A new town needs building material. In the area adjacent to Laramie City in 1868, most of the easily accessible trees had been cut for railroad ties. Wood had to come from the mountains to the east or west or was delivered by rail.
If a good bed of clay could be found plus limestone for mortar and coal for the kiln, then bricks were a great alternative to wood. These requisite materials were located close to Laramie, keeping costs down. Brick buildings were relatively fireproof, a great advantage downtown where buildings were so close together.
On May 10, 1871, the Laramie Sentinel announced that “the Richard Brothers will in a few days have in operation the most extensive brick works this side of Omaha. They have located their yard about a mile southwest of town, upon one of the finest beds of clay we have ever seen. Their machine has a capacity of about 20,000 bricks per day, and in addition to furnishing brick for the Court house and other public and private buildings to be erected here this summer, they will undoubtedly be able to supply all that are needed along the road [Union Pacific Railroad], from Cheyenne to the Utah line.”
COMPLAINTS ABOUT BRICKThere is no indication of where the Richard brothers gained their knowledge of brick manufacturing or where their clay bed was. The first Albany County Courthouse was started in 1871, presumably with the Richard’s brick, but there is no further mention of the Richard brothers in the newspaper. This might have had something to do with complaints about the quality of Laramie brick. Surface weathering caused the outside layer to sluff off, eventually necessitating that early brick structures in Laramie be painted or covered with stucco to protect the integrity of the brick.
It is easy to presume that Richards’ location was next to the Laramie River on West Garfield Street — brick manufacturing requires lots of water. That’s where the next Laramie brick yards were probably located. However, historian Elnora Frye cautions that it isn’t until 1903 that we know for sure about the West Garfield Street location; then the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific railroad could have hauled the clay to the brick yards.
In 1875, J.H. Triggs published the “History and Directory of Laramie City.” It contained an advertisement for bricks made in Laramie. But the ad was placed by James Millard Fillmore, adult son of local UP railroad official Luther Fillmore. The younger Fillmore announced that the brick would be delivered to building sites in the city, and that plans and estimates for construction could be furnished. But the next year Fillmore relinquished the operation.
PEOPLE’S BRICK WORKS
In 1876, Gilbert Adams operated the brick yards. His background in brickmaking is unknown, as is his relationship to Laramie resident James Adams. The latter had announced his services as an architect in the earliest Laramie newspapers. Gilbert Adams called his enterprise the “People’s Brick Works” and advertised “contracts made to erect brick buildings and deliver them over fully completed.” Since he not only made the bricks but offered to construct the building, there might have been some connection between the two men named Adams. Again, the exact location of this operation is not available
Adams promoted his brick factory nearly every day during the 1876 construction season and a little into 1877, but that is the end of his newspaper advertising. However, there is reference to an unnamed Laramie brick company in 1890 when the Laramie Board of Trade wrote that the brick kilns of Laramie make “the finest brick, common or pressed, and hundreds of thousands are burned here annually for use in public buildings and private residences.”
“Common” brick is more crudely formed, requiring thick mortar. “Pressed” brick has sharper, more uniform corners needing less mortar. Pressed is more expensive and often was used for only the façade of the building.
The quality of brick produced must have improved, as no more complaints about the bricks are apparent in the newspapers. Nothing has been found to date substantiating claims that bricks were made at the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary, which also had clay soils on its property just west of the Laramie River bridge.
MAST FAMILY MASONS
John Mast (1849-1933), a brick mason and Civil War veteran, moved from Toledo, Ohio to Laramie in 1876 and married Celestia Thees here that year. They had five sons and lived first in a small brick home he built at 607 S. 5th St. By 1888, he had built a larger brick home on the south side of his lot at 609 S. 5th St. In 1897, Mast operated the brick factory while also serving as a brick contractor.
Mast was joined by two of his sons, Will and Millard; they became master brick masons of Laramie. A grandson, Will’s son Art, also became a mason. Unfortunately, Art died at age 27 in an auto accident in 1932, but he left his name prominently scratched into the wet mortar of the dining room fireplace in the 1892 Ivinson Mansion, with his phone number. No doubt this was to avoid having to fix poor quality repairs by volunteers when the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming owned the building after 1921.
The Mast family of brick masons were responsible for much of the brick work in Laramie buildings from 1876 to the early 1950s. Prominent examples of John Mast’s work included the Masonic Temple at Fourth Street and Ivinson Avenue; Washington School (now apartments) at Ninth and Grand Avenue; and the interior brick arches in St. Matthew’s Cathedral. A Mast family history by grandson Robert S. Mast was published in the 1987 book “Laramie — Gem City of the Plains.”
