Sunday, May 11, 2014

Oakes Brick and Tile Company

My final post for this semester is about the fact that Iowa's agricultural and industrial heritage, and really that of the entire Mid-West, is inextricably linked to clay. Clay tiling (pipe) was used to drain excess water off of farmland, and also to drain low-lying wetlands in order to convert them to crop land. This innovation, along with tractors and industrial fertilizers, allowed our nation, and world, to keep up with the hunger of a rapidly growing population. Factories that produced field tile and brick were almost as common as grain mills, at the turn of the 20th century, with almost every city or town of any size having at least one.

One of the larger brick and tile factories was the Oakes Brick and Tile Factory in Iowa City, which operated from the 1850's to the 1930's. In their most successful year, I believe around 1890 or so, they 800,000 bricks and 500,000 pieces of field tile. The tiles were 3 inch wide pipes, water would drain from the fields into the cracks where 2 pieces of pipe interlocked. The pipes were made by an industrial scaled extruder, powered by steam engines. The coal that would have powered the engines and fired the kilns as well. The factory would have been located at the corner of Grant and Sheridan (coincidentally the 3 regiments of soldiers Iowa City sent to the civil war trained in the pasture beside the factory). The location was between Longfellow Elementary and Kirkwood's Iowa City Campus, with clay being dug from a quarry adjacent to Longfellow. This location would have been well into the countryside at the time. I imagine the nearby railroad tracks would have brought coal in and brick and tile out.

After World War II ceramic field tile, and load bearing brick, were replaced by cheaper materials. Most field tile today is made of pbc plastic, though I doubt it is anywhere near as durable as ceramic was. 

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