Scott County, Tennessee
FNB Chronicles

This page was created 06 Sep 2008

The brick-making era of Robbins, Tenn.

By Keith Henry
Contributing Columnist

Beginning in the late 1880s and continuing until the onset of the "Great Depression", many changes were occurring in the United States. These changes led to social and economic growth in the counties, states and in the nation as a whole.

Evidence of these transitional years is still present today, if a person will just take the time to open his or her eyes and look around. These products of change can be found in various counties and states of America. Railroads, buildings and streets made of brick, and electricity produced from the burning of coal, just to mention a small number of products.

Take brick for example. Have you ever noticed older brick buildings and especially the brick streets of cities such as Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Petersburg, or St. Augustine, Florida? Have you ever noticed the name of these brick? Some of the brick are plain, yet others may read Reynolds Brick, Robbins Paver, or Southern Clay Mfg. Has the question ever occurred to you when, where, and how these brick were manufactured? Believe it or not the majority of Those brick were manufactured in a small community nestled in the Upper Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee: Rob-bins, Tennessee, by the Southern Clay Mfg. Company. The production of these brick spanned from 1889 through 1939.

In the 1880s, the Cincinnati Southern Railway began to expand its system through Scott County, Tennessee. Robbins Coal and Mining Company owned a large portion of the land being used by the Cincinnati Southern Railway.

This land contained a very unique characteristic. A seam of coal about two feet thick was discovered, but underlying this seam of coal was a seam of clay approximately four feet thick. Usually slate is discovered underlying a seam of coal. ADAM OTT, an Ohio native of German descent, employed by the Cincinnati Southern Railroad, was most intrigued by this unique characteristic. Clay and coal were both necessities for brick production. Mr. OTT, in search of financiers, became affiliated with WILLIAM LASLEY and Son of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The LASLEYs already owned two brick producing plants located in Birmingham and Warrior, Alabama. Mr. OTT and the LASLEYs formed the Tennessee Paving and Brick Company in August of 1889, purchasing the land from the Robbins Coal and Mining Company. The LASLEYs transported equipment from the plants located in Birmingham and Warrior to Robbins. Three kilns (ovens in which the brick were baked) were constructed, along with a Commissary (or store), an office, and a small number of company homes.

Early labor consisted of local Caucasians and Black Americans who remained in the area after the completion of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad.

The era of brick in Robbins, Tennessee had begun.

As the production of brick, and expansion increased the Tennessee Paving Brick Company gained recognition and attention. In 1902 Southern Clay Manufacturing Company of Jersey City, New Jersey purchased the Tennessee Paving and Brick Company.

As the new company continued to grow, many innovations occurred. A railroad spur was extended from the Cincinnati Southern Railway to the brick yard. A boarding house, or "Club House" as it was referred to, had been constructed. The "Club House" offered all the amenities of a fine hotel, including lodging, bathing, and food. The brick manufacturing plant was powered by three large steam engines and one large boiler until 1925, when the new power house was constructed. The new power house contained two diesel engines which provided electricity to approximately 50 buildings and the community of Robbins. Behind the power house was a large pit made of brick and concrete. This pit contained water which was used to cool the diesel engines, two large fuel tanks were also located behind the power house.

With the new additions to the company, the demand for employees increased. These employees filled many different positions. The jobs consisted of: boarding house keeper, storekeeper, clerk, bookkeeper, firemen (who kept the boilers and kilns ready), miners, men who loaded the "brick buggies", workers in the mixing process, common laborers and others. Women were employed during World War I.

Most employees worked six days per week consisting of 10-hour shifts. The shifts began at 6:00 a.m. and ended at 4:00 p.m. This shift included all workers except the firemen, who kept the boilers and kilns fired. The firemen worked seven days per week consisting of three, eight-hour shifts.

The pay scale from the mid-1920s until the late 1930s ranged from $1.25 a day to $2.00 a day. The foreman kept track of the hours worked each day and turned it in to the bookkeeper at the end of each day. The employees were paid once a month. The accountant maintained a tally sheet which consisted of two columns. During the month, if the employee purchased items at the company store, a total dollar mount of goods was placed by the employee’s name in one column on the tally sheet. The amount of pay due the employee would be kept in the other column by his name. If the company owed the employee money, a check was issued at the end of the month. At the end of the month the employee would usually owe the company instead of the company owing the employee. Many employees felt that they owed their soul to the company store.

The one advantage of the company store was that it contained a variety of merchandise. This merchandise ranged from matches to bolts of material used in the production of garments and home goods Disadvantages of the company store varied from higher prices at times to policies placed upon the employees. During the early years the employees were expected to trade exclusively at the company store. Later, the employees had to spend at least 50% of their earnings at the company store. Finally, the employee could spend his earnings wherever he wanted.

