Castle presentation shares beauty of brick-making

Scott Britton, executive director of The Castle, looks at paving bricks in a small pavilion near the historic house. The arrangement includes bricks from a variety of companies. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

MARIETTA – It’s easy to take brick for granted in Marietta. It’s everywhere.

With brick paving on downtown streets and sidewalks, brick facing on numerous old homes around the city, brick commercial buildings, brick churches and decorative brick on bridges and monuments, brick indoors and brick outside, it seems ubiquitous enough to become nearly unnoticeable.

But it’s a material that shaped much of the city’s history and influenced its present day configuration.

At a meeting of the Washington County Historical Society Monday night in one of the great local tributes to the beauty of brick – The Castle on Fourth Street – David Barker offered some historical context on brick and brick making in Marietta.

The advent of brick paving came in part as a solution to an environmental and sanitary problem, he said.

“In the late 1800s, horses did all the work. Each horse produced about 25 pounds of manure a day, the roads were dirt and mud, and as you can imagine that was an environmental and sanitation problem,” he said.

By that time, brickmaking was an established industry in the area. Barker said the first brick was fired in Washington County in 1788 by the family of Capt. William Dana, a Revolutionary War veteran who moved to the county from New England with two sons but arrived too late in the year to plant any crops and instead started a kiln to make a living.

Brickmaking was also taken up by others, such as Joseph Barker, who became a builder, in 1806, and Nathan McIntosh in 1805, whose son Enoch is said to have started working in the brickyard at age 12 and in one summer moved 300,000 bricks.

The William Cisler family is possibly the best known brickmaking clan in Marietta, he said, with their works founded in 1858 where the Frontier Shopping Center now sits on Seventh Street. Production continued through the early 1930s.

Other brick makers during that period included Sterling brick at Eighth and Montgomery streets, and Acme Brick on Acme Street, both of which were capable of producing 30,000 bricks a day, Barker said.

All that brick went into paving streets and raising buildings. Barker showed a slide map of Marietta’s present day downtown, with the brick buildings highlighted in pink. Every street showed shoulder-to-shoulder solid blocks of pink.

Brick was first used for paving in 1892, laid down with bricks made by O.A. Jones Company in Zanesville. Jones, Barker said, later used Marietta as the prototype when he successfully bid to pave streets in Fort Worth, Texas. Ohio was well positioned for leadership in brick and ceramics because of the abundance of clay around the state. In Marietta, much of it was excavated out of hillsides not far from the places where brickworks were established.

The advent of brick paving marked the start of modern street engineering.

“It was very detailed engineering, pretty amazing,” he said. The planning included base compacting and drainage systems, and the construction changed the landscape of the city, he said.

“Most of city streets are now eight to ten feet higher than they were before being paved,” he said.

About two dozen people attended the Monday night meeting, and several brought along bricks for discussion. Historian Bill Reynolds had a brick with the pawprint of a housecat frozen forever on its surface; others brought bricks from the Simon Zoller works, Athens Block, Ohio Brick, Trimble, some decorative glazed star bricks, a brick with a rounded corner thought to be part of an elaborate fireplace, and one brick from the pavement at the Berlin Wall.

There is, of course, a website for all that, Barker said: bricksofohioblog.wordpress.com.

“A substantial number of people collect bricks,” historian Wes Clark said.

Brick paving declined in the 1930s as motor vehicles took over the roadways and trucks replaced horse drawn carriages for cargo. The brick couldn’t take the weight, but under the asphalt today the original brick on many streets remains as a substrata.

Barker said 1968 was the last year that brick was overlaid with asphalt in Marietta, and in the 1980s a commission was established to protect the remaining brick streets. There are still about seven miles of them, he said.

“The bottom line is, we have a wonderful heritage in brick here,” he said.