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.


Email from Independence

Dear Christian Herman,
I was enjoying your website while researching "white brick."

I just purchased a "duplex" i.e. a converted old neighborhood 20x32 brick store and was considering bricking in the two north windows, the two having no reinforcing iron, into fake windows with white brick trim and blue sky interior. The exterior is highly painted pale yellow brick and is the building in the movie "Kansas City" that was a neighborhood store. My challenge is to come up with a system of sealing the seam between the roofing inside the brick box and the roof proper. Fr. Donnelly, who more or less developed Kansas City in pioneer days, made many brick structures with roofing to the inside and lost many because they are so hard to maintain. I am hoping to clamp some kind of urethane membrane between angled boards to stop the tarred seams from inevitably leaking.

A young girl in the neighborhood has had a recurring dream about gold behind a freezer that has frozen treats so I hope the City of Independence--the building is one block east of Kansas City's city limits--will eagerly approve any such arrangement. Thanks for your website. I started out as a ceramics major and switched to sculpture and now do water-based oil on paper. Any marketing advice for that will be appreciated. I share your insurance appreciation and work half-years in downtown KC at the IRS schlepping paper. Blessings!
Ann Gerard Francke
Independence, MO

Hello Ann!
Can you send photos of your building and of the windows?
I'd also like to see some of your art work and am curious as to how you treat the paper. Gesso?
Etsy.com is a great site for marketing your work.


Permastone or more hoosier rehabbing

This building had a face lift:

Permastone was added to the facade to bump it out and create a frame. I'm guessing it was done because the building owner grew weary of rocks being tossed into the original plate glass windows.


Brick with Black Holes - Pop Quiz

How is it these bricks have black holes?

Check out the original mortar with its flecks of quartz and feldspar. It's almost 100 years old and remains perfect.


The Chicken Coop Tour Photos

Click on the title to see the photos from the tour hosted by TGS resident Gary Pey who wrote:

I think a good time was had by all!

Despite the light rain we had a good turn out, over 20 people. We first went to my humble Recession Tribute coop, where Wilhelmina (a mongrel Americauna) and Miffy ( a Salmon Faverolle high maintenance French chick) held forth. Wilhelmina did her only trick which involves sort of jump flying up about two feet to snatch a grape out your fingers. I showed the folks the difference in color from store bought and free range eggs.

Then it was on to Annaliese's and her home brewer husband's coop (funny, I can't remember his name but I know he home brews). They have sort of a chicken tractor and a lovely collection of a Barred Rock, Buff Orpington, and I believe a Rhode Island Red.

Slywinn was next and has a chick in the oven so to speak and has a nice coop with some Americaunas and some other chickens I can't remember.

Next up was Naomi's brood (literally), she has some adorable children and some ever so cute chicks, which she hatched from eggs using an incubator. Unfortunately, she is leaving the hood and moving to Eugene , Oregon, taking her chicks with her. Best of luck. Everyone liked getting out of the rain for a while, and her house was redolent of strawberries due to a jam session.

On to David Kraus's girlfriend's house (sorry I can't remember her name). They have some Barred Rocks and Australorp pullets.Their coop was a work in progress, and had some nice features, including the use of synthetic nesting material. That was the end of the neighborhood part of the tour.

Quite a few of us went on to view Brandon's coop. The house part was well constructed out of fir flooring and nifty doors with windows. The chickens hate it and prefer to live outdoors in the run and only run in to grab a bite to eat and lay their eggs. He has a Barred Rock, Buff Orpinton, and a Polish chicken with a wild hairdo. I think he also had a Rhode Island Red.

We were down to six when we showed up at the Slow Rocket Urban Farm, on Cherokee in the historic antique section. They were having some sort of history day. There were bands and we saw a couple of women dressed in period costumes: hoop dresses, bonnets, and parasols. Very vibrant neighborhood that I've never been to before. Jaffa and Joss weren't home but we could see their colorful coop from the street. Best of luck.

There were just four of us that made it to Greg Weiland's coop in Shaw and it was probably the fanciest coop on the tour. He has a lovely house and beautiful back yard. He had never hosted a chicken coop tour before, and didn't know what to expect so he had wine, coffee, crackers, and cheese to knosh on (this is the part where I say HA HA). He has three Australorps, one full grown and two that are between pullet and hen age.

We never made it out to Tom Niemeier's coop in Webster Groves. He's an architect, so I was imagining that it had an elevator or something in it! Hopefully next year.
Segwaying nicely into next year, I hope to have another tour next year. Bigger and even better, maybe more area wide and self guided. I learned that there is a St. Louis Backyard Chicken Meet Up Group, so maybe they can take up the cause. I'm hoping that some of the people will now take the plunge into chicken raising, and together we can network for support in husbandry, feed, and innovative coop construction.

