Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Memories of Clay City are fading, but its bricks still strong throughout NW

Clay City, Washington, is the place of origin listed on my dad’s birth certificate. It is also where his elder sisters Nelda and Clara were born. I know Clay City was a little settlement where bricks were made near Eatonville that brought my nonno, Michele Spadoni, to Washington. I also know that it no longer exists. And this is about all I know—until recently, when I determined to find out what I could about the place’s history.
The brick factory at Clay City in full operation in 1950s.
Courtesy of Marianne Lincoln

One could argue that the roots of Clay City indirectly extend back to Seattle cabinet maker John E. Back, who in 1889 let glue bubble over in his pot, spilling into the flames and catching fire. Back dumped water into the kettle, but that just spread the flames further. The floor was covered with wood chips and turpentine, feeding the rapidly advancing flames. The dry timber in the shop quickly ignited, and the blaze erupted into an inferno that burned down 120 downtown acres, including all the major mills, four wharves and the railroad terminal. Because of the abundance of trees in Seattle, even sewers and sidewalks had been made of wood. Damage was estimated at up to $20 million. The only building left standing after the fire was one built with brick. Before the smoke cleared, a city ordinance was passed declaring that all future buildings and sidewalks in Seattle had to be made of fireproof materials, leading to a huge demand for bricks in Seattle and around the Pacific Northwest.

Clear Lake in the foreground and Mt. Rainier in the background.
Courtesy of Marianne Lincoln

Meanwhile, Tacoma Eastern Railroad Company continued to expand its line from Tacoma toward Ashford, a starting point for expeditions to Mount Rainier. Far West Timber Company was one of the firms with a contract for clearing ahead of the tracks, and around 1902, loggers noticed massive deposits of clay when they uprooted trees about two miles south of Lake Kapowsin. The timber company negotiated with the railroad to purchase 320 acres of clay-laden land and in 1906 built its first large kiln. The “West Coast Lumberman” publication reported that kiln construction in June of 1906 was “well underway . . . it was reported to be 30 feet in diameter and 80 feet high.” Within two years, the timber company opened a subsidiary called the Far West Clay Company. Principal partners in the clay enterprise, officially incorporated July 14, 1908, were E.R. Wheeler and F. Eastman, both owners of the lumber company (Wheeler was president). Clay City soon became “the largest exclusive fire proofing plant in the Pacific Northwest,” according to a May 11, 1911, article in “The Clay Worker.”
The dome-shaped kilns can be seen in this photo of Clay City taken during its peak years. I received this photo from Diane Mettler, who writes a website designed to "bring together the many historic pieces of the Eatonville, Elbe, Alder and Ashford area." You can see her work at www.eatonvilletorainier.com.

Clay City went from a small logging camp in the wilderness to a boom town in a flash. It soon had a school, a store, boarding and bunk houses, 12 cottages for employees with families and by 1908, its own post office. Seven kilns were built, fueled at first by wood, though coal and oil quickly proved to be more efficient. In the 1910 census, 264 residents are shown in the Holz voting precinct; at least 75 worked either full or part-time at the brick factory, and many others were involved in services supporting the workers and their families. Residents came from all over the United States, and nearly half were born in other countries, including large numbers of Italians, Austrians and Swedes. Other workers came from Japan, Norway, England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, Greece and Switzerland. Washington-born workers were a distinct minority.

The Clay City school in about 1910. Courtesy of Diane Mettler
It is unclear when my grandfather, Michele Spadoni, arrived at Clay City, but he was likely one of the earliest workers. He had come to Chicago in 1903 and according to family lore, cousins there helped him find work in an iron foundry—hot, dusty labor that was not to his liking. When he heard that Northern Pacific was hiring, he got a job as a cook on a road crew that repaired tracks, and he worked his way west. According to his son, Roy, “Boy, they loved him, because he liked to cook, and he stayed, and that’s how come he ended up in Tacoma.” He could have heard about Clay City from another railroad worker or from other Italian immigrants in Tacoma who hailed from his home in the vicinity of Montecarlo, Italy. Familiar as he was with rail travel, he would have easily negotiated his way to Clay City on the Tacoma Eastern line, and digging in the soil and making bricks were occupations that Italians had been performing for thousands of years. In fact, according to Roy, Michele had worked in a brickyard in Italy. “Cutting brick was like cutting cheese,” Roy explained, referring to the muddy texture of unbaked clay.
This photo is from around 1908, the time Michele Spadoni returned to Italy to marry Anita Seghieri. Courtesy of Diane Mettler.

An article in the October 1, 1950, Seattle Times has a photo of one of the early workers. The caption gives an idea of the hours and wages paid at the time. It reads: “Mike Grove arrived here when the first kiln was fired with slabwood. He worked a 10-hour day, earning $2.25, paying out 75 cents for room and board.” That left a profit of $1.50 per day.

