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Lansing history: Brick by brick a community is built

Lansing brickyards are no longer visible, but their impact is

LANSING, Ill. (May 28, 2023) – Many early settlers came to Lansing from Holland and Germany to start a new life. Some found the rich soil suitable for growing vegetables and bought farmland. Others dug deeper and found the blue clay under the earth to be suitable for making bricks. By 1876, before Lansing was even incorporated, there were 65 brickyards in and around Chicago, according to the Chicago Chronicle.

The clay had been left by a glacier whose gradual retreat formed a large low area. The water that filled the area became Lake Chicago, the predecessor of Lake Michigan. And the weight of the lake compressed the clay into a harder substance ideal for making bricks.

Farming and brickmaking were Lansing’s main industries for decades. The Calumet region was one of the brickmaking centers of the country for a 10-year period beginning in the 1880s. The clayholes formed by the brickmaking process have since become garbage dump sites or recreational lakes or the foundation of new housing and business developments.

Four major brickyards were located in Lansing and Bernice, a small area north of Lansing that became incorporated as part of Lansing in 1893. Sorting out the details of Lansing’s early brickyards can be confusing and contradictory as different sources have different recollections, many of which are not documented. The information below is this author’s best attempt to piece together this part of Lansing’s history.

Harlan Brickyard / Yard 30 (which was later known as Fritz Clayhole)

Brickmakers pose in front of the boiler room at Yard 30, Harlan Brickyard. (Photo: Lansing Historical Society)

The Harlan Brickyard, known as Yard 30, is often referred to as “the first brickyard” in Lansing. Founded in 1887, it was located in Bernice, north of 178th Street, and extended between Chicago Avenue and Torrence.

The town of Bernice was literally created by the Pennsylvania Central Railroad when it built a depot and track to service the brickyards. The bricks were shipped by boxcar to Chicago customers. As many as 45 cars loaded with 30,000 bricks left Bernice every day. After the Great Chicago Fire, bricks from Bernice literally helped rebuild the ravaged city.

The details of this photo are lost to history, but it is believed to show the train depot at Bernice Road from which Lansing bricks were delivered to Chicago. (Photo: Lansing Historical Society)

Dangerous work

Henry Zek worked in Yard 30. One rainy day he was driving a horse pulling a clay car out of the clayhole. The surface was slippery, and Zek slid off the car. He fell onto the track, and the car ran over him, cutting him in half. Reportedly, when the superintendent went down to investigate, his first words were, “How’s the horse?” He could hire another man but would have to buy a horse!

A 1993 Times column by Larry Shield featured a letter from Allan Dommer, who grew up on the west side of Lansing and recalled his dad working at Yard 30 as a crane man. Dommer’s dad put in many years at the brickyard, but he lost his job in 1929 when production came to an abrupt halt at the beginning of the Great Depression. Yard 30 shut down for good in 1930.

From mining to swimming

Dommer remembered that many of the older houses at the time had no indoor plumbing, and the clayhole served as a public bath. He said, “All that came to bathe or swim there knew what poverty was, since most of the family breadwinners had been employed at the brickyards.”

Fritz Clayhole

Dommer wrote, “Yard 30 began its first excavation on the north side creating a fairly large hole. They abandoned it and began excavation on the south side and continued to mine clay until production of brick ceased in ’29. I know there was a large steam crane and some clay-hauling cars on rails. As I remember, those were left in case production should resume later. All the equipment was abandoned and remains buried there.”

The 19-acre abandoned brickyard and 20-foot-deep clayhole along 178th Street gradually became an unofficial dumpsite operated by James Fritz. Lansing’s dump truck simply made its rounds and then carted the garbage to the Fritz Clayhole, as it was now known, and dumped it, probably illegally. As Lansing’s population increased and neighborhoods formed around the former brickyard, Village officials recognized the need for a different sanitation solution.

In 1969 Fritz asked Lansing for a special use permit to officially handle garbage and industrial waste. Nearly a thousand Lansing residents attended the zoning board meeting to voice opposition to the proposed use, and 5,000 residents signed a petition against it. Throughout the next decade the topic of where to dump Lansing garbage became a political football involving Fritz, Lansing trustees, Calumet City, Munster, Chicago, the John Sexton Contractors, and the circuit courts.