The homes of the employees varied. Some employees resided in company houses and others lived in homes in the community which were not company owned. Many of the company owned homes were referred to as "gunshot houses" because they had three rooms straight in a row like a gunshot. During the early years none of the homes contained running water or inside bathroom facilities. The foremen or privileged employees sometimes resided in brick homes consisting of four rooms and a cellar.

The average number of employees was around 150. In the company’s peak production years (1925-1927), three hundred people were employed. All of these employees were needed for the production of brick.

The production of brick was a multi-step process. The process began with the mining and dispersal of the coal, shale and clay. These ingredients were transported to the needed areas, such as coal to the boilers and kilns, shale to the shale pit, and clay to the clay bin. These items were carried to the plant in small railroad cars called "dinkies", which were pulled by miniature steam engines.

Shale and clay were ground into powder by the crusher. The shale and clay were put onto a conveyor belt and run through the crusher, gathered into powder form and stored in bins. Water was mixed with the shale and clay powder in the Pug Mill, and stirred with large augers or wooden paddles until doughy. The water was obtained from three large ponds located near the plant. Quantities of dough were then placed on conveyor belts and transferred to molds, where the dough was cut up by machines using wire, similar to piano wire. Seventeen brick could be cut at one time and, as time progressed, 25 brick could be cut at a time. The brick were then stamped with the appropriate name or design.

The brick then progressed through on the conveyor belt. Four crews of two workers stacked the brick on kiln carts, or brick buggies, and when the carts were loaded, other crews put the bricks in the dryers. Two types of dryers were available, dryer sheds and dryer tunnels. Dryer sheds were located within the factory. These were rooms with large fans, run by steam engines, at each end of the shed to dry the brick. Dryers had to be kept at a constant temperature. Six dryer tunnels were also in use. These dried brick were called "green brick". Eighty thousand to 100,000 green brick were manufactured in a day.

The advertisement wall for Robbins brick

The green brick were then transported to the kilns. There were 21 kilns built by Negro masons, 17 round kilns and four rectangular kilns. The fuel source of the kilns was coal, which was maintained by workers called firemen. This procedure was called "firing the kilns."

Twenty thousand to 25,000 brick were placed in the kiln at a time. The temperature of the kilns was monitored at the control house. The brick were baked from eight to 12 days. Each finished brick weighed approximately eight pounds. Salt was added in the kiln "eyes" while the brick baked. This changed their color and made them waterproof.

When the baking process was complete, the brick was removed from the kilns on brick buggies or kiln carts. Approximately 8,100 brick could be removed at a time. The men worked in pairs, one man would toss the brick from the kiln to the second man, who would load the buggy. The brick was then stored in large stacks, called hakes, out in the open. At full production, the amount of brick produced each month equaled one million. Sometimes there were as many as five months’ inventory before all the brick were shipped out. Eighty thousand brick were shipped per day. Each railroad car contained from 8,000 to 10,000 brick. The railway cars were loaded by hand with the brick buggies. Two men could load, a car in one day.

After being loaded onto the railcars, the brick were shipped to different destinations, including Ohio, Kentucky and’ Florida.

Many of the techniques used today in the advertisement, marketing and sales divisions of companies were demonstrated by the Southern Clay Mfg. Company in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1930, an advertisement wall containing the different styles of bricks was constructed. Business cards were printed and distributed. Miniature brick were produced and given as samples, and advertisements in newspapers were also used.

The market for brick increased until 1927, when it reached its peak. At this time the Great Storm and Flood in Florida hindered the sale of brick to that state. The northern market for brick had already faded as new paving materials had been introduced. These factors and the Great Depression marked the beginning of the end for brick production in Robbins, Tennessee, except for a short period during the Depression when enough brick was produced to pave one square mile of roadway. These were the last brick produced by the Southern Clay Mfg. Company.

From 1927 to 1939 experiments producing conduit and tile were conducted in search of a new product to market. In 1939, the final days of the once great brick company came to an end. The diesel engines were sold and shipped to Texas. All other materials that qualified as scrap iron were sold. The land tracts of the Southern Clay Manufacturing Company were given to the County of Scott to be sold at auction. The 11,000 acres of land, including the buildings and ponds, were purchased by G. C. PEMBERTON of Scott County. All papers, records, and documents were burned and their ashes carried away by the winds of the Upper Cumberlands.

Today, seven old buildings, the advertisement wall, and many streets remain as reminders of the once great manufacturing giant.

Let us not forget the past because it is history. Let us preserve it for our posterity in hopes that we will use this knowledge to our advantage, and appreciate the heritage that it represents. Hopefully this knowledge and heritage will help maintain our great nation, because "history repeats itself."

FNB Chronicle, Vol. 1, No. 4 – Summer 1990
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
(pages 8 and 9)

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