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Building bricks of early Marquette County

Samuel P. Ely

MARQUETTE — Marquette is known for its sandstone architecture but bricks were also manufactured in Marquette for many years.

The first recorded venture dates to around 1865. Two local men, Cornelius Donkersley and Samuel Ely, established and financed a sand brick factory based on a plan Mr. Ely had seen in Germany. Later reports indicate that it was built on the lakeshore near Picnic Rocks, but given the distance from town (which was much smaller at that point!) it seems unlikely.

A more logical site would have been along the lakeshore but further south.

An 1871 map of Marquette shows an unidentified building at the foot of Michigan Street that might have been the factory.

We do not know where the clay was obtained but the bricks were described as large, cumbersome and hard to handle when soft. They were dried in the sun; a long drawn-out process which reportedly made a better quality brick than the imported, kiln dried ones, but it took too long. The inability to produce the bricks fast enough caused the factory to fail after a few years.

Abe Matthews

There were a few scattered paragraphs on brickmaking in the old Mining Journals in the 1868-1870 period. One said that the Rolling Mill Company, which was just putting its blast furnace into operation at the foot of Hampton Street, had sent several barrels of clay from its adjacent properties to Philadelphia for testing. The samples were a beautiful cream color, solid and compact and easily worked, and as good as eastern brick.

Soon afterward, a Mr. Craig and Abe Matthews started making brick at what was described as their yard south of the Rolling Mill on Lake Street. The clay was to be taken from the lower strata near the water’s edge and Matthews had applied for a patent for his process to make hard-burned brick. The product was said to have been better than that brought up from Ohio at tremendous freight cost.

A few more of these brief Mining Journal items from 1869 indicated that both this variety and sand brick were being manufactured here on a small scale, for regular building and possibly blast furnace purposes.

At the same time in Negaunee, the Lake Superior Firebrick Company had gotten into production. A paragraph stated that a kiln containing 20,000 bricks was about to be burned, though, as in other cases just mentioned, no more details seemed to be forthcoming about sites, methods, just where and how they all were used, or how long any of the operations lasted.

After this the brick manufacturing in Marquette seems to have died off for about 20 years before there was another spurt of production starting in 1888 and lasting for several years. It began when J. B. Wilson started a plant on 32 acres in the area west of Baraga Avenue. He set up his plant with one brick-making machine run by horsepower. That first fall he made and piled up 25,000 bricks before building his burning kilns. He employed eight men who turned out several thousand bricks a day and experimented with tile making. Before the weather got bad, his crew stockpiled a big supply of clay and cut much of the wood on the property for fuel.

Due to his careful preparations, even with considerable damage to the plant from a fall flood, he still made and burned 40,000 bricks before shutting down for the winter. By the spring of 1890 the business was prospering. Mr. Wilson installed a steam boiler and additional machinery in the factory and unsuccessfully petitioned the city to extend Baraga Avenue. Then rivals began to appear.

In August 1890, the Anna River Brick Company, which had been successfully operating a plant since 1887 near Hallston, south of Munising, announced it would open a large brickyard near Wilson’s property. While they planned to bring clay in from Hallston and use local sand, the planned factory never materialized. Instead, they opened a branch office and sold bricks from Hallston for several years.

Just two years later, in 1892, the Marquette and Michigan Sand Brick Company was organized. They purchased a franchise and machinery and set up shop in part of the Longyear Building on Main Street west of Front. They took a number of orders but everything seemed to go wrong and little if any sale-quality brick was ever turned out.

Despite promising the local owners exclusive rights for distribution in Marquette, the parent company continued producing bricks and shipping them to Marquette for $4.00 a thousand cheaper than the local product. There were also problems with the machinery and the formula. In 1894 the US Courts ordered the parent company to pay the local organization five thousand dollars, which would be used first to pay off all the creditors and if anything was left over would be distributed among the stockholders.

Meanwhile, in 1893, still another brickyard was opened at Bancroft, roughly in the area of Brickyard Road, although again no one bothered to write down many details about its exact location or production methods. A year later it switched hands to a man named Thornton. This Bancroft yard supplied the brick used in the construction of Marquette’s old City Hall.

So, as you walk or drive around town, you’ll no doubt see houses, churches, and businesses that are made of brick construction. Where did those bricks come from? Did they come from one of the plants just mentioned or were they imported?

Think of all the work and effort it took to produce these building bricks of early Marquette.