Oral History of Leon Genuit
[Photographs and other documents accompany this oral history. Click HERE to see them.]
Interviewed by Charlotte Wangrin, October 13, 2010, transcribed by Marlene Patterson
CW: Would you tell us your name please.
LG: I am Leon Genuit
CG: I am Cassie Genuit.
CW: Leon as I understand you worked at the Tile Mill years ago.
CW: How was that formed in the first place?
LG: Back in 1884 John A. Mehring started it. He and his son were in it. It was first called Mehring and Company. After a while they changed it to John A. Mehring and Company, and then from that to Napoleon Brick and Tile Works.
CW: How did they happen to start that company?
LG: I don’t know how they happened to but this was called the Black Swamp around here. It was not a nice place to be because it used to be a lake and the lake drained away. You know the ridge out here that is where the lake was. The ground was so wet they decided sometime in the 1860’s or so they started ditching in different places. It was much different than the ditching they do today. Mehrings thought that might be a good thing. They really started it for brick, not just for tile.
CW: Was that for the construction of homes?
LG: Right. A lot of these plain red brick homes you see in Napoleon, the brick was manufactured back here.
CW: Is that right.
LG: Like the old Napoleon Library that is brick from the tile yard. Also the Armory. I think the school at St. Augustine and the Napoleon Creamery. A lot of homes you can see them all around town have the plain red brick that was all manufactured out there. After a while plain red brick went out of style and people wanted colors and so they started switching from making brick to making brick and tile. Then eventually when Edgar Meineke and my dad Paul Genuit bought it from Dick Mehring in 1946. The first year we made brick. Then we quit making brick and made just tile.
CW: Was there better money in the tile? Was there more demand maybe?
LG: There was more demand because people were getting tired of the plain old red brick, that was all we could make. People wanted the colored bricks and different things like that. Tile business was coming on because a lot of farmers needed to drain their land. From then on in 1947 we made all just tile. We continued to make tile until 1985 when I shut the plant down and sold it.
CW: I remember those tiles. They were about a foot long and very large around.
LG: We made tile that was four inches in diameter that were a foot long and up to twelve inches in diameter.
CW: What did you use the big twelve inch ones for?
LG: When the farmer is ditching a field you lay the four inch tile down and when you come to the end of the string you put a bigger tile at the end and they ditch into that. That goes into a bigger tile so there is only one tile that goes into the ditch, not a whole bunch of them.
CW: Oh, I see.
LG: So you got things like this and you run a six inch or an eight inch down here to the ditch. This way you only have one to take care of one in the ditch instead of a whole bunch of them.
CW: So you wouldn’t have animals going in there too. How did you happen to get involved in this?
LG: Well myself, I was at the time my dad and Edgar bought this plant I was going to Bowling Green State University. I got an accounting degree and when I got out and graduated in 1950 and I came to the plant and ran the office. My dad died in 1959.
CW: Was your dad the owner?
LG: He and Edgar Meineke were the owners. I took my dad’s place and Edgar and I were the partners. We stayed partners until 1977. I bought Ed out and I ran the plant until January of 1985. I sold the plant to Ben Reese. He bought the plant for the land. There was 80 acres of ground there right here in Napoleon. Eventually he put in streets. There are homes out there now.
CW: That is west of where the Chief Supermarket is now.
LG: It ran from behind Chief clear over to Glenwood Avenue. That is where we got our dirt to make the tile. The top three feet of dirt we got off the ground. We didn’t go any deeper because we got into llimestone pebbles. After the tiles were fired the limestone would pop out and maybe make a crack in the tile. Which is why we only dug down three feet. We stayed above the limestone.
CW: So you used farm land.
LG: It had to be clay. We used the top three feet and we mixed that with the top six inches had better soil. We dug down maybe three feet and we would mix the two together.
CW: How did you test the soil to make sure it was the correct type of clay you wanted?
LG: We had to test the soil. The government made us test it. When we had the tile burnt we had to take them some place to test them. The tile had to withstand the pressure of about a thousand to something per square inch. In other words if the testing machine would break the tile - and we had to take the tile to get tested once a year. We had to take over all different sizes and test them. They would come back okay and they wouldn’t bother us again for another year. Then when the year was up we would have to take more tile back over there again to be tested.
