Scott County, Tennessee
FNB Chronicle

This page was created 06 Sep 2008

A History of the
Southern Clay Manufacturing Company

Aerial View of the Plant and Pits of the Southern Clay Manufacturing Company, Robbins, Tennessee


The following description is a continuation of the story of the Robbins Brickyard which has been presented periodically through the years. Much of the story of the Brickyard has been lost, but by pulling together each piece of information that can be found, a picture of the brick works at Robbins has been developed, from its beginning through its closure.

This article developed over many years of gathering information from Scott County residents, from documents and archives, and from collecting photographs. This article was presented in January as a paper at the Cincinnati conference of the Society for Historic Archaeology. The fact that many of the bricks produced at Robbins were made at a specific time period makes them, especially the street payers, a valuable time marker when an archaeologist is doing work in cities.

National Park Service Archeologist
Big South Fork NRRA

Introduction —The town of Robbins is located in Scott County, Tennessee and takes its name from the Southern Railroad construction superintendent who supervised the building of the railroad and tunnel here in the late 1800s. The town was incorporated about 1893 and encompassed approximately one square mile. Prior to the development of any clay products industry at Robbins, coal and timber were the industries which dominated the economy of Scott County. In order to provide commerce for these industries the Cincinnati and Southern Railroad came to Scott County in 1877.

In the early 1880s ADAM OTT, a railroad worker from Cincinnati, Ohio, discovered that a large four-foot-thick clay deposit was associated with a coal vein found during railroad construction in the area of Robbins, Tennessee. ADAM OTT sought investors to help develop this unusual occurrence of both fuel and raw clay mineral and eventually organized the Robbins Coal and Mining Company in 1886. ADAM OTT together with WILLIAM LASLEY as president and his son T. H. LASLEY as treasurer, formed the Tennessee Paving Brick Company, incorporated in 1889.

Workmen with their tools in front of kilns at Southern Clay Manufacturing Company in Robbins. From left are: Wilburn Bowling, George Lawson, Jack Jones, Ferrell Elliott, and
Willie Massengale.

Economic History — The concentration of "Common Brick" clay in this area of the Upper Cumberland Plateau is a result of a fortuitous set of geological circumstances. Brick clays are also called low-refractory fireclays or miscellaneous clays and are sufficiently plastic to be easily molded and readily burn to hard products at relatively low temperatures.

The "Poplar Creek" or Glen Mary coal seam of the Briceville Formation at Robbins, like a few other lower Pennsylvania aged coal seams of the Upper Cumberland Plateau, has a large underclay and elastic shale deposit associated with it. The four to ten foot mineral, siltstone and shale. The Glen Mary coal deposit, its occurrence with useable elastic shales, its proximity to the railroad and the local availability of wage laborers made this an ideal economic environment for brick or ceramic manufacturing. This point is also made by YARBROUGH who states that, "Because all Miscellaneous clays are of such low value they cannot be mined unless they are turned into a product nearby."

An overview and description of the Tennessee Paving Brick Company was provided in the 1893 Tennessee Division of Mines, Reports, #117:

"The Tennessee Paving Brick Company
Robbins Mine,
Robbins, Scott County

"The mine operated by this company is situated at Robbins, a station on the Cincinnati Southern railroad, about four miles north of Glenmary, in a spur of the Cumberland Mountains. This mine was first operated by the Robbins Coal and Mining Company, organized August, 1886.

"This company was succeeded by the Tennessee Paving Brick Company, incorporated in 1889. who are now producing coal for the purpose of burning fire-brick, and for the local trade. The vein of coal worked is the same as the one at Glenmary, showing the same thickness and about the same analysis.

"Under the seam of coal lies a vein of fire-clay, showing an average thickness of three feet. This clay is also taken out, crushed, and made into fire and paving brick."

WILLIAM LASLEY and his son had been in the clay products industry for a long time and had several plants. The corporate offices for the LASLEYs were in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and other Lasley & Son plants were operating in Warrior and Birmingham, Alabama, where their original brick plant was located. The Tennessee Paving Brick Company at the Robbins brickyard began operations using machinery taken from the other Lasley and Son clay manufacturing plants.

Although an earlier investigator was not able to ascertain whether the Tennessee Paving Brick Company ever made any bricks, recently discovered documents show that it made quite a lot. The Second Annual Report for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Mines, for the State of Tennessee, 1893 relates this fact noting:

"All the Chattanooga streets that are paved with brick, except Seventh street, were paved with the product of this company."

