Brick business built Watertown
Abstracted from Marvin Balousek article, WSJ regional reporter, unknown date
The bricks above the signs and lights of Watertown's day-to-day business are the city's solid legacy.
The bricks are made of Watertown clay, toughened by the frost of Wisconsin winters and moistened by the waters of the Rock River. More than a dozen brickyards once operated in the city, beginning in the mid-19th century.
The clay was scooped from areas along the river. School boys were hired to turn unfired bricks for even drying in the sun. Then, the bricks were hardened in kilns fueled by thousands of cords of wood and, later, by coal and oil
In 1856, the Watertown Democrat reported that 6.5 million bricks were produced by Watertown yards — double the previous year's total.
"In the future, more than in the past, we must resort to our clay beds more and more as the forests disappear and lumber becomes more expensive," the newspaper said. "As a source of wealth, skill and labor is rapidly turning these banks of clay into streams of gold."
Along Main Street, brick commercial buildings replaced earlier wood-framed structures built when lumber was plentiful. Brick houses sprang up around the town in a variety of architectural styles. In 1858, D. S. Chadwick offered sidewalk brick backed with a money-back guarantee to withstand Wisconsin's winters.
In 1867, H. Blanchard & Co. started making bricks with steam-fired machinery in a process developed by Watertown resident P.B. Burnham. The machinery allowed the company to produce 40,000 bricks a day.
A competitor, J. Moulton & Co., was producing 30,000 bricks a day.
"We have just commenced the manufacture of pressed brick which in every respect surpasses the Milwaukee pressed brick," the company said in a newspaper advertisement.
Besides the Main Street businesses and brick houses, two important structures mark Watertown's brick industry. They are St. Bernard's Catholic Church, and Octagon House, the site of the nation's first kindergarten.
The church facade contrasts decorative red brick trim with the cream-colored brick that often was used in Milwaukee. Most Watertown buildings were made with lighter brick while red brick was used for street paving.
But the color was less important than the tough consistency of Watertown brick. The city exported 7 million bricks a year by 1866.
Sylvester Quam, caretaker of Octagon House, has a red paving brick that he salvaged from an apartment building. The heavy brick is topped with decorative ridges and Quam describes it as "nearly indestructable."
Quam, who wrote a book about Octagon House and its builder, John Richards, said the bricks sold for 4 cents a thousand.
Richards, who operated a sawmill and grist mill along the river, bypassed the Watertown brickyards and used Milwaukee brick for the facade of Octagon House, hauling the Milwaukee brick to Watertown by oxen team.
Quam said Richards did a lot of business in Milwaukee and the brick may have been more prestigious. Also, the Milwaukee brickyard provided an elongated brick that was useful in making corners.
Nevertheless, Richards used Watertown brick for two inside courses of the outer walls and for most of the inside construction, according to Quam.
The advent of concrete block construction in the early 20th Century killed the Watertown brick industry.
The last brickyard was operated by Oscar E. Carlson, who retired in 1962 from his wholesale brick, wood and coal dealership. Between 1925 and 1935, Carlson produced 3 million bricks.
1848 Note on brick making and building
Our Village – It is gratifying, and speaks well for the preserving industry and enterprise of our citizens, to see the extensive preparations that are being made to “go ahead” in almost every department of improvement, in every quarter of our village. Lumber and brick – don’t start Milwaukee!
We have got real bona fide Watertown brick, just as good as – It’s a fact. True, we have not built up a “Queen City” here yet, but if the manufacture of brick can elevate a place to majesty (which of course you will not deny). Watertown is already a princess royal.
Lumber and brick, we say [see], are piled high upon a great many hitherto vacant lots, and a number of active laborers are at work, “digging into the bowels of the earth,” not in search of “villainous salt-peter,” but for the peaceful purpose of excavating cellars.
The number of buildings which will be erected during the current year will be greater than during any former two or three years; and many of them will add much to the appearance of our village. Among them will be the steam grist mill of Messrs Cole and Bailey, which has already ‘broke ground,’ and is advancing on the most modern and approved “progressive principles.”
