Making Bricks in Mendocino County

Historians undertake to date a building's construction and sometimes they turn to the common brick used in it. Believe it or not we’ve had history professors visit the county who make tracing the origin of bricks their specialty. In 1984 Professor Margaret Henry of San Francisco State had fun dating bricks discovered around the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino 

When the museum was being remodeled and rebuilt many bricks in the 1970s went back into the foundation, but some were still visible in walkways, as pads at the foot of outside steps and on the hearth of the fireplace inside the house in the dining room. But, if you’ve ever noticed, some bricks are imprinted with the name of the manufacturer. So figuring out how the bricks that built the Kelley House got to Mendocino is an adventure in itself.

One way they got here was as ballast in sailing ships and so there were bricks from Scotland and England that were unloaded from ships and used in coastal construction. Then there were the bricks that arrived from brickyards around the state and the ones locals made here.

In 1981 local Mendocino resident Barry Cusick let a researcher investigate an old brick pile on his property. There were a dozen different imprints on the bricks including ones from Stockton, Ione and Livermore. Mendocino City had brick makers, the most famous being John Staudacher. His brickyard was on Clay Hill, the area up Little Lake Road on the north side at the intersection with Clark Road. Staudacher built fireplaces with his brick, built the one million brick square chimney for the mill down on Big River and in 1905 was firing 50,000 bricks at a time in his kilns. The square chimney fell in the 1906 Earthquake and was replaced with steel but I’ll bet those million bricks were recycled into all sorts of things.

Living in Little River in the 1990’s Robert Piwarzyk documented forty imprints between the letters A to K of bricks found in Mendocino City. (Wish I knew where the L to Z list was.)

Some imprints could be traced. C.P.B. Co was Corona Pressed Brick Company in southern California, and Ione was in Amador County, but some bricks had Atlas, or Gasco, and didn’t have enough clues to identify the source.

The Mendocino Presbyterian Church has been documented with bricks originating in England, Redding, Stockton, Richmond and Carnegie (a ghost town). In brickmaking lime was mixed with clay and that had to be imported to the coast. Good bricks were molded under pressure to squeeze out water and air, then fired at high temperature and then cooked slowly in kilns. Firebrick was dense and did not absorb moisture and crumble.

There were brickyards in Boonville, Philo, Glen Blair, Navarro, Fort Bragg, Ukiah, Talmage and Potter Valley. The first documented in the county was Remstead and Brown’s, east of Ukiah, where they made more than 200,000 bricks in 1865. The Elliot kiln in 1866 offered the “finest quality” bricks for seven dollars per thousand bricks. In 1882 Betz and Snuffin had a brickyard on Oak Street near Orr Creek and had 300,000 pressed bricks. They were used to build the County Courthouse. In 1890 Bartlett brothers put up a brickyard near the proposed State Asylum Hospital in Talmadge and turned out one million of the eight million bricks needed during construction.

Industrial brick structures all up and down the coast were torn down in later years, like chimneys, steam boilers, incinerators, and dry kilns from mills in Glen Blair, Big River, Navarro and Greenwood/Elk and became walls, sidewalks, stairs, patios, fountains, well linings and fireplaces in newer structures. 

The next time you are near an old brick-building look and see if there are names impressed on the brick and write them down. The next time I walk past the Palace Hotel in Ukiah I’m going to do this. With the help of the internet it may be possible to find out where that brick was made.

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