WYOMING PRESSED BRICK COMPANYIn 1903, much more information is available about Laramie brick manufacturing. The Wyoming Pressed Brick Company was formed that year, taking over from John Mast. Five local businessmen invested a total of $23,000 to form the company. President was lawyer C.P. Arnold and directors included University of Wyoming professor T.T. Reed, attorney N.E. Corthell and ranch owner Ora Haley. They hired J.E. Treanor, a mining engineer, as manager.
The company was located just northeast of where West Garfield Street crosses the Laramie River today, and utilized a clay bed about a mile west of town that was reported to be up to 30 feet deep. Daily production estimates continued at 20,000 bricks.
There are a few buildings still standing that used the brick from this local company — one was the church building at Sixth Street and Grand Avenue, which was originally constructed by the Presbyterian congregation, and the Carnegie Public Library at Fourth Street and Grand Avenue. In 1906, Dr. Alexander Hamilton took over from Arnold and Treanor as both president and manager, while continuing his medical practice. Perhaps this was an indication that all was not well with the company’s finances.
Research done by the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) when the West Garfield Street bridge over the Laramie River was slated to be replaced in 2002, showed that this brick company appeared to have ended production in 1913, though the stockholders did not dispose of the property until after 1920, when it was to be sold to the Laramie Pressed Brick Company.
The WYDOT survey was required to determine if cultural resources would be disturbed by its construction activity. Archaeologists examined the land where the various brick factories had operated. While lots of brick fragments and clinkers from the kiln fires were discovered, there were no other physical remains of either the Wyoming Pressed Brick Co. or any of its predecessors or successors.
LARAMIE BRICK AND TILE COMPANYThis new manufacturing company began production soon after 1920 and lasted until at least 1945, though the original owners are unknown. The company was purchased in 1925 by Edward E. Anderson, who renamed it “Laramie Brick and Tile Company.” By this time the clay deposit that might have been used by all of Laramie’s brick companies was owned by rancher John Schrader.
Anderson operated the brick factory until 1945. He used the brick to construct several buildings in Laramie to demonstrate the worthiness of his product. They included his own home at 803 University Ave. and an apartment building directly behind it on Eighth Street.
The Anderson’s daughter Mabel, married Walter McGraw who worked at the brick yard fora while, then at UW until 1960. Their son Edward was married to Susan Comin McGraw, well-known Laramie teacher, who provided background information when interviewed for this story.
Elnora Frye, who lived at the University Stock Farm after the clay deposit was no longer actively being worked, recalls that the large pit on the Schrader ranch was utilized by the stock farm as well as Schrader himself as a burial site for animal carcasses. “You’d never know where the pit was unless I went with you,” says Elnora, “because it got filled up and even the first “Cowboy Joe” mascot pony was buried there. It’s all covered with dirt, so there is no pit to be seen.” Perhaps most of the clay had been removed by then, causing the demise of Laramie brickmaking.
WASTE BRICKSometimes odd things happen in the brick kiln and the fired bricks curl up unnaturally or sag when they are removed. Worse yet, finished bricks that are stacked up on the property awaiting purchase might become unstable and topple over. Broken and misshaped bricks are unfit for sale. Wasted brick was piled up somewhere on site — available free or at nominal cost for local people willing to haul it off.
Edward Anderson used some of this brick himself to construct a house at 156 N. Eighth St. that is still standing — it includes a knee-high fence in the front yard of the same waste brick. Several houses in the 1100 block of S. Fifth St. also utilized waste brick. One Laramie West Side resident reports that there are many walkways, garden edgings and fences in that neighborhood which is close to the brick “yard,” as the large area with brick stockpiles is commonly called.
Most brick walls in Laramie buildings are not actually holding the roof up, instead they are a veneer installed on the outside of wooden or steel framing. If a brick wall is to be structural, there must be two parallel rows of brick. Brick sizes vary internationally, but in the U.S., the most common is oblong with the length (“stretcher”) about twice as long as the depth (“header”) and a little over two inches tall. Double walls are connected to each other by occasional headers (laid with the short ends facing front) to join the two parallel walls together. Different bond names are given for the variety of ways headers and stretchers can be used. A “soldier” course refers to bricks laid vertically instead of horizontally, often done over windows and doors.
The most ordinary way to lay bricks is called the “running bond” in which there are no headers showing—a clear indication that the wall is a facing material, not a structural wall.
Care is taken to assure that the joints alternate so that there is not a vertical line of weak mortar anywhere in the wall. Even so, brick does not do well in earthquakes without reinforcement, which adds to the cost. An average 3-bedroom single-story home in Laramie requires from 5,000 to 8,000 bricks — double that number if the brick walls are to be structural or if the home is two stories.