BY JIM MERCIER
Imagine starting work at the crack of dawn each morning, while using your own muscle power to shovel mud throughout the day until your quota was met. Sound like the ideal job? Well, if you were working at one of our brickyards in Racine during the late 1800s, you would have been doing just that.
Racine had six operating brickyards doing business over 125 years ago. Among them were names like Baumann, Meidinger, Morris, Burdick, Hilker and Haumersen. All of these brickyards depended entirely on only one raw material….clay. Veins of this yellow-brown clay usually ran from five to 12 feet wide and were often several blocks in length.
By far the largest brickyard was Hilker’s. This company was producing more than six million bricks per year and employed 75 men in three different brickyards. It’s interesting to note that each brick was handmade from start to finish, since it wasn’t until the 1890s that Hilker began using brick-making machinery. Prior to that, muscles and a strong back were all that was needed.
The brickmaking process was relatively simple. First, workers had to dig through the dirt by hand in order to expose the clay vein. After the clay was dug, it was loaded onto horse-drawn carts and trucked to large mixing pits dug into the earth. These pits were 24 feet in diameter, and several feet deep. Men were kept busy filling these pits with clay, sand, and water. Then came the mixing process, where a mule would circle the pit, while carefully turning a wooden pole attached to a large wheel, thoroughly mixing the ingredients.
The next step would be for the “mudshovelers” to scoop the mixture of clay onto wooden molding forms that held nine bricks each. After allowing the bricks to dry for about two weeks, they were ready to be fired at the kilns. The firing process lasted for eight straight days.
The demand for Racine bricks increased almost every year. Brick homes, schools, stores, and factories were being built not only in Racine, but in Milwaukee and northern Illinois as well. Then, around the turn of the century, Racine brickmakers found their clay veins petering out. In addition, competition from larger companies in Chicago was increasing almost every day.
The Chicago brickmaking firms had vast clay reserves, and utilized steam shovels, brickmaking machinery and oil furnaces for firing, thus enabling them to sell their bricks at much lower prices. One-by-one, the Racine firms dropped out of sight, until only Hilker was left. Despite the use of some new machinery, the stiff Chicago competition proved to be too much, and by 1914, all brickmaking operations in Racine came to an end.
Even though the brickyards are long gone, evidence of their presence can still be found. The cream brick cottages that dot Racine’s north side were made from Racine brick for workingmen and their families. Numerous other factories, churches, stores, and schools built in the nineteenth century are still standing as a reminder to a once-thriving industry.
Now, for those interested in a little more history, did you know that our Racine Zoo was once the site of three brickmaking companies? The pond was a former clay pit. Also, the Shoop Park golf course was once a brickyard as well. So, the next time you are enjoying a day at the zoo, stop and think for a moment about the millions of bricks that were once produced there, and be grateful that you were not a brickyard employee!
Local historian Jim Mercier is an avid collector of Racine historical memorabilia and displays some of his collection in the Racine Business Center’s Spirit of Entrepreneurs exhibit.