Brickyards a backbone of early region times

1999-12-04T00:00:00Z Brickyards a backbone of early region timesArch McKinlay nwitimes.com
December 04, 1999 12:00 am  • 

Just down the street from The Times at about 45th Street and Calumet Avenue was

the community of Maynard. Old-timers will remember it as a kind of half-way

camp. Folks lucky enough to own an automobile would stop there on their way to

a picnic at Crown Point or Cedar Lake to tide themselves over with a snack and

drink, and to fill up the gas tank.

Maynard is short for Maynard Station, a stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Why

did the Pennsy have a station way out in the middle of nowhere? Because in

1900, Bernard Weber performed soil soundings that found clay 30 inches below

the surface that ran to a depth of 65 feet -- enough clay, he concluded, to

last for at least a century, or about now. That was like striking oil, since

Calumet Region clay had unique qualities about it bequeathed by retreating

glaciers.

Thus was born National Brick, which shared the neighborhood with onions,

tomatoes, cabbage, sugar beets, and sweet corn, encouraged by truck farmers to

the west. The only humans around were members of the Dittrich family, who lived

at 45th and Columbia Avenue, and the Kirsch family, right at 45th and Calumet.

Nick Kirsch decided to work at National Brick, as did his son Vic, who became

better known for his vast Red Top Trucking enterprise.

Maynard clay was almost as easy to handle as bread dough. After a narrow-gauge

railroad hauled chunks of it (some as heavy as 400 pounds) from the pit to a

shed, two sets of knives sliced the clay into small bits. The bits were then

moved to a pug mill, which ground and pulverized them. From there the clay

traveled to a sausage stuffer (shaper) and came out 2 feet by 4 feet, ready for

cutting into 8-inch lengths. After being loaded on small cars, the clay finally

went into an oven (dryer) where it was baked for 48 hours. In all, the plant

used 11 kilns 35 feet wide by 120 feet long and 16 inches high. Each kiln

contained 1.2 million bricks.

The real jackpot, though, was the clay's color. After National Brick officially

opened in 1905, workers found a trace element in the clay that was like finding

glitter at Sutter's Mill. The element made the brick pink salmon, which was

particularly desirable for walls of people with fat purses. No brickyard in the

entire states of Indiana and Illinois could produce such a color. So, by 1920,

National Brick was the largest brick producer in the Midwest.

Long before Maynard, brickyards came to Lansing, four in all. That's what

induced the Pennsy to build a depot and switch track and call it Bernice. The

switch track enabled the hauling of bricks to Chicago, where a great deal of

construction was going on after the Chicago Fire of 1871. Apart from its four

brickyards, Lansing was a one-street town with three saloons and a hook and

ladder fire company.

Lansing's first brickyard was opened in 1887 and was called the Harlan

Brickyard. A second yard was established in 1892 by John and Charles Labahn and

men named Wendell and Wolf. The Illinois Brick Co. soon came in and opened up

two more yards and then bought out the others. The company even brought in

homes on flatcars for the workers.

Even older than Lansing's was Crown Point's brickyard, one of Lake County's

largest and finest. It was owned and operated by Henry Wise. Originally from

Pennsylvania, the Wise family had moved to Winfield in 1849. They made brick

wherever they found suitable clay. Henry's father, Jacob, built one of the

first brick homes in the county, and did so from clay he found in his backyard.

Meanwhile, Henry volunteered for service in the Civil War, and was with Sherman

during his scorching march to the sea. After the war, in 1872, Henry opened a

brickyard in Crown Point, digging clay and baking it all in the same location.

In later years, Henry's huge hole became a city dump and eventually a high

school parking lot.

The Wise brickyard made bricks for many important buildings in Crown Point,

including a number of buildings around the square and for the old Lake County

Courthouse itself. In 1878, Henry supplied a half-million bricks for what is

now the center section of the courthouse. And talk about recycling. When

prisoners from the Lake County Jail took up Crown Point's wooden blocks and

planks, they hauled them to the Wise Brickyard, where they were burned in the

kiln firing the very brick that would replace the wooden streets.

Of course, Hobart was so proud of its brick-making that it named the high

school team Brickies, which is a name safe from the synthetic outrage of

political correctniks. Brickmaking was one of Hobart's oldest industries,

beginning with the first bricks made in the 1850s. The two largest brickyards

were located on the Pennsy west of Deep River. The Kulage brickyard, south of

the tracks, made common and face brick; the Kulage yard closed in the 1920s.

The brickyard north of the tracks began in the 1870s. At the turn of the

century, W.B. Owen Sr. converted the yard to terracotta. National Fireproofing

bought it in 1902.

Amber Lake was once a claypit for the Owen yard, but it wasn't the only one.

What became the lake of the Lansing Sportsman's Club was once a clay hole. So

is Green Lake across from the River Oaks Shopping Center. Both hit springs and

water rapidly rose. And here's a neat trick that used to blow away mere

innocent: On a clear, windless day at Green Lake, a person could peer down 50

feet and see a steam shovel and cars that were unable to be salvaged when the

lake created itself.

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