CW: Oh yes. Now where was this place that you would have to take the tile?
LG: It was in Toledo. There was a testing company over there. They would be testing the tile for the State of Ohio.
CW: When you sold the company you were just a young man. Is that correct?
LG: Yes in 1985 I was 60.
CW: Did you find it hard to do without work.
LG: I always thought I would go back to college but I never did. I really haven’t done a whole lot since then. I worked at the mortuary a few years just to have something to do. Otherwise I just played a lot of golf.
CW: Oh yes. That sounds familiar.
LG: We used to when we made tile dig it back in the pit, bring it up on a little train. We had a train that ran from the pit to the building. We would dig it out of the pit and bring it up to the building and haul it up to the second floor of the plant and dump it. It would go down through the tile machinery and so forth. We could make about 18000 feet a day.
CW: That is a lot of tiles.
LG: The tiles were about 14 inches long and these tiles would shrink down to about 12 inches in length. When we burned the tile would come out about 12 inches long. The redness came from the heat. We would start the kiln on Tuesday
CW: Excuse me but would you describe what the kiln looked like? I think that would be very interesting to know.
LG: It was called a beehive kiln because of the rounded top. We would stack the tile in this kiln. Most people call this a kiln, but you don’t prounounce the letter n. Anyhow one kiln was three feet thick of brick all the way around the side. Around the side it was two bricks thick.
CW: That would be pretty thick.
LG: In that kiln would be about 175,000 brick. It took that many bricks to build a kiln. The other kiln had a steel jacket around it so the bricks weren’t that thick. It would have been the same idea. When we loaded a kiln it was a lot of hard work. We would load buggies which held about 124 inch tile.
CW: What did they do run on this rail?
LG: We would load the buggies in the building. We would use a two wheel cart and we had to balance it. You would have about a hundred tile on there. Each tile would weigh about 10 pounds apiece, so you would be lifting a lot of weight. You would have to have it balanced otherwise you would tip the cart up and lose it if it wasn’t balanced correctly. You would break a lot of tile if that happened. When we made the tile like Cassie was saying we had carts that we put them on. We had a cutting machine when the tile came out in a long strip - it had like a piano wire that was used to cut the tile. The wire would go around in a circle and cut the tile at 14 inches in length. We would set those on a cart, take them inside where everything inside would be air dried. This building would be able to hold about 150,000 tiles. They would air dry - depending on how the weather was - and when they were dry enough. They had to be dry enough so you could put them inside the kiln. Then of course like I was telling you earlier we’d load them on a buggy. We had an elevator inside the building for each floor. We would run them down the first floor and into the kiln. We would stack the tile on end. We would stack them five tile high and then we would get on top of the tile and lay boards on top of the tile. They were stacked on end five high so you would be up in the air about six feet. Then we would lay boards on them so we could walk on them. We would build the tile up like this all the way to the top of the kiln. Then you would have another 7 or 8 tile stacked on top of the first five. It would be 13 to 14 feet high. You would get up to about 4 feet from the top of the kiln. When you were finished with one kiln you could put in about 30,000 4 inch tile. Most of the time we would put the 4 inch tile on the bottom. Then we would put the larger 5 and 6 inchers and 10 inch tile on top of them. I can see it here and it is hard to explain just how they were stacked. It would be nice if people could see just how it was done. I am trying to explain how we stacked the tile. When we got the kiln finished we had to put in the doors again. We had to redo the doors every time we opened and shut it.
CW: What do you mean by redo the doors?
LG: The door had a permanent opening on both sides, on one side and on the other side. That is so you can get the tile in and out. We had to re-mud it up. We had insulated brick and we relayed the doors again so we could keep the heat in. Our tile kilns had ten openings where we could fill coal in and burn and heat up the kiln.
CW: Is coal what you used for fuel?
LG: Yes we used coal for fuel. I can’t remember exactly but each time you burned a kiln it took 8 or 9 tons of coal.
CW: How did you keep the coal supplied in the kiln, wouldn’t it have been all closed up?
LG: We had little cupolas. There were ten openings around the kiln. Then you would throw your coal in there. On the inside of the kiln there is something else which is hard to explain. There was a circular cove around each one of these openings so the coal stays in there - it was almost like a chimney.
CW: How did it get from the outside of the beehive to the center? Didn’t it burn in the center?
