Email from Rantoul, IL

I know!
I haven't been posting photos and stories about bricks. I've been busy with various distractions. In the interim this email arrived from Rantoul, IL.

I am a bit surprised to learn that the Hydraulic Press Brick Company still exists. I grew up in Shale City, IL which at that time was a "company town" for one of their brick plants.

I was about to send a query to "History Detectives" at PBS and thought I should Google "Hydraulic Press" first and so am glad to find your blog.

Have you ever heard of Shale City? The plant and town there were opened about the time of World War I, closed in the late 1960s and bull-dozed to the ground.

Local stories had it that brick made at Shale City were used to build the Emprie State Building. Do you know if there is anything to that story or even how one might go about even attempting to find out?

I appreciate any guidance you might be able to offer.


Paul Maher
Rantoul, IL 61866

Hello Paul.
Thanks for the email.

I'm really an amateur when it comes to brick, there's actual historians out there.
Hydraulic Brick no longer exists. I live about two miles from its former site.

I did google Shale Brick Empire State Building and found this link and a few others: http://www.qconline.com/progress99/1mercer.shtml

I have never heard of Shale City. I would love to publish what you know about the brickyard on my blog if that interests you.

Paul responded:
I was wondering if there is any documentary evidence for the claim about the Empire State Building. There were some stories and claims about Shale City that I have read which I knew first hand to be a bit of a stretch.
What I know about Shale City is a mixture of hand-me-down stories, a little research and personal observation. A nephew of mine once wrote up a history of Shale City as a school project, but I have it packed away in preparation for moving. Once I move I will try to locate it and then get his permission to copy it and send to you.

This is what I understand in broad strokes:
In the 19th century Hugh Gilchrist of Scotland immigrated to Illinois and started a coal mine near the tiny village that now bears his name. It is just off route IL-17 between the towns of Viola and Aledo. When his coal mine closed, the wood frame houses from the mine workers were moved to Shale City. This would have been about the time of the World War I. Most of the houses I remember had a distinctive design--the sides were all covered in green roofing shingles, and the roofs were all comprised of red "roll" roofing. I have read newspaper stories that said all the houses were made of brick, but that was purely "imaginative reporting!" The office building was made of brick, however. Most of the houses had no plumbing of any kind. Some had water that was supplied by a cistern. In our house dad had rigged up an electric pump to the cistern and a water heater, so we actually had an inside bathroom in addition to the outhouse! However, the cistern water was not potable and each neighborhood (the "west hill" and the "east hill" where I grew up) shared a well for drinking water that was pumped by hand. The heating consisted of a coal stove in the kitchen and an oil burner in the living room. Mom had propane for cooking. The roads into Shale City were all gravel roads, so dusting could easily be a daily chore!

My father began working there when he was 15 years old, about 1919. As I remember his telling it, his first job was to sweep out the tunnels between the coal-fired kilns and the smoke stacks. He eventually became the assistant superintendent of the plant and oversaw its closing in the late 1960s.

The clay was dug by an electric shovel and hauled to the "making room" where it was first ground up and then pulverized into a fine dust by a large rolling stone (it could have been concrete for all I know). As my grandfather who also worked there explained, "you could write your name in the air" because of the dust. The finely crushed clay was mixed with water and chemicals (?) and extruded through a hydraulic press--hence the name of the company! The extruded clay was cut by a machine with wires and then they unbaked brick were stacked for drying or "pre-baking". After a couple of days in the "drying room" the bricks were stacked--by hand!--in the kilns. Each kiln could hold approximately 40,000 brick, if I remember correctly. I believe it took about a day for the coal-fired kilns to reach temperature (1000 - 1200 degrees Fahrenheit), they stayed at that temperature for approximately a day and a half and then a considerable time to cool. The bricks were, often as not, again stacked by hand on to pallets until they were shipped.

I hope this gives you what you might need!

I have a personal question for you if I may... I am familiar with "X" as the symbol of the Greek letter Chi and as an abbreviation in nomina sacra, but I am also familiar with "Xian" as a Chinese name ...

With kindest regards,


Thanks for emailing and sharing this personal history with me.

I can't imagine working in front an old brick kiln. Not just the heat on a hot day but loading and unloading the kiln.

I assume the bricks that were used in my building were made in the very early 1900s and delivered to the site by mules or horses. I live in a house literally built by many hands with very little technology. It's a daily marvel.

It's interesting that the Shale City Brick closed in the late 60s: frame houses are cheaper to construct.

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