Editor’s Note: This is another in a continuing series of stories authored by Robert Kroeger, who has done paintings of numerous barns in Highland County, most of them framed with wood from the actual barn.
The barn this story is about was built in the 1800s, but it burned down in 1944. Some of the hand-hewn beams were salvaged and used when it was rebuilt in 1946, using jumbo bricks from the former Beltz brick factory in Mowrystown. The factory’s brick survives on many buildings and homes in the area to this day. I’m not sure who owned the barn and farm then, but today’s owners are Will Bohrer and his wife, Joann.
Will Bohrer’s story epitomizes the American entrepreneur.
“As my business prospered, I invested in farm land,” he said as he walked through this barn. Bohrer’s strategy has paid off: he and his wife now own many acres of farm land in Highland County.
Bohrer was born in a house across the street from this barn and graduated from Whiteoak High School in 1958. When he was 18 he began working in a lumber yard. He paid attention, dreaming someday of owning his own company. He also paid attention to a young lady whom he married in 1959 – on the afternoon of her high school graduation day. Bohrer has a sense of humor. I would guess his wife has patience. Six children, numerous grandchildren, and a marriage of over half a century later, humor and patience must have come in handy.
Bohrer worked in that lumber yard for five years and at age 23 began working for another lumber company. Ten years later he was a natural salesman brimming with confidence and gambled in establishing his own truss manufacturing company – when only 33. Starting a business is not difficult; keeping it going is a different matter. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of this stuff. According to its statistics, about 34 percent of businesses fail in the first year and 50 percent fail within five years. Only a third survive for more than 10 years. Bohrer is a survivor: today, four of his children work in his company located on U.S. Route 50 – the Ohio Valley Truss Company.
But let’s return to the brick barn.
Originally, there was a frame barn on this site. Bohrer said that he was 4 years old and lived across the street when the barn burned down in 1944. Three or four other barns met the same fate in the 1940s, possibly from arson, lightning, or accidents. Two years later the owner, Vernon Beltz, built it, the silo, and the adjacent hog barn with bricks from his factory, which employed many in the area.
I don’t know when the factory started, but I do know how it ended. It likely began in the late 1800s and was called the Mowrystown Brick & Tile Mill, owned by the Sauner family. According to a website posting by Phil Beltz, his grandfather, William Lawrence Beltz, was asked by the Sauners to operate the steam boiler and engine in the plant. By 1912, he purchased the plant from the Sauners. A newspaper article stated that Henry Beltz, brother of the owner, worked at the mill in 1912. They also had a saw mill.
The founder, William L. “Bill” Beltz, employed about 45 workers in the 1940s and in 1946 – the same year this barn was built from the factory’s bricks – the company’s hourly wage was 60 cents an hour. However, the union wage level was 80 cents an hour, about 30 percent more. Business was good, workers were happy, and plenty of brick buildings were built. Plus, World War II had just ended. Then tragedy hit.
A News Herald report ran the headline, “Report – Strike at Mowrystown,” followed by “Union Employees Establish Picket Line At Brick Plant.” It was August 1946. Soldiers and sailors were returning home and needed places to live. Construction boomed. Bricks and lumber built houses. But, in any business, owners must control overhead or face failure.
Beltz, as the newspaper reported, claimed that even with an 8-percent increase in the price of his bricks, he could not compete with those made in nearby Cincinnati factories. And now the union wanted higher wages. He admitted that the wages were low, but even so, he claimed to be operating at a loss and wondered if he could continue. But continue he did, keeping the union out of his factory.
After both sides – Beltz and the union – hired attorneys, a decision evolved to present this issue to the National Labor Relations Board. But the board’s representative should have investigated the matter more thoroughly before he visited the plant. Beltz did no interstate sales, selling bricks only in Ohio, which meant that the national board could not get involved.
The national labor union, the first of its kind in America, was founded in 1866. It dissolved after seven years, but it paved the way for future labor organizations, which evolved over the decades, all striving to improve conditions for workers. Labor unions grew. In 1922, the brick and clay workers of Toledo joined the national group, the United Brick and Clay Workers of America, the same one that organized the strike at the Beltz factory.
As time passed, Bill’s sons were involved in the factory – Vernon, George, William and Marvin. Two of their sons also worked there. And, the president wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Another newspaper article reported that Beltz was hurt on Labor Day of 1960 at the tile mill. As his grandson alludes, the family tree was rich in mechanical aptitude.
But trouble was brewing. According to 83-year-old Roger Roberts, another local legend, there was another problem in those days: bricklayers began to refuse to lay bricks made from this factory since it did not employ union workers. That was the final nail in the coffin. The mill shut down in 1972, according to Phil Beltz, and many workers lost jobs.
It must have been a difficult decision, ending a Highland County legacy, but many of Mowrystown’s homes and buildings displaying the factory’s golden-red bricks remind us of what once was a bustling business. The next time you drive by this unique barn, you’ll remember.
Robert Kroeger is a former Cincinnati area dentist who has since ran in and organized marathons, took up the painting skills he first picked up from his commercial artist father, become a published author, and is a certified personal trainer that started the LifeNuts vitality program. Visit his website at http://barnart.weebly.com/paintings.html.