LG: These ten openings where we put in the coal - we had to do this every hour. The reason for a beehive kiln is that the heat around the outside would go to the center and it would be sucked down through the tile. There were pits underneath the kiln and that went through a chimney. When you fired it the heat would go clear up to the top of the kiln and come down through all the tiles and then it would go out the chimney. The heat and the smoke and whatever. Our chimney was about 50 feet high, somewhere around there and it had a good draft.
CW: What would keep that heat from going straight up through the chimney immediately?
LG: Well heat always rises. Like a beehive kiln is round on top, the heat all went to the top. There was draft from the chimney and it would get sucked down through the tile. Usually the top was 100° hotter than the bottom so you would have to be careful how hot you got them so you wouldn’t burn the ones on the top. It would have to be hot enough so the ones on the bottom couple rows would be burned enough. You really had to know what you were doing. We had a barometer which told how hot it was inside the kiln. It was just like a thermometer but it was called a barometer. We would heat the kiln up to about 1800 or 1900 degrees and burn it that way for about 15 hours. It would take about 2 days to get the heat up to 1900 degrees. We would burn it for about a half day and then let it cool off. We would start the kiln on Tuesday and open it up on Saturday or Sunday. On Monday we would empty it and fill it up and start it off again.
CW: That would have been a big job.
LG: Yes it was a lot of hard work.
CW: Now in those two days when you were getting that heat up somebody would have to go every hour and shovel in more coal.
LG: Every hour it would take about three shovels and put the coal in each one of those openings. Of course that was 24 hours a day. We had a night fireman. Of course during the day, this was continuous.
CW: Edgar Meineke, is he the elderly man that my son worked with in there?
LG: Yes he lived on Kolbe. You see I am 85 years old right now. He died a few years ago.
CW: I knew he was quite a bit older than you.
LG: He worked after I bought him out-he was about 75 years old at the time.
CW: Was he still shoveling coal at that age?
LG: Yes and handling tile.
CW: He probably would have stayed a very strong man.
LG: Yes he was in good shape. I did all the office work and if they needed help in the back I would go help them. I would fire the kilns and help make tile. When you have a small company you do everything.
CW: I bet you do. And you get to know everybody that works there too.
LG: I can’t think of much else except the ditching part of it. When we first had the business in the ‘40’s they would lay the tile in strings about 50 feet apart. Then with the heavy machinery they found out that was too far apart to be able to draw the water out of the ground. So then they would lay the tiles 40 feet apart.
CW: Now what do you mean on strings? Would you lay a string down like when you are planting a garden?
LG: A string of tile would be laying the tile - the ditcher of course he had make sure he wasn’t ditching up hill and so forth. The ditching machine would do all of this. A string of tile was just a long line of tile in the field.
CW: You mean one tile after the other. So that is what a string was.
LG: The tile would be about - anyway at least between 35 and 40 feet apart in a field. They had decided that was close enough to draw and get the excess moisture out of the field.
CW: Did you ever have a batch of tile that were bad?
LG: Yes we have had them where we would over-burn them and the top two or three tile would have to be thrown away. We also had seconds too which had a little crack in them which we sold at half price.
CW: How did you feel when you would have a batch that needed to be thrown away?
LG: Well it was really a loss. You would have all your time and labor costs into it. Not very often did we have a bad batch. On every kiln we always had a few that you might have to toss away - maybe 500 or so.
CW: Out of how many?
LG: Around 30,000 tile.
CW: That wasn’t real bad.
LG: No you would always have a few to throw out. They would be the ones near the fire boxes on the inside and places like that.
CW: Did you ever have any accidents with people working there?
LG: Not really hurt bad. We had three floors and an elevator and we have had guys that thought the elevator was up and it was still on the first floor. They would wheel their cart onto the elevator and dump the whole cart down about 150 tile or so. That has happened in my lifetime probably 5 or 6 times. They guys wouldn’t go down the shaft because they would let go and the cart would go down the hole.
CG: Did it hurt the cart?
LG: It didn’t help it any. Other than that I can’t think of any. We delivered tile all over around here. We never had an accident with the truck which we were probably lucky in that respect.
CW: You would be pretty proud of that.
