SALEM – Marie Johns touched the side of a hand-built brick and declared, “I will never be able to look at a brick again without thinking about its velvet texture.”
Johns is deputy administrator of the United States Small Business Administration, more familiarly known as the SBA. She was caressing bricks Old Virginia’s CEO Cory Redifer and Mike Quillen were showing her at Old Virginia Brick Company in Salem on Sept. 26. Johns and other SBA officials and Marie Leibson, senior vice president of Sonabank were touring the 122-year-old industry on West Main Street.
Earlier this year the SBA helped bail out Old Virginia Brick with a $1-million SBA guaranteed loan through Sonabank that provided working capital, equipment and raw materials.
“We take our responsibilities to help small businesses seriously,” said Johns.
The loan enabled Old Virginia to bring back 31 employees who had been laid off from its Madison Heights plant near Lynchburg where bricks are extruded or pushed out instead of hand-moulded as they are in Salem.
In front of the 9/11 memorial made from steel from one of the World Trade Towers, Redifer thanked the SBA and Sonabank for helping the company. He gave a brief history of Old Virginia, which started out in 1890 as Pierpont Brick in Salem. Henry Garden managed the company for 60 years, from 1920 through the Great Depression, when homeless men slept near the brick kilns to keep warm, and World War II. The company was Salem Brick starting in 1955.
“Over the last 4-1/2 years Old Virginia Brick has been faced with many challenges – the housing market, diesel spiked and loans dried up. In the fall of last year, Sonabank introduced us to the SBA,” Redifer said.
Around the corner, brick maker Kirk Coleman of Salem slammed wet clay into wooden molds made of Vermont maple, throwing the clay to get the air bubbles out. He has worked at Old Virginia Brick for three years. Coleman “floured” the clay with sand to make the shale clay come out of the mold and to give it the characteristic color and texture a particular customer ordered.
“I can relate to that,” Johns told Coleman as he used sand like flour. “I’m a baker,” said Johns, who lives in the Richmond area and administers the district that includes Salem. “I love the way the clay feels.”
Brushing brick-red dust off his hands, Coleman told Johns he could make “about 400 to 600 bricks a day.”
“In Jefferson’s day they would use clay from the property,” pointed out Quillen, a Botetourt County resident who is director of manufacturing. Clay used at the Salem brick plant comes from Little Brushy Mountain off I-81’s Exit 137 and other nearby areas.