginning that work was done by hand, 100 tons a day. By 1923 the firm had a power shovel.
The clay, molded into bricks, was first dried in a mold with sand that allowed the brick to slip out of the mold. It was then 'burned' or baked at 1,500 to 2,000 degrees in brick ovens. It took 1 million bricks just to build the ovens at the brick works.
The site along the Springwater rail line was important because the brick was shipped out of Gresham by train, and once local wood supplies were exhausted, the train was used to bring fuel for the ovens.
In the beginning, Albert Olbrich said, Ernest Schedeen and sons, Poly and Les, who would be Albert Olbrich's lifelong friends, provided six cords of wood a day to keep the ovens going.
Later the Olbrichs used slab wood, then sawdust and finally coal to heat the ovens. Franz Olbrich Sr., his son said, could tell if a brick was sufficiently burned by looking at it. Much in the same way a baker can tell if a cake is done.
• Part of the material on Columbia Brickworks comes from the Gresham Historical Society publication, 'Gresham, Stories of Our Past,' edited by W.R. Chilton.