We knew Ohio's Hocking Valley was home to many 19th century brick factories and learned the names of some of them as we walked the brick sidewalks of Ohio University's campus at Athens, but it wasn't until we searched for a geocache in nearby Nelsonville that we saw one of the old kilns that produced so many of those bricks.
The cache is long-gone, but the bricks and the kilns still exist as the last traces of the industry that once paved the nation.
Extracting natural resources like coal, clay and salt were major industries in the Hocking Valley throughout the 19th century.
Early brick makers dug clay and shale from area hills, processed and shaped bricks from the materials by hand, and baked them in the sun or a makeshift kiln at building sites. Early brick buildings in the area, like Ohio University's Cutler Hall built in 1816, used "soft" bricks produced this way.
Thaddeus Longstreet opened the first brick plant near Nelsonville in 1871. Nelsonville had five major plans operating by the latter half of the 19th century, employing an average of 120 men each.
The brick making industry grew with the growth of cities and towns needing bricks for building construction, paving mud roads and building of municipal water and sewer systems.
The Nelsonville Brick Company opened in 1877. The company manufactured brands like Nelsonville Block, Hallwood Block, Hocking Block and decorative sidewalk bricks.
Brick-making was a slow and laborious process in the late-1800s plants.
Miners dug clay and shale out of crude open mines with steam shovels. Some companies bought material from coal companies that could easily mine for clay and shale at the same time that they mined coal.
Workers loaded shaped clay and shale bricks into the coal-fueled beehive kilns by hand. It took two days to load a kiln, six days to fire the bricks, and three more days for the bricks to cool before workers could unload them.
Variations in brick color depended on placement within the kiln, and the resulting temperature variance, or whether the brick was clay (cream colored) or shale (red).
Brick pavers are usually heavier than structural facing brick used for building construction, and most of the Hocking Valley brick makers specialized in paving bricks.
Salt glazing, produced by shoveling salt into the fire at high temperatures, gave Nelsonville Brick pavers a distinctive finish and made them more watertight. The company won first prize at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis for their Nelsonville Block pavers.
In 1910, one brick trade magazine reported that several Hocking Valley-area brick plants added new kilns and equipment.
The combined capacity of Nelsonville Brick's two plants was 100,000 bricks per day by 1910. The Athens Brick company reported employing 135 men and producing between 65,000 and 75,000 per day that same year.
Southeast Ohio had a national reputation for quality bricks, shipping millions of bricks to places like Chicago, Canada, New York and Michigan. We recently found a small brick-paved walkway around a gazebo in the village park at Franklin, Michigan, made with Hocking Valley bricks.
The Hocking Valley brick industry slowed around the time of World War I, when increasing use of concrete reduced demand for the more labor-intensive and expensive process of bricklaying for paving streets.
The Nelsonville Brick Company closed in 1937, and most of the remaining Hocking Valley brick plants were gone by the end of the 1940s.
In 1979, restoration work began on the old kilns. Nelsonville established Brick Kiln Park in 1980 on the grounds of the former Nelsonville Brick Company.
The Nelsonville Area Chamber of Commerce gained stewardship of the park as the result of a donation in 2008, further restoring the structures and working with Industrial Ceramics students from nearby Hocking College who maintain the kilns as a community service program.
My story, Back to school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, includes a photo of Cutler Hall and some of the school's vintage brick streets and walkways.
My story about Franklin, Michigan, The town that time forgot, has a photo of the park gazebo and its brick walkway.
Want to learn more about Nelsonville and the surrounding area? Check out Little Cities of Black Diamonds by Jeffrey T. Darbee and Nancy A. Recchie.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved