Hands-on heritage experience

Nathan Liewicki
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Published on June 29, 2014

The Claybank Brick Plant Historical Site's 10 kilns were frequented by hundreds of visitors at the Claybank Brick Plant Heritage Day on Sunday. Each of the kilns were built using an estimated 300,000 bricks.

Published on June 29, 2014

Hilda Maier, left, assits 12-year-old Paige Sivella in sculpting a piece of pottery inside a kiln at the Claybank Brick Plant Historical Site on Sunday. Maier, the executive director for the site, has been associated with the plant for 17 years. 

Published on June 29, 2014

Bricks on a cart inside one of the kilns at the Claybank Brick Plant Historic Site.

Published on June 29, 2014

The drying tunnels at the Claybank Brick Plant Historic Site.

Published on June 29, 2014

A look inside the clay storage shed at the Claybank Brick Plant Historical Site.

Published on June 29, 2014

A look at equipment inside the machine shop at the Claybank Brick Plant Historical Site. the machine shape is decribed as the heart of the plant. 

Published on June 29, 2014

Visitors look at an old piece of equipment that is situated on the grounds of the Claybank Brick Plant Historical Site on Sunday.

Claybank Brick Plant celebrates 100 years

Richard Ludwar’s employment at the Claybank Brick Plant ended 25 years ago. For nearly 11 years, he worked at the plant performing a number of tasks, including operating the brick press, moulding clay and operating the dry pan.

On Sunday, he was back at the plant shoveling clay in the same dry pan he used to operate.

He admitted that it is sometimes difficult to fathom that a quarter of a century has passed since the plant ceased its daily operations. Now a national historic site, aptly named the Claybank Brick Plant Historical Site (CBPHS), the plant contains a number of memories for Ludwar.

“I remember a lot of the older guys that worked here and the stories they told,” he said. “They even pulled the odd prank on you that sent you to the office.”

Ludwar was one of a handful of former plant employees who served as volunteers at the annual Claybank Brick Plant Heritage Day, which celebrated 100 years of the plant’s history. Other volunteers were on hand to describe other aspects of the plant’s historical past and the roles they had while it was in operation.

Among the Moose Jaw buildings that Claybank bricks were used to build include the Canadian National Railway Station, St. Louis College and Providence Hospital.

It took about five to six weeks – from start to finish – for a brick to be built at the plant. Conversely, a modern tunnel kiln will produce a brick in four days.

Hilda Maier, now the executive director of the CBPHS, remembers part of that process when she looked through a peephole in one of the 10 kilns when she was in Grade 1. The plant was still open then.

“One of the kilns was cooling down at the time and they had peepholes they put in the doors, and a measuring device they looked through to see if the bricks have fired enough,” she said. “I (was able) to look through that peephole. The bricks were white hot. You'd expect them to be red hot, but they were white hot.”

Maier noted that the plant has been a basic part of her life, especially for the last 17 years, but that look through the peephole remains a very vivid memory of hers.

Although the plant has hit the century mark, it still has the feel, the look and the smells of a building from the 1910s through 1930s. And it’s a very hands-on experience, which is something Maier explained is important for visitors.

“We want people to be able to experience their heritage – not just read about it. We want them to come here to see the sights, smell the smells and walk back in time. After 100 years that's quite the feat, to be able to allow that privilege of going back in time.”

There have only been three such brick plants in North America. The other two – both in the U.S. – were deconstructed. As such, Claybank welcomes visitors from across the world, says Maier.

“We're the best example of this type of industry in North America and we have 100 per cent of our kilns and 95 per cent of our buildings,” she said.

The plant is also a well-kept secret that offers a “very personal experience” that allows guests to grasp its century of history. 

Nathan Liewicki can be reached at 306-691-1256 or follow him on Twitter @liewicks

 

***

 

There is a legend of the Claybank clay begins with telescope.

Located in the Bunkhouse Interpretive Centre at the Claybank Brick Plant Historical Site, the telescope was found by Ontarian Tom McWilliams in 1883 while on one of his many journeys to the northern areas of the Great Plains.

That telescope was with him as McWilliams served with government forces during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.

According to legend, he used the telescope to spot white clay on a hill on the northern edge of the Missouri Coteau – a discovery not possible without his top grade telescope.

After testing, it was discovered that the clay was a rare and versatile refractory clay of the highest quality. He then successfully convinced land title officials to let him trade his homestead near Pasqua for the detached one on the edge of the Dirt Hills.

It was on McWilliams’ land that the Claybank Brick Plant was later born in 1914.

Organizations: St. Louis College, Canadian National Railway Station, Providence Hospital

Geographic location: Moose Jaw, North America, U.S.

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