Also of note concerning the Tennessee Paving Brick Company’s production of brick is another of the State of Tennessee Division of Mines, Reports #180, 1897, which states:

"This mine was first opened in 1896, the seam worked being the Glen Mary.

"Below the coal vein here there is a seam of bastard fire clay, both the coal and fire clay being worked together, the coal face being kept a few yards ahead of the fire clay face.

"The company has a plant for the manufacture of paving brick at the mine and the whole output of the coal consumed in burning the brick.

"Two machines for coal and two machines for brick are operated."

In 1902 The Tennessee Paving Brick Company sold its Robbins operation to the Southern Clay Manufacturing Company of Jersey City, New Jersey. This was the same year that the community of Robbins, Tennessee was granted a town charter. Southern Clay Manufacturing imported and applied mass production machinery and techniques to the clay products industry at Robbins. The Robbins plant then began to produce and sell SCM paving bricks, fire and chemical bricks, clay sewer pipe, various construction bricks, and square-2,6, and 9-sectioned telephone line conduit.

The plant was originally powered by steam but in 1925 this system was replaced by diesel engines. Production, which had formerly been at about 3,000 bricks per day rose tremendously. By 1933 at the peak of operation production figures were 80,000 bricks per day, or 50 tons of telephone conduit produced per day. Paving brick was sold to northern and central markets (Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Chattanooga, Tennessee) but by the late 1920s the company contracted primarily with southern markets (Miami, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, Florida).

The Robbins brickyard prospered until the late 1920s when macadam paved road construction replaced brick paving and when disastrous hurricanes in Florida ended a decade long building boom. This construction decline spelled hardship for the Robbins plant because much of its production was based on contracts with Florida developers. Shortly after this the "Great Depression" occurred and the Robbins plant suffered a slow decline in contracts as construction projects dwindled. Slowdowns and lay-offs occurred during this time including some years which saw the Robbins brick plant open for only a few months at a time. Attempts were made to save the Robbins plant by encouraging nearby communities to pave many of their local roads with SCM bricks, all to no avail. The last bricks produced at Robbins were made in 1937 and went to Alcoa, Tennessee.

Few clay manufacturing plants survived the depression and of those that did "Only the plants favorably located to market areas or those large enough to absorb the financial crisis survived through this period." Other factors also played a part in the demise of SCM including new firing methods occurring at the time like, "hard firing", which produced bricks of uniform color and made some clays previously used for brick making unsuitable.

After the plant shut down and SCM filed for bankruptcy its assets in Robbins were auctioned off and eventually purchased by a local investor and coal strip miner who logged timber and mined coal on the former SCM property. All documents and records were collected and burned and only the remains of a few buildings are evident today. Currently the site of the plant, its buildings, and materials are slowly succumbing to decay, collapse and scavenging.

The various styles of ceramic products at Southern Clay Manufacturing Company.

Description of Technology and Products — The LASLEYs, as the managers of the Tennessee Paving Brick Company, were able to use their knowledge of clay product manufacturing to capitalize on the fortunate economic circumstances found at the Robbins brickyard. The Tennessee Paving Brick Company began production by building three "beehive" kilns at the head of Brickyard Hollow. The plant site was eventually built on the Robbins field situated about one hundred yards east of the railroad with the processing plant located about one quarter of a mile away. As production increased waste from the plant was used to fill in more and more of the ravine in Brickyard Hollow. This plant was built on the designs and equipment taken from other LASLEY holdings. The availability of unskilled, low-cost labor was another resource that was capitalized on by the Tennessee Paving Brick Company. A description of the plant at the time notes that:

"The plant comprises about 1,000 acres, on which are sixteen kilns, with an annual capacity of 12,000,000 paving brick. The company conducts a general store, and have twenty-seven dwellings for their employees. The equipments and appliances used in manufacturing have all the latest improvements, and are of the best description, including dryers and other buildings especially adapted for the work. All the Chattanooga streets that are paved with brick, except Seventh street, were paved with the product of this company.

"Coal produced in tons: 1890, 5,697; 1891, 6,000; 1892, 6,000."

Southern Clay Manufacturing Bookeeper’s Structure at Robbins in 1979

The SCM Robbins Bookeeper’s structure as it appeared in 1989

Two important traits characterized the Robbins Plant after Southern Clay Manufacturing Company (SCM) purchased the operation, a streamlined mass production operation and a willingness to modify operations when new technology or innovations might prove more efficient.

The basic operation began with the removal of coal followed by the extraction of raw clay. Clay was extracted from the deep deposits in and around the Robbins, Tennessee area by a steam shovel mounted on a narrow-gauge railroad car and locomotive. This railroad shovel was called a "Dinky" and for many years this steam shovel operation was run by Mr. JOHN L. BOSS of Robbins. Crushed elastic shale from the area was also used for making certain types of brick because of its bloating and refractory qualities. This was especially true in the manufacture of "Chemical Block", which is a temperature resistant fire-brick.

The method of brick manufacturing at Robbins generally followed these procedures: The clay would be taken to a processing building where it was cleaned to remove any large aplastic or rocky inclusions. It was then processed in the pugmill. The pugmill "de-aired" clay or shale by means o. rollers and shears. By adding water the clay was made plastic and was extruded from the pugmill through a die in the shape of a brick "like tooth-paste being squeezed from a tube". A large pond was maintained nearby for use in this step of the manufacturing process. Once it was extruded the column of clay was passed through a cutting table where fine wires cut it into desired lengths. This means of brick manufacture, which is called the Stiff-Mud process, was used during the Robbins brickyard operation and remains today the most common method in use. Following this the bricks were placed into brick forms and impressed with various marks or designs and then air dried. Finally, the bricks were sent from the cutting table to dryer sheds to be dried slowly at 350° to 400°F to remove trapped water. This step usually took anywhere from fifteen to forty-eight hours. Following the drying operation the bricks were taken to be fired at one of the numerous kilns at the plant.

In 1925, when diesel power replaced the steam driven operation, production skyrocketed, More and more brick kilns were built by black masons until there were at least 21 in operation and firings were done around the clock. There were 17 large "igloo" shaped kilns. These were periodic or ‘beehive" kilns and most were situated to the south of the railroad spur that cut east into the brick-yard. Four other rectangular kilns were dispersed around the brickyard area. The kilns or ovens at the Robbins brickyard were similar to the types that had been used at the coke plant in Glenmary. The periodic kilns could burn coal, oil, or gas, and could reach temperatures between 1900° to 2300° F. The average beehive or periodic kiln could fire a charge of 40,000 bricks in five to eight days. The four rectangular kilns could only accommodate up to 25,000 bricks at a time. The drawback to the use of the beehive kilns that was brick color would vary in each firing as a result of varying temperatures within the kiln. This was not so important during the first decades of the twentieth century. However, color did become increasingly more important as the use of solid color brick began to dominate in the construction industry.

Various styles of brick produced at Southern Clay Manufacturing Company

Many brick types were manufactured at Robbins but it appears that some brick forms from different plants may have been used to make certain bricks here. For example the L.F.B. Wks. STANDARD and No. A types refer to products of the Louisville Fire Brick Works which is still in operation today. The occurrence of the L.F.B. Wks. fire brick maybe related to the construction of the first ‘beehive" kilns which would have necessitated firebrick for repeated firings. Later these could have been replaced by locally made fire brick. The EXCELSIOR stamp or brand is associated with a number of companies including Egan and Webster & Co., PA; Alabama Clay Products, AL; Seaboard Refractories Co., NJ; and Pacific Clay Products, CA. The use of the same stamp at numerous brickyards is perhaps evidence of contractors changing their brick suppliers from time to time or of brick suppliers wholesaling bricks from different sources. Because of requirements for construction bricks of consistent color the majority of the SCM Robbins plant ceramic products were "payers" by the late 1920s. With payers, hardness is the important factor, and color becomes less critical.

As the orders for ceramic products declined in the late 1920s and early 1930s the Robbins plant of SCM encouraged local and regional communities to use their payers in street construction. Some communities did this, for example the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company of Stearns, Kentucky had the street in the central part of town paved with $3,000.00 worth of Robbins brick. This area was thereafter referred to as the "Brick Hill"; Oneida, Tennessee also utilized some of the payers and had approximately a mile of road built with Robbins payers but the town could not use enough to keep the Robbins plant operating for long.

