Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Where did all those bricks come from?

There's a good deal of brick in Lucas County, although other than around the square and in public buildings and some houses elsewhere, much of it isn't evident any more. But once upon a time, all streets that were paved were paved with brick (still evident in a few places; more buried under asphalt). Brick was favored in new construction around the square after the Civil War in part because it was considerably more fire-resistant than wood. Early foundations and basements were made of brick, too, because limited amounts of stone were quarried here.

Later brick, certainly from the turn of the 20th century onward, was manufactured elsewhere and transported here by rail. Earlier brick was manufactured near Chariton, partly because there was no way until after 1867 to transport it efficiently. George B. Routt (1827-1906), who had brickyards on the Chariton River bottoms near town and later near Oakley, probably was the most prolific manufacturer.

All that was required was clay, sand and a kiln of some sort. Brick-making consisted of mixing clay with sand and water, molding that mixture into brick form, allowing the formed bricks to dry, then firing them until hard. The result was a "soft" brick --- not as durable as later, harder, brick --- but sufficient. Treated correctly, soft brick is exceedingly durable. Mistreatment involves coating it in another substance, like stucco, or using harsh methods like sandblasting to strip away its baked-on surface.

Anyhow, the first building of any size constructed of brick in Lucas County was the second courthouse, commenced in 1858 and shown here in a photograph taken during July 4 celebrations in 1876. And thanks to George H. Ragsdale, we even know that the brick for it was manufactured along the Chariton River southeast of town, south of Salem Cemetery.

George was a native of Indiana who arrived in Benton Township with his family in 1851, then served in the Civil War before settling down to edit and publish The Chariton Patriot. After selling the Patriot, he moved to Le Mars, then to Des Moines, where he achieved a degree of prominence as president of the Iowa Lithographing Co. and as official state printer.

The editor of The Chariton Leader ran into George at a press convention in Des Moines during 1916, then returned home to write this for The Leader of Feb. 17 under the headline, "He Grew Reminiscent: Geo. H. Ragsdale Told of His Lucas County Experiences."

"While attending the banquet tendered by the Iowa Press association at the Chamberlain Hotel in Des Moines last Thursday evening, the writer touched elbows with G. H. Ragsdale, a former Lucas county resident, and for years editor of the Chariton Patriot. He is a son of the late Daniel Ragsdale of Benton township.

"Said he, 'You remember the old brick courthouse. Well, I handled every brick in that structure. The brick was burned in Benton township, south of the Salem neighborhood, near the Chariton river. As fast as the mud was moulded into brick, my business was to carry them to the drying racks. I would carry fifty pounds at a load, and I had no time to spare during the long hours that we worked. I was only 14 years old at the time, and in looking back to that time I scarce can see how I got through with it. Those were crude old days.

'One winter, the late S.D. Houston taught our school and he told us that if we would furnish lights he would teach us writing without expense. The enterprise was about to fall through for want of candles. Finally two candles were sent me, by whom I never knew, but suspected that a relation who kept a grocery store on the corner was responsible. This started the enterprise.

'After my mother died I went to live with a relative. He told me that if I would remain another year he would give me a yearling colt, clothes and board. I said I would study the matter over, as the offer was mighty tempting. I went over to town (Chariton) in the afternoon where they were recruiting for the volunteer army. I decided immediately that I would go to war. They said I was too young, but finally took me.

'After I came home and had gone to school several years I concluded I would like to get in the newspaper business, so purchased the Chariton Patriot, giving $2,200 for it, part of the purchase price being my individual note. I had the "bumest" old office you ever saw. A lot of old type and a Washington hand press. But I sawed wood and increased the eqipment and influence, and finally, when I sold out to Elijah Lewis I received $8,000 for the plant and good will.' "

George, born 1844 in Indiana, came with his family to Van Buren County in 1849 and on to Lucas County in 1851. At age 16, he enlisted in Co. C. 13th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, and was badly wounded at Shiloh. After the war, he studied at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, then returned to Chariton to buy The Patriot. In 1883, he sold out and purchased the Sentinel at Le Mars and, during 1888, moved to Des Moines after winning the appointment as state printer. He died during 1924 and is buried with his wife, Nellie, in the mausoleum at Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines.


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