Hebron Brick Company: Technology Meets Tradition in North Dakota

As with so much else in North Dakota, the wind decides which side of the Hebron Brick Factory you want to walk along.

When the wind comes from the south, its heat and power meet the rolling hills west of the state capitol, Bismarck. That's its first interruption after building momentum over thousands of miles of flat plains. As the wind mixes with the heat of the enormous kiln at the factory's heart, temperatures and sometimes tempers begin to rise near the Grinding Plant.

When the wind comes pushing insistently from the Canadian north, it whips and whirls around the 60,000 tons of tinted clay that sit in tall piles next to the factory. Ash builds up on clothes and cars and leaves a mineral heaviness in the mouth that tastes exactly like you somehow already know dirt tastes.

But whatever way the wind blows at the Hebron Brick Factory, you'll undoubtedly hear, feel, taste and smell the organic process that goes into making bricks -- from mining the clay to fashioning it into shapes that will protect, decorate and insulate.

Brick making is a practice that's almost as old as humankind, and it's almost instinctual to pick bricks up to get to know them. Rough or smooth. Dark or light. Thin or heavy. Held in the hand, they prompt a memory of the way bricks can be warm or cold, how they clink like teacups when knocked together, and how they are strong enough to hold up against a storm, but delicate enough to shatter when mishandled.

Established in 1904, Hebron Brick is a relatively recent entry in the human history of brick making. But Hebron has anchored North Dakota long enough to make it a staple of the state's identity. The local cab driver, the hotel receptionist, the pilot that flew you to the northern center of an enormous America all know Hebron Brick and know it has been there a long time.

Chapter One: Not a Relic

Despite the fact it feels deeply a part of the Dakota landscape, there have been plenty of opportunities for Hebron Brick to disappear.

Rodney Paseka, the company's owner and CEO, bought out his partners in the 1990s and led the company on an investment program that put millions of dollars into the building of an almost entirely new factory, which now sits adjacent to the old one.

The new factory opened in 2000 and saved Hebron from becoming a relic or antique brand.

Paseka's changes increased production and allowed for both more customized runs of brick and standardized outcomes in production. But rather than use machines to save on labor costs, Paseka boosted production runs to keep people in work.

David Diebel

The combination of machines and people make the inside of the factory a deeply human and modern experience. It's a living, breathing place that hums with human activity. But it also whirs and beeps as immense, powerful machines and robots dominate its buildings.

Through the early 2000s, Hebron rode the wave of booming construction markets. But by 2004, Paseka was starting to feel the effects of a coming downturn. Orders began to slow. His phone didn't ring as much.

So the CEO sat down to read a century's worth of notes from Hebron board meetings.

The notes left him humbled and inspired.

His predecessors had survived vagaries of competition and wartime as well as economic perils great and small. There was a major fire in 1926 and repeated company restructurings. Now it was time for Paseka to do his own reimagining of Hebron to take it into the future.

He focused on quality first, then expanded into specialty products for restorations and even ventured into new geographies. Traditionally, bricks -- heavy and expensive to transport -- are made near where they would be used. But to serve more customers, Hebron created a distribution network that runs from Washington State to Connecticut. It has even shipped bricks to Japan.

The company's legacy-brand bricks provide architects with the materials to match historical buildings or replicate historical styles, and the company's high-quality kilns and clays mean it can produce unusual colors and qualities of brick unmatched by larger competitors.

Even though Paseka brought in new machinery, he held onto the past-and that has served him well. Along with a hundred years of notes, he has kept the traditional brick cutters filed along one wall of the manufacturing plant.

The cutters look like ancient compasses for use by giants, but their delicate wires can cut unusual shapes and textures a computer can't make. They are kept in perfect shape to slice through the Dakota clay.

Chapter 2: Clay and Fire

The Dakota clay is why Hebron Brick is here. To this day, reserves of clay, brought once a year from a mine only six miles away, are placed in mounds near the plant.

The plant works through all the clays during its yearly production cycle, operating 24 hours a day of which only about eight are staffed. Workers spend shifts lining up the wet and glistening unbaked bricks.

David Diebel

From a bright, grass-edged yard, a step into the gloomy plant is deeply disorienting. Building-size machines cloaked in gray dust rattle and shake as pipes and belts throb and gyrate almost as a one-unit rock band of movement.

Every so often, a large hunk of shale that's gotten mixed in with the clay will wrench its way into the system, producing a sound that vehemently defies the word "grinding."

From there, the properly ground and mixed clay is mixed with water and extruded in a sheer, endless strip that looks more like steel than clay. Steaming slightly, the clay moves along a belt above the heads of passersby, moving inexorably toward the main manufacturing plant where it's shaped into bricks before heading to the kiln.

The brick kiln's temperature varies from 1,970 to 2,180 degrees Fahrenheit, but when the bricks emerge, they are only warm to the touch. What's most striking though is their transformation. From shapeless dust to formed brick, the carefully regulated magic of fire and water have done their jobs, and the constituent pieces of of a suburban garage now sit piled on a slow-moving platform, headed toward the drawing and loading area.

Chapter 3: "Leo and Clay"

For thousands of years, brick making was the backbreaking work of men who cut and loaded tons of wet bricks in preparation for the clay's journey through fire, a process that drives the water from the clay to change its very nature. Wet clay will hold nothing. Bricks will support a skyscraper.

Today, much of the heavy lifting is done by two robotic arms the company invested in a decade ago. The arms, which have a surprising amount of personality, load the cut bricks onto carts. Watching them do it is a testament to the back-straining nature of old-fashioned brick making.

When the arms arrived at Hebron Brick in 1999, they were nameless, soulless machines. But the workers felt they should be more -- so they named them.

"Clay" was the result of a factory contest. "Leo" is named after Paseka's father, a North Dakota bricklayer who lived to see his son open the upgraded plant with the governor and TV crews gathered around.

David Diebel

Nowhere is that upgrade more evident than in a room of computer servers and screens poised above the long, sauna-like holding room. While the bricks sweat below, the plant managers sit above in an air-conditioned room where they are able to watch each individual batch of brick go through its production cycle.

The office is almost medical, somehow free of dirt and brightly lit. The steam and smell and boom of the factory is boiled down to figures and displayed on computer monitors. The system is both complex and designed for interactivity, replacing a long-held system of moving units along a pin board to monitor the delicate interchange of clays with heat, where the slightest change results in a vastly different product.

From the room of computers, visitors can walk directly over the kiln, possibly the only way to get a sense of its scale. The kiln rests in its huge room like a silent building laid on its side. It's filled with a fire glowing bright orange that can only be glimpsed through a dense, tinted window.

Once out of the kiln, human hands touch the bricks again as they are strapped into packs of 105 and the packs strapped into bundles of 525. Quality control remains the purview of human minds and senses. While some brick factories now have fully-mechanized sorting systems, Hebron still has human workers load bricks into slots.

Even as hard rock music blares from a radio, the air is filled with the delicate sound of porcelain-like rings. By striking the bricks together and listening carefully, a seasoned brick maker can tell whether they're flawed or quality.

The interplay between human and machine, between organic product and robotic process, ends in the brickyard, where piles of bricks are lined up for departure to the country's construction markets by truck or rail.

Paseka says he views himself as a "steward, not an entrepreneur." He doesn't shrug off the old for the new, but instead is taking the company's history and knowledge into an ever-forming technological future.

"You have to stay engaged with where the market is going, with where your customers are going, keep looking ahead," he says. "I feel I have a responsibility to these people. And as a company we've got to make sure we're out there, so that we can survive...and hopefully thrive, too."

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