Mr. John L. Ross and the clay mining operation at Robbins

Workmen construct kilns at Southern Clay Manufacturing’s plant in Robbins

Two-hole ceramic conduit made at Southern Clay Manufacturing plant in Robbins

Playing at the Robbins Brickyard in area in front of the Company Store are, from left: Lynn Carson (who dies at age of 13), Harold Carson, and Louise Carson, all of whom are the children of Elmer and Anna Carson

Clay tile, hollow pipe and conduit production differs very little in raw materials and methods of production from that of other heavy clay products like brick. Various contracts to produce drain pipe or conduit for telephone cable were completed at the SCM brickyard at Robbins. At the peak of operation up to fifty tons of telephone conduit was produced per day.

Plant operations were powered by steam during the early years using locally available SCM owned coal for fuel. The Brickyard powerhouse began with three steam engines and a large boiler. These proved adequate until 1925 when it was all replaced by two large, 5 cylinder (each with a 2’ diameter), 500 hp Fairbanks-Morris, diesel engines, which were connected to a 25 foot crankshaft. This is what essentially ran the whole operation. These engines generated electrical energy for the plants’ needs and also for the town. A large 40 foot by 40 foot water reservoir at the back of the powerhouse kept the engines cool and an oil reservoir of more than 55 gallons was sunk into the floor of the powerhouse to keep the crankshaft and engines lubricated. Inside of the powerhouse the whole affair was surrounded by a catwalk overhead with "sparkling brass railings."

Another example of SCM’s willingness to accommodate new technology was the use of a brick cutter invented by Mr. PETER MITLER in 1906 while employed at the Robbins brick plant. Eventually four of these machines were made and sold to the Dayton Equipment Manufacturing Company, of Dayton, Ohio. Originally 17 bricks could be cut at one time but as the cutter evolved up to 25 bricks could be cut and stamped at one time.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 brick could be made per day and shipped to either a dryer shed or dryer tunnel. These facilities were kept at a constant temperature by large steam powered fans. Following the drying the "green" brick were shipped to several of the 21 kilns. Firing took up to twelve days and salt was added in the kiln through small viewing holes called "eyes" to make the bricks water proof and to "salt-glaze" them.

Once the clay products were finished they were stored in stacks called "hakes" in the brickyard until loaded onto the railroad for shipment to respective buyers. As production expanded a railroad spur line was run through the center of the Robbins brickyard, speeding up the loading and shipping operations. On one side of this rail line, the ground surface was built up or elevated so that hand-loaded wheelbarrows could be roiled onto boxcars more easily. The boxcars could carry between 8,000 to 10,000 bricks. This construction was just another innovation which contributed to the economic success of the company and the smooth operation of the plant.

The output of the plant fluctuated ‘with demand and changing technology. This is evident after 1925 when the shift to diesel is also reflected in the fluctuating employment and production statistics. After 1925 the plant could make over 151,000 bricks per employee. However, before the conversion to diesel power production ranged from 48,000 bricks to 89,000 for every employee. At any one time the Robbins plant employed approximately 130 workers, ranging from a high workforce of 180 to a low of 88. Of course, later, as the depression worsened and brick contracts became sporadic, employment was at times much lower.

Summary — Hopefully, the value of this information for historians and specifically historic archaeology is apparent. The various brick products, especially Robbins Payers, eventually may be used as chronological markers for construction sequences of roads and buildings. Two of the paving brick types, the SCM end stamp and the Southern Clay Manufacturing diamond stamp were made here for 35 years from 1902 until 1937 after SCM took over operation of the Robbins brickyard. The paying brick types like the Robbins Payers or Union Payers are less time specific and were probably manufactured during the entire 51 year period of operation of the Robbins brickyard (1886-1937). More research into the Robbins brick-yard production records for various brick types needs to be done to "fine-tune" the chronological sensitivity of these and other ceramic products.

Identifying trade networks through brick stamps and documentary sources is also a goal of historic investigation. One example of this type of research is to identify the distribution of distinctive locally produced types like Robbins Payers in localities where documents indicate sales were made. Tracking the production source for SCM bricks, on the other hand, would be more problematic since the Southern Clay Manufacturing Company owned several plants throughout the country and presumably made and sold bricks with the SCM stamps at all of their plants. Bricks that are not embossed with manufacturing brands, like two types of decorative brick found at Robbins, may have been made by several brick manufacturers. Identifying the locations where these decorative bricks were used is relatively simple but locating the plants where they were made will be much more difficult. The Robbins plant is a start.

View of the SCM Robbins Company Store in 1979 photo

The Company Store as it appeared in 1989, showing much deterioration

FNB Chronicle, Vol. 7, No. 4 – Summer 1996
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
(p1, 4, 5, & 8)

Scott Co, TN Homepage

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