Ultimately, the Fritz Clayhole was filled in 1981. It officially closed on January 1, 1982, and has been vacant since. Lansing hires The Angels Landscaping Services to cut the grass.

Fritz Clayhole is now a grassy lot along 178th Street. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Labahn Brickyard (which later became the Lansing Country Club)

Workers at the Labahn Brickyard pose under the ready shed with a large inventory of new brick as a backdrop. (Photo: Lansing Historical Society)

Labahn Brickyard is considered the second yard to open in Lansing. It was established in 1892 by brothers John and Charles Labahn in partnership with Charles Wendell and a Mr. Wolf. It covered 60 acres of land at 186th Street and Wentworth Avenue and became one of the largest independent brickyards in the state with a capacity of about 50,000,000 bricks a year.

Strikes and disputes

Things went well until December 11, 1897, when 44 of the Cook County brickyards merged into one corporation called the Cook County Bridge Company, or the Brick Combine. The purpose was to keep prices up and prevent “ruinous” competition. Members were to pay a set amount to the treasury of the corporation for each 1,000 bricks made, and they were to hire only union workers. Union yards were on strike for higher wages while non-union yards were working and “making bricks by the wholesale.”

Labahn had 1,000,000 bricks in the yard that had to be delivered to Chicago. He and three of his supervisors, along with four non-union men, were preparing the bricks for shipment when 300 union members marched to the Labahn Yard to stop them. The working men put up a bold front, and the 300 left to hold consultation. Labahn wired the sheriff, who was dispatched to the scene with his deputies. At 3 p.m. the strikers sent 15 men, plus 60 more who joined along the way, to accomplish what had failed earlier. The sheriff told them that it would be dangerous to enter the yard, and they too withdrew, and the workers went back to work. When the strikers heard Labahn was still preparing the shipment, they marched back to the yard. A company agent who had just arrived claimed to be a sheriff from Chicago. He and Labahn were both armed, and Labahn warned, “The first man who enters the yard will receive a bullet.” The deputies remained at the yard until the danger passed.

Disputes continued, and in the early 1900s the Illinois Brick Company boosted the cost of brick from $4.50 per thousand to $8 per thousand. Labahn refused to raise his prices above $7. Illinois Brick then tried to force Labahn to sell to them. He refused. But by 1909, it was reported that Illinois Brick Company had absorbed the Labahn Brick Company for $185,000. Labahn was described as “one of the oldest brick concerns in the country.”

From bricks to fishing

The yard closed by 1920, and the clayhole filled with spring water. Some folks began to use the clayhole as a dump. A few men who didn’t want a dump near their homes began to negotiate with the Illinois Brick Company for the purchase of the property and lake. It took three years, but the 60 acres of land and lake was finally purchased by the men who founded the Lansing Sportsman’s Club in 1940. The club operated for the purpose of promoting fishing, hunting, trapshooting, bowling, and other sporting activities.

The lake that was part of the Lansing Country Club used to be a clayhole that was part of one of the largest independent brickyards in the state. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

The name was changed to the Lansing Country Club in later years, and the property was sold to the Sexton Partners in December 2020.

Purington Brick Company (which later became the Knights of Columbus Hall and Lake)

Purington Paver brick plant’s clay hole and brick kiln looking north, circa 1914. The clay hole was 45 feet deep at its center. (Photo: Lansing Historical Society)

Another very early operation was located at 17800 Lorenz Avenue, where the Knights of Columbus Hall is today. It was operated by the Purington Brick Company and is believed to also have shut down before 1897. The Lansing Knights of Columbus Council #3540 purchased the 22 acres with a lake in 1954, about the same time that Lansing was experiencing a population boom. The KCs envisioned a need for recreational facilities for the youth of Lansing, and they formed a Youth Foundation that was chartered on October 6, 1954. The foundation worked hard planting grass and trees, laying out baseball and football fields, building a picnic pavilion, and stocking the lake with fish. Brother Knights have referred to the Lansing Council as the “Country Club Council.”

