Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Albert Olbrich, Gertrude Frazee and Cathy Olbrich-Tenney display old family photos.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Albert Olbrich, Gertrude Frazee and Cathy Olbrich-Tenney display old family photos.
The foundation of love and hard work for this family has created the building blocks for the homes and businesses of people all over Oregon.

The Olbrich family, and its brick-making dynasty, has long been known in the Gresham area for its century-long connection to the city and for the company family members maintained for decades, Columbia Brickworks.

The family’s influence and building materials have also played a role in shaping the history and landscape of the Catholic church in Gresham, St. Henry Parish. For many years, members of the family were the history keepers, the ones new priests turned to when they needed help. When the 1913 church needed to be replaced in 1964, it was the Olbrich family company that provided the bricks. 

That’s a reality Cathy Olbrich-Tenney, Franz’ granddaughter, was raised to understand.
“If someone needs to know something, there is always somebody to call – and chances are that somebody is Olbrich,” Cathy, 59, said. “There has always been someone [from the family] willing to step up to the plate.”

It was just after the turn of the century that 19-year-old Franz Olbrich, crossed the country from Ellis Island by train to work for his uncle, Alois Klose. The two men were capitalizing on a clay bank, deposited hundreds thousands of years ago by glacial wash. Back then, the clay was dug with shovels and stacks of bricks were transported by teams of horses. Later those chores were made easier with electric shovels and a locomotive.

In 1913, Franz traveled home to find a bride. He returned with Elizabeth Pollock. Their first child, Ruth, was born a year later. Nine more would follow over the years, all raised in a spacious house on Roberts Street that had originally been built to accommodate a doctor’s office and clinic. Cecilia was the youngest, 20 years younger than Ruth. Dressing and preparing all the kids for Mass at St. Henry’s on Sundays was always an undertaking for Elizabeth, but the older children helped tame the young.

“There were so many kids,” said Albert, 92. “Everybody had a chore from the time they could walk. Dad often took us kids to the brick yard just to get them out of mom’s hair.”

In the 1930s, the tired parents set the rambunctious boys of the family, Albert, Ben, Joe, and Franz Jr., to work digging a hole the backyard to keep them busy during one summer. The pack of boys stuck to it, and eventually the family had the first swimming pool in Gresham.

Franz paid for his girls – Gertrude, Marie, Pauline, Cecilia, Ruth and Elizabeth – to get a Catholic education, sending them into Portland to attend Central or St. Mary’s Academy. He knew his boys could always work in the family business, but he wanted to be sure his girls were set up for success, Gertrude said. These days Gertrude is 87 and a member of All Saints Parish.

Despite his busy work schedule, Franz served as choir director at the church for 20 years. In the early 1950s, he helped get the parish elementary school running. He helped the nuns of the parish get their first automobile in the 1960s so they wouldn’t have to walk to pick up groceries or run their errands.

Franz shaped a fiercely independent brood.

“Every one of their children has said to a health care provider at least once, when you’re trying to explain why your parent is acting a certain way, ‘They’re an Olbrich,’” Cathy said. “Every one of the siblings are so distinctively different in temperament, but they get into this certain mode when they feel like their independence might be in question.”

Ruth, Franz Jr. and Elizabeth have died, but the rest of the siblings – who range in age from 92 to 76 – live independently. They also have lots of support from the younger generations, who were raised under the umbrella of Franz’ expectation that ones gives back to his or her family and community.

By the 1960s, there was an Olbrich descendent in every single class of that school, some with two or three.

For many years, the brick factory was the largest employer in Gresham, keeping people on even during World War II and the Great Depression. At the time, the city’s population was only 1,000 – between 50 to 75 of those residents worked at the factory.

In was a success story. Klose made a lot of money fast, and eventually decided to return to Germany, leaving Franz in charge. He or some collection of family members ran the company until 1973.

These days there are 20 grandchildren ranging in age form 45 to 60, and 20 great-grandchildren.

“If your last name is Olbrich, you’d better toe the line in that town,” Gertrude said.