I would like to thank my second oldest son Tyler for doing the Flicker thing (I just know it's a woodpecker). All that money we've spent on his education is finally paying off.
Best, Gary Pey


Front Yard

Last year I decided maintaining a lawn was comprising my precious time so I laid down layers of wet newspaper and mulched. Several plants were transferred from the back garden. No more mowing.

Peony and lariope beds:

The tree lawn has been planted with lariope and mulched.

Beau waited on the steps while I did photos and didn't budge. He's an surprisingly obedient dog.


Back Yard

I do a yard share with the vegetable garden in the back of the yard. Nine neighbors invest 35.00 and get to share the bounty. This year I've planted snow peas, beets, various broccoli (including Violet, Cheddar, and plain old white), peppers, zucchini, and cucumbers. The zucchini is growing in the front yard to prevent cross pollination with the cucumbers.

Hosta and fern bed

South view of The Veranda

Hosta, iris, and a potted elephant ear

Another hosta bed. I'm waiting on the calidiums, elephants ears, and canna.

Hosta, iris and peppers.

Part of the vegetable garden:

Snow peas and beets. These were elevated because of losing crops to the rabbits. They are on top of cinder blocks on a piece of left over concrete board and the pea pods look quite healthy thanks to the rain and contributions from the floor of my neighbor's chicken coop.

This is a tomato arbor that I made a couple of months ago. There's 18 Early Girl tomato plants on either side. Not pictured is the rest of the vegetable garden which includes 24 pepper plants and even more tomatoes. BTW, I draped and secure netting around the tomato plants. Buy it it a fabric store: 72 inches width and it can be bought for less than a dollar a yard on sale.

One of three Japanese maples in my yard. I raised this one from a seedling.

Stone steps through the iris and hosta beds.
This area used to be all bed but when Beau's friend visited they didn't have leg room so I opened the area. Now Beau and his freinds run around the veranda in large circles.

The Veranda.
Tim calls it the Tea House. I don't drink tea, it makes me hurl.

Back porch


Chicken Coop Tour this Saturday May 15th

Take the free tour!
Hosted by my fabulous neighbor and erstwhile contractor, Gary Pey or Gray Pet as I inadvertently typo his name.

"Don't forget to mark your calendars for the Couped Up chicken coop tour! It's May 15th, 10:00 AM . We'll meet at the GOH Center at Juniata and Bent. I could really use some more hosts. So far including myself, I only have three. One is in Webster Groves, but he is an architect and might have an interesting looking coop"

Poster designed by Tyler Pey.


St. Louis Brick Confidential

Last week I was staring at the bricks on the wall of my former grade school here in TGS and thinking again about doing paintings based on bricks.

Stretching canvas over a frame is tedious work. It occurred to me to collaborate with another painter which was initially exciting: we would share the concept, supplies, and work so I called another painter I know and left a message before leaving for a day of errands.

Once on the road I had second thoughts.
A male painter collaborating with a woman? I already sensed the answer and wondered if he'd recall that we've been in shows together.

Female artists just don't have any credibility in the art world and their/our work is undervalued. I'm convinced the only reason any of my work sold - and it did sell - is because my name is Christian.

The Painter returned my call and was intrigued with the concept but balked at collaborating: If you give me the materials I'll do my own paintings.


The Monte Christo

These magnificent bricks slay me with their rough finish and subtle range of hue. The original mortar was finger tooled into the crevices.

I showed this photo to Tim over lunch and he announced it was the best cornice in the neighborhood.

These photos are of the Monte Christo apartment building near Wyoming and s Grand in TGE.


Storm Damage

Damage to the stone wall in McDonald Park:

Just spoke with the Parks Commissioner who is rounding up engineers as I type!

The storm also deposited about 4,000 maple tree seeds on my front yard and steps and an equal amount in Marti's garden. I swear I pulled 300 maple tree saplings out of the garden last year.
After the first storm ended on Saturday I was driving east of 44 and drove under a huge rainbow.


Digging a Foundation

Located in TGS, this hole was created last week. Click on the title to see the plans.

Some of the soil slipped during yesterday's rain storm:


Outrageous Brickwork

I spotted this dreamy little house in the Southampton neighborhood. Click to enlarge the photos. The bricks were laid on an angle creating a 'perforated' look.
January and Goethe.


Gas Tank remediation on Morgan Ford

A few days ago I noticed the gas tanks at Morgan Ford and Oleatha were being removed. I stopped to talk with some of the worker's who told me the removal was 'financed by Obama's stimulus package.'

An environmental scientist was on site and said his job was to test the soil
for contamination. The huge hole was about 15 feet deep. Every few feet of digging the work would stop and he'd take a sample from the bucket. He'd put it in a zip lock bag and let it sit to let any gas evaporate. Then he inserted a probe for a reading. When the soil stops testing clean they stop digging and removed the soil to be taken off site to be 'cleaned'.
The probe:

The hole is filling filled with the white gravel on the right side.