LG: Yes. When we were delivering the tile we had two trucks that would back the tile laying down. The truck would hold 2000 feet - something like that. That is when we delivered to the farmer. If he had it staked out for us we would have a driver and another person. He would get up on the truck and would throw the tile off as we drove the truck down the field. He just by looking he would throw four tile at a time and he could gage just by looking whether he had enough tile to cover the footage you needed. In other words in a string of tile there would be 800 to a 1000 foot string on a field, he had to guess as we were driving the truck he had to guess whether he had enough tile which would be right there and they would put it in the back of the ditching machine and put the tile in the ground. The guy that was delivering it would have to know what he was doing as far as the number of tile in the ground.
CW: Did you ever have trouble with people that did it wrong?
LG: Some would put the tile on the wrong side so it would. In other words there was a line where you were supposed to put the tile. Instead of putting the tile on the right side they put the tile on the wrong side. We would have to go pick them up and do it over. That would happen every once in a while.
CW: That would be the time for the boss to give them a little talking to. Now you said they ditched it and would put four down at a time. Was this four of those big tiles at one time?
LG: A four inch tile you could pick up two with your fingers, two at a time.
CW: You would have to be very strong because those tile would be very heavy.
LG: Right. That was the four inch tile. We had sixes and eights we would throw one at a time. So you would be pretty busy dumping tile off because the truck would be idling down the line where we were supposed to put them. And we would break a few too. If we threw them off and sometimes we would break them. We always when we delivered tile we would always take along around 50 extra tile. We didn’t charge the customer for the breakage that might happen when we delivered them.
CW: That would have been a good idea. It would keep the reputation of your company intact.
LG: We had so many broken tile that I would tell them we had 50 extra tile on the truck and if we broke more than that we took it off the bill.
CW: That is a good policy I would think. He was a good honest man.
CG: Of course the introduction of the plastic tile prompted us to close the business.
CW: Could you tell us about that development Cathy?
CG: I wasn’t in the business that much but I will show you what I did in the business.
LG: That is a four inch tile that she used. She didn’t use the whole tile. This tile has been cut in two.
CW: I see you have a pumpkin on the bottom. Did you put a candle in the bottom?
CG: I made a larger one with a bigger pumpkin. I made quite a few things out of clay and then Lee would burn them for me.
CW: Now when you say a pumpkin inside you would have put a candle inside.
CG: I just formed it and made it rounded. That was the artistic side of the tile.
LG: This was right after the tile was made and the clay was still pliable. You would be able to work it.
CW: That would be a fun thing to do.
CG: It was kinda fun for me.
CW: Did you sell those then?
CG: The year they had an art show downtown I put some of them in the show and I sold maybe three or four of them. Most of the ones I made I gave away. I made a chicken out of clay. It was artistic and fun.
CW: When I was volunteering at the Senior Center we had some tile and we sold them as newspaper holders. People would set them on their porch and the paper boy would put the newspaper inside the tile.
LG: They probably were eight inch in diameter tile that they used.
CG: Did you decorate them or anything?
CW: I don’t think they did.
CG: When I made mine I would take the whole tile and cut different designs in them. I would put a rope through them and hang them outside on a tree.
CW: Oh yes that would be nice too.
LG: It would vary, depending upon the time of the year but you would have anywhere between six and ten employees. Years ago when the company, in the early 1900’s when they made just all brick, it took more people to do the job. They had as high as 20 people doing the work at that time.
CW: You couldn’t pick up four of those bricks at one time.
LG: It just took more people and they didn’t have the machinery like they had later on and so forth. There was a lot of hard work involved and it just took more people to make brick than it did the tile. In reading some papers that I have here it tells how many people were working there at the time. I was looking back yesterday - I have some payroll books down in the basement from 1917. The men worked ten hour days, six days a week, which would mean 60 hours a week and they were paid $12.00 total.
LG: That would be $2.00 a day for ten hours of work. It was hard work, but I suppose a gallon of milk didn’t cost much either.
CW: Yes that is true.
LG: I also had some of the sales of the brick at that time. 1000 brick went for $6.00. I don’t know today but they were 3 to 400.00 per thousand brick.
CW: Even the plastic ones?
LG: No this is the price of brick and not plastic tile.
CW: Oh you are talking about the price of brick today.
CW: Are there still companies that make the brick tile?
