Brickmaking once a booming business

Bricks at one time were manufactured by the millions in Menomonie, mainly because of the outstanding clay deposits nearby. At one time there were a half-dozen firms operating there. Here is the Menomonie Brick Company yards when it was operating. The firing kilns have the round tops and four smokestacks at right, In the foreground are the drying racks. (Photo by C. M. Russell)

     For some geological reason when this part of the earth was covered by oceans, silt and other materials developed into large clay deposits which thousands of years later became a source of building material for modern man.
     These deposits were scattered over carious parts of this region.
     Among the outstanding deposits were those in the Menomonie area, some in the Eau Galle area and some near Stanley.

Largest at Menomonie

     At one time a number of area communities had brickyards, but non to the extent of the works near Menomonie.
     Brickmaking at Menomonie dates to around 1868 when Jessie Hughes made bricks at a small plant. A few years later, in 1872, John and Frank Kelly along with W. A. Drowley started a brickmaking plant along the Hudson Road about two miles west.
      A few years later financiers like J. G. Thorp of Eau Claire and John H. Knapp, Menomonie, led a group which incorporated the Kelly-Drowley interest into the Dunn County Pressed Brick Co. This firm later became Menomonie Pressed Brick Co.
      Another company was the Hydraulic Pressed Brick Co. which operated until 1907. Its headquarters was in St. Louis and one of the officers was the father of T. S. Eliot, the famed poet.

A number of outside interests

     Various interests from Minneapolis, St. Paul and Galesburg, Ill., controlled the capital. At one time there were seven brickmaking firms in Menomonie.
     They included Wisconsin Red Pressed Brick Co., Excelsior Brick Co. and Tramway Brick Co., whose plant was located about six miles northwest of Menomonie. The combined output of these three firms reached more than 12 million bricks a year by 1912. Its products included rough texture brick, wire-cut-faced brick, red sand mount brick, also veneer, colonial, sewer, chimney and common brick.
     The Hydraulic Pressed Brick Co., had two plants in Menomonie in 1893. The firm with offices in St. Louis and Minneapolis shipped bricks throughout the northwest states.

Mostly seasonal work

     Brickmaking was seasonal work, from the time the frost left the ground until heavy frost in the fall.
     However, it was the right combination for a number of workmen who were in the lumber camps in the winter and returned home to the Menomonie area to work in the brickyards in the spring and summer.
     At one time brickmaking firms in Menomonie employed several hundred men. Hydraulic Pressed Brick Co. had 125 men working for it in the early 1900s.
     Menomonie brickmaking continued until 1968, although a number of the plants closed and some consolidation took place.

Shuts down in 1868

There isn't much left today as the Menomonie kilns have been razed, the drying racks have collapsed. The yeard suffered the fate of many other business ventures when more sophisticated equipmnet produced bricks faster and many smaller firms folded rather than risk the high cost of new equipment.

     The Menomonie Brick Company remained in business until 1968 when it was purchased and incorporated under the name Red Cedar Brick Co. The plant closed in Oct. 1968 with the property being owned by Matthew Madsen Jr., from the Twin Cities.
     Operations closed like many other brickmaking facilities in smaller towns -- more modern plants gained control of the market because of their ability to produce bricks with faster kiln operations.
     The kilns have been torn down now at Menomonie and only stacks of rubble and broken bricks mark the spot of this once busy operation, which served as the main industry when the Knapp, Stout & Co., Company ceased its sawmill operations on the Red Cedar.
     Also left behind were thousands of drying rack shelves where the bricks were stored before they went to the kilns.

Not complicated operation

     The operation was relatively simple, the clay was mined or dug, loaded on small railroad type cars and hauled to the presses where bricks were shaped. They were stored for 10 to 12 days to remove the excess moisture before being loaded into the kilns where they were heated to 1960 degrees for several days.
     Bricks were sold throughout the area and many current school buildings and also a number of brick buildings in Menomonie came from clay mined within a few miles of them.
     Clay in the Menomonie area contained the correct materials to make a good brick. It was free of excess lime and had an almost perfect sand percentage in regard to clay mixture.

Clay deposits remain in area

     The potential remains on the west side of the city for future brick manufacturing. One former brickmaking official estimated the clay deposits could provide enough material for possibly another 100 years.
     Brickmaking in the Stanley area did not develop as fast as that in the Menomonie area. However, at the turn of the century, Northwest Lumber Co. at Stanley had established a brickmaking operation and mined clay from area just north of the current Chapman Park.
     The plant did not reach its full development until after the Stanley fire of 1906 destroyed a large part of the east side.
     Almost immediately, a half page advertisement appeared in the Stanley "Republican" noting the company had bricks for sale and encouraged townspeople to rebuild with brick. Before the fire the plant was turning out 4,000 bricks a day; shortly afterwards production reached 50,000 a day.

Stanley brick used throughout the area

     Brick from the Stanley plant was used in building the old Sacred Heart Hospital on Dewey Street in Eau Claire; the new depot at Ladysmith; and Eau Claire school building, and many new buildings at Auburndale which also suffered a severe fire about the time of the Stanley blaze. Some of the brick went to Oregon and Washington.
     Independence has a large number of brick houses and businesses for a community of its size. The city hall completed in 1903 is made of brick. Independence at one time had a large supply of clay and brick making was a big business there around the turn of the century.
     Other communities had brick plants, too, but none reached the production figures of Menomonie and later Stanley operations.

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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