Employee reflects on Carlyle Tile#039;s glory days

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Every night when Tom McKnight was in grade school, he would hear the squeal of carts full of clay echo through Coal Grove.

The clay was headed to the Carlyle Tile plant, a mainstay of Coal Grove for five decades. If the village's recent attempt to gain the funding to demolish it is successful, it will lose more than an eyesore. It will lose an abandoned monument to the industrial era that once powered the county.

In its heyday, the plant extended trestles across the top of what was then U.S. 52, making it impossible to drive in or out of the city without a reminder of the business' importance.

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Residents such as former Coal Grove mayor Tom McKnight, who worked at the plant from 1956 to 1959, would hear clay traveling from the mines to the factory, where it would be blended with water and made soft.

That soft mixture would be pressed through dies of varying sizes. The tile would be cut by a razor-sharp steel wire, scooped up with spatulas and stacked on trays filling a cart.

The carts would then be hauled by hand, one of the many tasks McKnight did at the plant, to a large dryer. Once through the dryer, the men would have a cart full of fragile, yet dry, tile.

"If you dropped it, it would shatter, but it would make no noise," McKnight said. It was just like dried up putty."

That "dry putty" would then be taken to kiln cars, which would take the squares to be fired through the 80-yard long kiln.

McKnight said he enjoyed the job and received a fair wage for his work. More than anything though, he enjoyed working for the Carlyle family, who treated each of its employees (there could be as many as 200 at a time) with special care.

"Every Christmas, we always looked forward to getting these woven, wood slat baskets," McKnight said. "They'd have canned foods, something to make pumpkin pie with, they'd have turkeyŠthey gave every employee a turkey."

As of 1978, the kilns ceased to fire when a strike closed the plant. It was purchased by Structural Stoneware who stripped much of the equipment for its operation further north in Ohio. Since then the building has sat empty.

Naomi Deer, president of the Lawrence County Historical Society, said Carlyle Tile may have once been about more than just tile manufacturing.

"This is hearsay, but there was a fellow who I knew who said there was Civil War cemetery on the side of the river down below Carlyle Tile, and they took up the soldiers and took them to Woodland Cemetery," Deer said. "But there's no written proof that happened. It's probably true, but there's no way I could prove it."

Although her society is dedicated to preserving history, she said that she believes that the building is now an eyesore that just needs to be removed.

If the village's bid for Clean Ohio funding is successful, Deer and residents of Coal Grove will finally be satisfied as the old plant will stand no longer, and the only evidence of Carlyle Tile will be the memories of those like Naomi Deer and Tom McKnight, part of the fleet of local workers who once made it great.