September 7th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 35
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Every Brick Has a Story
Looking Back
Blairmore brickworks under construction
To put one brick upon another,
Add a third and then a fourth,
Leaves no time to wonder whether
What you do has any worth.

But to sit with bricks around you
While the winds of heaven howl,
Weighing what you should or can do
Leaves no doubt of it at all.
Phillip Larkin
A wide variety of colorful brick types have presented themselves to me in my wanderings around the Pass in the last few years. It is pretty hard not to come across them as they are usually stacked in neat little piles in back yards and alleyways, propping open a door or repurposed into someone’s garden wall. Once you get hooked on studying brick types there is no turning back so be forewarned. It is addictive.

Bricks played an integral part in the development of building in the West. They were used in dozens of different ways, whether it was a major building effort like the Grand Union Hotel or simply as an exhaust chamber (chimney) for an old coal miner’s stove. These days those old coal stove chimneys are few and far between and that’s probably a good thing. Sooner or later the brick mortar dries out and the seal can be lost. This fact resulted in a Coleman tragedy in March of 1964 when carbon monoxide leaking from the brick chimney of the Ostash house overcame the whole family. Allan, Eddy and little Mary Jane Ostash did not make it but the recently elected mayor of Coleman, Jack Ostash and his wife Marie miraculously survived. Their furnace had been newly converted to natural gas and that deadly colorless, odourless CO gas had crept unnoticed though their house.

There were several brick-making plants that operated in the Pass between 1902 and 1914. According to the Municipal Heritage Inventory Project – Phase 2 Historical Overview document, one such plant in Frank was owned by a fellow named Reuben Steeves, around 1904. Steeves was apparently caught digging up the streets for clay and local women complained smoke from his plant was ruining their laundry hanging out to dry so he moved it to Lundbreck. Sounds like Steeves was “a few bricks short of a load” as they say. Blairmore had in fact three brick factories: the Austrian Brick Company, Pelletier Brick Works and the Blairmore Brick Company. By 1914 none were in operation so one must assume all bricks after that point in time were imported from elsewhere.
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It should be no surprise then to know that I have an eclectic collection of bricks and my most prized brick has the name BLAIRMORE stamped across the front of it. Probably one of the largest and longest names I have ever seen on a piece of baked clay. I found it at the source of the sulphur spring at the toe of Turtle Mountain. It was undoubtedly part of the first development there and likely one of the very first brick structures built in the Pass.

Amongst my special stack of molded building blocks is another larger than normal firebrick that carries the name CLAYBANK. This is no ordinary brick and is part of the legacy of North America’s best preserved brick-making site called the Claybank Brick Plant. It lies in southern Saskatchewan and remains frozen in time. Face brick from there adorns many prestigious buildings across Canada like the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. But it is rare fire brick, like the one I cherish, that was so sought after. Claybank fire brick lined the fire boxes of CN and CP Rail line locomotives and the Corvette warships in World War II. They were also used in the construction of the launch pads at Cape Canaveral! I’m willing to bet the firebox on the minesweeper HMCS Blairmore (J314) had just such brick in its fireboxes. Small wonder this totally intact facility was designated a national historic site.

While standing in Allan and Kathleen Brooks backyard in the old district of south Hillcrest the other day I spotted some bricks piled against the neighbour’s house. There I found two unique specimens one of which had the name Redcliff clearly stamped into it. Redcliff is about 10 km. west of Medicine Hat and has a rather remarkable history. Because of the abundance of cheap gas and coal it was promoted long ago as the “Smokeless manufacturing center of the West.”
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But it is the red clay along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River that led to the development of their brick factory in 1906 that was called the Redcliff Brick and Coal Company. Author Rudyard Kipling visited there and is purported to have said that they had: “all hell for a basement.” To celebrate his arrival the company ignited one of its gas wells in town.

Last Wednesday as I stood by the Mohawk propane tank in Coleman topping up my motorhome I spotted a brick laying near the tank. I wiped off the mortar and found the word Brick on the left side and Coal Co. on the right. Go figure. This is probably another labeling for the Redcliff bricks and it and the Hillcrest brick have a distinct circular stamp with a line through it that binds them together identity-wise (excuse the pun).

Redcliff’s glass, pottery and bricks were well known but economics, a tornado and other factors led to its decline for years. One of its factories was moved to Medicine Hat such as the IXL brick plant whose readily recognizable stamp stands for the moniker “I excel.” That plant started operation in 1886 and under the name IXL operated from 1912 until 2010 when it closed after a September flood that year did irreparable damage to its plant.

Other oddities in my collection include a brick taken from the Frank Zinc Smelter’s smoke stack base up on the hill above the Goat Mountain Getaway. It is unlike any other that I have ever seen in that it is curved. Normally a bricklayer can adjust his bricks for a curve but this remnant of a failed zinc business it a keeper. Because I have studied coke oven design for decades I have acquired several specifically designed bricks from these coal baking ovens. The igloo construction of coke ovens is achieved by a slight tapering of the 3,000 or so #12 Star firebricks used in each oven. There were many other brick types used in these ovens including about 100- 12 inch by 12 inch square floor tiles designed to endure the intense heat of those long gone bakers.
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Lastly, my personal pile of bricks has one that came from Fernie. It is bright yellow and of a very soft nature. It is made from a clay deposit discovered and developed by a Fernie brew master by the name of Alfred Mutz. Mutz was a good friend of Fred Sick of Lethbridge’s Sick’s Brewery and at one time owned the Vulcan Hotel which was moved from Frank to there in 1912. Fernie’s marvelous downtown structures are mainly brick, a result of a prudent rebuild after the 1908 fire wiped most of the town out.

For some the word brick can mean a block of marijuana, a punch in the face, a failed basketball shot or an old style mobile telephone but for me a brick is a small rectangular block made of sun-dried or fired clay that has an important story to tell.
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September 7th ~ Vol. 85 No. 35
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