LG: There is nobody that makes the clay drain tile anymore. They are all out of business. Plastic has taken over. Plastic is easier to put in, takes less labor and it is cheaper.
CW I remember when they first started and I believe I heard that the plastic would not hold up and would disintegrate after a little while. Then evidently it didn’t.
LG: Apparently it doesn’t. It has held up good enough for them anyhow. We always felt that those ribs wouldn’t drain as well. It does alright. It got to the point where the farmers just didn’t want to lay clay tiles so they bought the plastic.
CW: Then they just bring that plastic out and lay it down I suppose.
LG: Well they have a ditcher to put it in. They plow it in really. It is different from the way they used to put clay tile in.
CW: What do you mean.
LG: There is a machine that - you have probably seen some fields where they will have a big roll of plastic tile. It comes in big rolls. The plow will go down maybe three feet and the plastic tile will just follow the plow and ditch just like they did for clay. They call it plowing it in. They can do it faster and cheaper.
CW: That was kind of a blow when you started competing with that.
LG: That is what put us out of business.
CW: How did you feel then?
LG: Of course I didn’t like it. I eventually closed up and sold the land to Reese’s. The tile mill building sat there for ten years. I sold it to them and they didn’t know what to do with it. In 1995 Reese’s came in and knocked the buildings down and the kilns and so forth and cleaned it up.
CW: For quite a long time after the buildings came down at least one of those beehives were still there because I remember it back in the field behind Chief Supermarket.
LG: No they knocked the kiln down right away. The one had where the roof had fallen in when I was going to sell the business, the roof on the one kiln had fallen in. As it was cooling off the shrinking for some reason the roof fell in.
CW: Did that ruin the tile then?
LG: Yes it ruined the whole kiln and the whole tile. The other kiln was still there and that was the one with all the brick in it. It took a lot of knocking to get that knocked down.
CW: How did you do it?
LG: We contracted Larry Irving to do it. He has the big machinery. It went thump thump, bang bang and so forth and he finally got it all knocked down. They had a lot of trouble with the chimney. That chimney was so well built that they couldn’t get the chimney all knocked down. They finally did. The building they tore it down just like - what Irving does is tear things down.
CW: It would have been hard to see them do that I bet.
LG: We took some pictures of it when they were doing it. I spent from 1950 to 1985 - I was there 35 years. I am glad the roof fell in when it did and not when we were emptying the kiln.
CW: That would have been a mess.
LG: It would have killed us.
CW: You never had anybody get injured?
LG: No. Nothing real bad but a cut finger and things like that but nothing major.
CW: Well this has been a good story about early industry in Napoleon. Cassie, I wonder if we could get some information from you about some of the projects that women have done in the past.
CG: Do you mean here at the tile yard?
CW: It wouldn’t have to be at the tile yard, it could be in Napoleon or in Henry County. You spoke of taking your tile that you decorated to an Art Show.
CG: I did one year when they had an Art Show downtown. That has been a long time ago.
LG: She did it mostly to give them away to people.
CW: Now what was that Art Fair like?
CG: That has been a long time ago. It was similar to what they just had a couple of weeks ago. It was held over at the fairgrounds. What was that called? It was something like that - the Craft Show.
CW: Did they close off Perry Street when they had the Art Show.
CG: I am pretty sure they did. They just had the Hospital Bazaar. That involves a lot of women here in town.
CW: We don’t have much information on the Hospital Bazaar. Could you tell us about the Bazaar?
CG: I haven’t been to one for several years.
CW: Can you tell us what it was like when you were there.
CG: They had it organized very well to help buy equipment for the hospital. That was the idea behind it.
CW: How did they get that started I wonder. Do you remember some of the key people that used to work real hard. Viola Gunn was she one of the workers?
CG: Right now I can’t think of any. Penny Rowley works at it now. She is involved in it now. I used to go to it but now I am not interested in crafts so I don’t go anymore.
CW: It used to be a big deal.
CG: I think it still is. They moved it out to the hospital now.
CW: They used to have, when they were first getting started, they would have lots of hand made items. Now they don’t have so much of that. They have the auction with people bidding on different items that people have donated. That is how they make money now. They do anything to help the hospital.
CG: I know it brings in quite a bit of money to help the hospital.
END OF TAPE
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