01 12 The second brick house in this village has just received its roof. It is owned and was built by Mr. Alonzo Platt, is 20 by 30 feet, two stories high, and is situated on Western Avenue. The first brick house built here is on the same street - the two showing off to much advantage in that sparsely settled portion of our town. In digging his well, Mr. P. struck a spring of fine water, and now has an abundance supply of that commodity under his roof. Watertown Chronicle
[NOTE: It is uncertain if this is the same Alonzo Platt, who in 1828 arrived in the area that became Platteville and he becoming a prominent citizen, but it is doubtful as the Platte River was so named before his arrival there]
02 06 Sold Out -- We are informed that the brick makers have sold all the brick they had on hand when winter set in, and only wish they had more to fill the orders they daily receive. A large amount of building will be commenced here and in the surrounding country when spring opens. This will give employment to mechanics and make lively times. WD
11 22 Brick -- The season just closing has been a lively one for our manufacturers of brick. The demand for the beautiful cream colored brick, for which Watertown is so noted, has been increasing from year to year, and next season will witness a large increase of business in this line over any former year, owing to the activity and building that is expected in all quarters. Our brick manufacturers are making extensive preparations to meet the extra demand for the brick the coming season, and several yards in the city will be working to their full capacity. WR
Block, August, Sr (Wilhelmina) 1879, d. 1878, flour, feed, saloon, brickyard business
08 03 VITRIFIED BRICK vs. MACADAM STREET
It will be noticed by last night's proceedings of the common council, forty-three property holders have signed a remonstrance against improving Main Street with a vitrified brick pavement. It is held that macadam will answer every demand and be considerably cheaper. The petitioners ask that, before the work of paving is started, comparative estimates of brick and macadam be furnished. In some quarters it is held that this move was started by persons who are against any sort of paving, but the petitioners will present, on the other hand, that they favor judicious street improvement . . . Vitrified brick is a pavement guaranteed to last for years, when properly laid. Nearly all cities doing permanent street work where asphalt is not employed are utilizing brick, and in every instance it has proved a success . . . When the comparative worth of macadam and brick is considered, the difference in the cost is very slight. WR
08 04 CHANGED HIS MIND
A gentleman who signed the petition presented to the city council Tuesday evening, advocating macadam pavement for Main street, stated to a Times reporter this afternoon that he would withdraw his name from the paper and knew of others who wished to do the same. He said that when signing the paper he did so on the spur of the moment, but now states that he is not in favor of macadam on Main Street at any price.
Street Paving. The city council should not allow persons who happen to own property on a street which it is intended to pave to have all the say as to what kind of paving should be used. It must be remembered that the city stands a portion of the expense and the whole city is directly interested as well as the property owners. There has been plenty of testimony appearing in the press of this city with regard to the excellence of brick paving and the columns of the Times are open to anyone who can show any reason why macadam paving should be used. If the owners of property on Main Street who desire macadam paving have reasons for it, let them state them. They failed to do so in the petition to the council. WR
06 20 TESTING BRICK BY CHIPPING
Contractor Schoenlaub makes the complaint that people are in the habit of testing the quality of the brick being used for the street pavement. Chipping these bricks does not make them suitable for usage and the cost of them is 1 ½ cents apiece. It does not amount to much if one brick is chipped, but in the long run it is a great loss. Prosecution will follow if this practice continues. WR
Two brick yards are located at this place, one of which is owned by L. H. Cordes and Company and the other by Cordes, Vaughn and Company. Both are now being operated under the management of L. H. Cordes and Company.
The combined output of the two yards is in the neighborhood of five million brick per year. The stock is graded and sold as common, chimney, sidewalk, well, and veneering brick.
The clay at this place has a total thickness of about twenty-five feet. The upper four or five feet contains a considerable percentage of sand and has a yellow color. The remaining twenty feet has a blue color and contains much less sand. The bank is now worked to a depth of about ten or twelve feet and the yellow and blue clays are mixed together in equal proportions.
To the clay as it comes from the bank about one-fifth sand is added. The clay is run through a crusher and then soaked for twenty-four hours in vats. The brick are moulded in soft mud machines, operated by steam power, dried in hacks on the yard, and burned in scove kilns.
The clay from this bank is very free from gravel and was at one time used in the manufacture of pottery.
The clay which occurs at the yard owned by Cordes, Vaughn and Company is essentially the same as that at the yard just described.
The brick which are manufactured from this clay have a white or cream color and are among the more desirable products of the calcareous clay region. Besides building brick, the clay is undoubtedly suitable for the manufacture of some of the commoner kinds of earthenware such as flower pots.
05 20 Original Watertown bricks that lined former front walk of Octagon House replaced by stamped concrete; bricks offered for sale.
Cordes, Louis, profile of
Terbrueggen, Joseph, 1912, Obit; for about 30 years was a member of the brick manufacturing firm of L. H. Cordes & Co.
Boomer and Quentmeyer: Brick making business
History of Watertown, Wisconsin