Hittin' The Bricks

On a recent trip up north I decided to take a break in Grand Ledge on my way back downstate, to see if I could finally see the grand ledges of Grand Ledge, as well as the ruins of an old brick works I had been meaning to check out. After passing through the attractive historic downtown and entering a neighborhood of Victorian houses, I found an unassuming city park at the end of an unassuming residential street, at the back of which was a staircase leading down the cliff to the river. 


I was amazed at this geological grandeur to be found here along the Grand River, hidden in the midst of what is usually very bland mid-Michigan terrain. 


There were houses literally within a few yards of this beautiful scene...imagine living next to this. And it went on for quite a ways, too. I only visited a small section.


The ledges reached up to probably 20 feet high in some spots.


This was the kind of scene I would expect to find up in the Upper Peninsula, not the southern Lower...


And to think I had passed it up all those times.


Just when I thought the trail was going to lead back up and out, it kept going.


I was impressed at the lack of graffiti. 


Well, there was plenty of old graffiti scratched into the rock, going back over 100 years, but no spray paint.


There was actually a bit of a cave down in here...


Some local kids had been having campfires in here:


You will notice that even the Grand River was flooding its banks:


While in Grand Ledge, I decided to also check out another nearby spot on the Grand River where old industrial ruins had been preserved as the "Lincoln Brick Park." The Eaton County Parks system had the wherewithal and good providence to stabilize an old brick works and curate it as a standing ruins, plus combine it with a 90-acre nature trail system on the outskirts of town. It is curiously hidden behind an old farm field. 


As you know from my last post about Onaway, I love it when cities get this right instead of treating ruins as "eyesores" and squandering resources on (1) keeping people out, (2) prosecuting trespassers, and (3) eventually tearing down and sending a culturally valuable historic resource to a landfill. I heartily salute the communities of Grand Ledge and Eaton County for responsibly preserving their our heritage.

When I visited, it was right after a historic rainfall had just hit Michigan and the park was closed due to flooding, at least to vehicles. Naturally this did not deter me, since I still remembered how to use my legs.


Anyway, the Lincoln Brick Co. was the last of several brick makers that used this spot until 1949, and it was the third and final industrial clay works to be built in Grand Ledge. 

This ruined wall belonged to what was originally the "old" boiler house.


Once the new boiler house was constructed, this one was converted and used as storage. 


This structure immediately behind the old boiler house was the "sand house," where the sand was stored for the kiln process where it was used to keep the bricks from sticking together during the firing. Part of it also contained a section for specialized sand that was used in the brick glazing process. There used to be a railroad spur directly behind it for shipment.


The area is rich in clay and shale deposits, and local Anishinaabe tribesmen came to the area to make their pottery. According to the Grand Ledge Historical Society, early pioneers remembered seeing the ash kilns of the aboriginal pottery makers on both sides of the river. The first pottery works established here by a white man was that of George Loveless, around 1859, followed by that of L. Herrington in 1862 (the first settlers were in 1847). In 1886 the Grand Ledge Sewer Pipe Co. was founded, later to become American Vitrified Products. Grand Ledge Clay Products was formed in 1906, making conduits for underground telephone lines (which were also sometimes used as a mortared building material).


Finally, Baker Clay Company was founded here on this site, in 1914. They produced glazed tile for farm silos, which if you grew up in the Midwest, especially Michigan and Ohio, I'm sure you've seen the brown clay tile silos I'm talking about. The Baker Co.'s clay quarry was located right across the river from that of American Vitrified.


With Grand Ledge's history of brick making, it's worth noting that my other entry for Eaton County (at the bottom) is about the Dyer Kiln ruins, which was a site famous for making mortar. 

Back in this jungle was what looked to be another sort of kiln...


According to the sign nearby, it was in fact a kiln some 300 feet long, although most of it has crumbled now. It survived through all five owners of this site, as well as a fire that ravaged the complex in 1927, making hundreds of thousands of bricks that have been used locally and across the Midwest.


The Baker Clay Co. plant featured a new Canadian-designed kiln, called a “continuous kiln,” which was the first of its kind built in the United States. Unlike the "beehive" style of kiln, this design was a series of tunnel-shaped kilns built side by side, to allow heat from one kiln to preheat the next adjoining kiln, increasing efficiency.


When concrete began to eclipse clay tile for building silos, this plant became the Grand Ledge Face Brick Company and switched to making regular bricks. They had a good product, but financing was reportedly a perennial problem for this company and they eventually sold out to one of their major clients, the Briggs Company in Lansing.


The plant was sold again to the Lincoln Brick Company sometime in the 1940s, before quickly closing it down in 1947 or 1949, to consolidate production at their Grand Rapids location. Honestly, I have had some difficulty in pinning down exact dates for the history of this site; it seems no one has yet done a comprehensive historical study of it (at least that I can find online), and it is not found in the HAER. This factory then lay idle for most of the next three decades before being sold to Eaton County in 1975, and finally becoming a park. How long it took the county to turn it into a park after the sale is not stated. 


The bricks produced here were used locally around Grand Ledge (e.g., the city hall, post office, old library, and Sawdon School), and at places like Michigan State University (e.g., Beaumont Tower), and some of the Oldsmobile factories in Lansing. They were stamped "GRAND LEDGE" on the back.


This new boiler house was fired using gas produced from coal, which was said to be more efficient burning, and allowed for more heat control, and thus a better brick.


A glimpse in the underbrush along the trails reveals that there is a lot more out there than just what the standing buildings show.


This twisted metal alongside a trail was the wreckage of one of the mining carts that moved chunks of shale dynamited from the quarry down to the crusher in the pug mill, to be pulverized.


This was part of the pug mill, if I'm not mistaken:


And here is the quarry pit, now filled with water:


It was said that the quarry pit was 60 feet deep when the clay works was shut down, and began to fill with water, and that a steam engine that was used to pull the loads of shale from the pit was left down there. Scuba diving missions in recent times have reported that the depth is only 25 feet however, and no steam engines were found.

Some of the grand shale outcroppings that gave Grand Ledge its name are evident here as well:


According to the Grand Ledge Historical Society, the workers at the clay factories were known to make art objects during off times when the kilns were hot. They made alligators, frogs, lambs, and other objects, but apparently the "Grand Ledge Lion" was the best known. Here is a photo of a surviving example of a Grand Ledge Lion, from an auction website:


There is another lion connection in Grand Ledge, according to this c.1929 postcard, there is a rock formation along the river that was known as "Lion Head Rock":


I don't know how much more of the "ledge" outcroppings are here in the area, but there's more than I thought



References:
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 42

No comments:

Post a Comment