Due to economic shortfalls in the 1990s, the KCs sold the majority of their 22 acres of land, including the lake, to Gardant Management Company, who opened St. Anthony of Lansing there in 2013.

The Knights of Columbus Hall (white-roofed building on right) is located where Purington Brick Company used to be. The picnic pavilion (small brown building) can still be seen beyond the Hall. The Knights sold much of the property in the 1990s for the development of St. Anthony of Lansing (large X-shaped building). St. Anthony’s management company has plans to enhance the lake and add a walking path for the enjoyment of the seniors who live there. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Flanagin Brickyard (which probably became Luna Lake)

The Lansing Centennial book of 1993 claims Flanagin Brickyard as another early maker of bricks. Not much is recorded about those early yards except that the operations were quite primitive. The bricks were handmade and sun-dried, so the plant could offer only seasonal employment.

The Flanagin Brickyard was such a yard. After they closed, the clayhole filled with underground spring water and became Flanagin Lake. The only current reference to anything Flanagin in that area is a short road named Flanagin Drive leading to a body of water believed to have been Flanagin Lake. A subdivision has been built around the lake, and the lake has been privatized. The property owners renamed it Luna Lake.

A private lake off Flanagin Drive near Chicago Avenue is believed to be the location of Flanagin Brickyard, an early brick company in Bernice, which later incorporated into Lansing. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Life as a brick worker

As the years progressed, brick companies invested in more powerful machinery that helped increase output. Giant steam shovels dug the clay pits and shoveled the clay into cars pulled by a steam engine called the “dinkie.” Each car held enough clay to make 2,500 bricks. A cable hoist would pull the cars up an incline and out of the pit.

In the early days of brickmaking, men dug with shovels, and horses pulled clay up the incline. Steam power later replaced such manual labor. Pictured here are Kasper Bessinger, Joe Lessner, Max Trinowski, Louis Herman, Richard Schultz, August Schultz, Delphus La Tulip, and George Pearson, along with their horses, Dick, Charley, and Frank. Year unknown. (Photo: Lansing Historical Society)

Workers then dumped the clay into a granulator to be tempered. Pulverized clay called “gong” was added if the clay was too wet, water if it was too dry. Then it went through rollers to get rid of rocks or stones, and it was tempered a second time. The clay was then put on a conveyor that molded it into a ribbon shape. It was then stamped with the brickyard trademark and passed through a wheel-like machine that cut the clay into equal sizes at a rate of 672 bricks a minute. It’s no wonder the men stopped at Bohemian Joe’s tavern to wet their whistles before going home.

Bricks from the Purington brickyard were stamped with the Purington trademark. (Photo: Dan Bovino)

Even with modernized machinery, brickmaking was backbreaking work. Melvin (Buke) Vierk related his 50-year brickyard career in 1992 as part of the Lansing Historical Sub-Committee Centennial Commission. He said, “There was no age requirement for working in the brickyards. If you could handle the work, you could work. There was no pension or Social Security. You had to work until you no longer could. There were no safety programs in the brickyards. You had to take care of yourself. You got minimum wage. If you were hurt on the job, the company paid doctor and hospital expenses for job-related injuries. No one smoked in the brickyards because there wasn’t enough time. So some of the men chewed tobacco and dipped snuff.”

Vierk added, “You worked six days a week. We started at 6 a.m. and went until 4 p.m. I started (in 1823) at 86 cents an hour. We had 10 minutes for lunch at 9 a.m. and 45 minutes at noon.”

Proud history

The brickyards and clayholes that once dominated the Lansing landscape are now covered over and filled in. But input from the Lansing Historical Society helped inform the design of the History Plaza at Burnham and Ridge, and Lansing’s brickmaking background is memorialized in one of the four metal panels.

One of the four artistic panels in the History Plaza pays tribute to Lansing’s brickmaking history. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The panels were installed at the History Plaza in 2017, so future generations will get a sense of the hard work and clay soil that form the foundation the Lansing community continues to build on today.


Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook is a Lansing resident who loves learning and writing about local history. A member of the Illinois Women's Press Association since 1973, she has won multiple IWPA awards. Her 2020 awards in the Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest included first place for columns and second place for nonfiction book in the history category.


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