Two excellent historical books have small sections on Clay City. One is Lawrence D. Anderson’s “In the Shadow of the Mountain” and the other is “Rails to Paradise,” by Russell H. Holter and Jesse Clark McAbee. Both provide invaluable information about the brick factory which they extracted from articles in the May 11 and August 11 editions of “The Clay Worker.”

They record the discovery of two excellent banks of clay 80 feet above the Ohop Valley floor. One 100-foot-high by 250-foot-wide bank featured clay of white, buff, yellow and red that was of such purity that workers used directly without any refinement. The second bank featured a high grade of fire clay that was “won” by using a Marion Model 30 railroad mounted steam shovel with a ¾-yard bucket. Strangely, the extraction of clay is referred to as winning, not mining. A standard-gauge track with six-yard dump cars, pulled by a 30-ton Baldwin steam locomotive nicknamed “Old Betsy,” connected the clay deposits to the plant.

"Old Betsy" around 1908. One of the kilns is partly visible in the background. Courtesy of Diane Mettler


Anderson writes: “The clay was dumped from a 20-foot high trestle inside an enormous drying shed capable of holding 6,000 tons of clay. Machinery accelerated the drying process until the fire-proofing, as the prepared clay was called, advanced in its final form for ‘burning’ in large kilns. Bricks and other materials manufactured at this site could withstand high temperatures, a mark of the product’s strength and quality. The kilns, seven in all, were an unusual dome-shaped brick structure several feet tall. The machinery used to run the dryers and heat the kilns operated on steam power.”

After establishing himself on the job, Michele returned to Italy in 1908. He had arrived in New York with less than $8, and now he had enough money in his pockets to risk taking a bride. Anita Seghieri and Michele were married in their hometown church in San Salvatore on November 7, 1908. Sadly, though, Michele’s father and mother were not there to witness the ceremony; they had died during his five years in America.

Had circumstances at home been different, the newlyweds likely would have lived out their days in San Salvatore. However, the Italian economy had not improved during Michele’s absence. If anything, the contrast between the financial well-being of the two countries had grown even starker, and young men from the local region were leaving in droves. Anita’s brother Ruggero had gone to Chicago for work in 1905. He had returned after several years with money in his wallet, and he was eager to go back for more. Their cousin Egidio Seghieri had left in 1905 as well, and he was already working for a railroad company in Easton, Washington. Little brother Seghiero, though only 15, also wanted to make his fortune in the new country.

Michele Giovanni Spadoni
Anita Maria Seghieri
Taking all these factors into consideration, the newlyweds, along with Ruggero and Seghiero, boarded La Provence in Havre, France, February 6, 1909, arriving in New York Feb. 13. Michele, who had been listed on the ship’s log as a peasant/laborer in 1903, now proudly reported his occupation as engineer, likely a generous reference to his job responsibilities at the brick factory.

Michele took Anita with him to Clay City, and her brothers also found employment there. All four of them are listed as residents of Clay City in the 1910 census. Anita must have been very lonely, as only a handful of workers at Clay City had wives with them, and only one other woman was Italian-born. However, Anita did have other duties to occupy her time, as the census also shows a new Spadoni: Nelda was born to Michele and Anita January 6 of 1910 at Clay City, 11 months after their arrival in the states.

Later in the year, Anita’s brother Ruggero married Gemma “Mary” Natucci, and her arrival at Clay City gave Anita still more company. Both families had additions the next year. Anita gave birth to Clara February 22, and Mary had her first child, Dolores Ines, on May 7.

Still, Anita ached for her extended family in Italy, and she went back for a visit in 1912 along with toddlers Nelda and Clara. She was pregnant, and the couple reasoned it would be easier to travel before she gave birth than after. During the visit, she gave birth to Lola Ines September 23, 1912, and they returned to Clay City in the summer of 1913. On the ship with them was Giovanni Adolfo Spadoni, son of Michele’s brother Enrico. He traveled with them and worked at Clay City until around 1921, when he wed Martha Natucci, the sister of Ruggero’s wife, and moved to Tacoma.

On May 5, 1914, Anita gave birth to her first son, Giulio—my father—who went by the name Julius. This would be the last of their children born in Clay City, as they moved to Tacoma shortly after, with Michele remaining at Clay City during the week and commuting home to Tacoma on weekends. Shortly after that, acting on a tip from Anita’s brother Seghiero, Michele started a new job as a laborer at a metal smelter on Ruston Way in the north end of Tacoma, and in 1915 the family moved to Shore Acres, just south of Gig Harbor.

As for Clay City, it continued to thrive during the boom years before and during World War I. The 1915 Pierce County Atlas lists Clay City with a population of 150. The Seattle Times reported that the factory employed 100 workmen at the kilns at its peak. Starting in 1916, the Eatonville Dispatch newspaper regularly included a neighborhood section with accounts of happenings in Clay City. Included are a few samples:
January 5, 1917: The Clay City school opened again Tuesday after a week’s vacation. Velda Danforth has been absent for school several days, suffering with a bad case of La Grippe. The Miscellaneous Club will meet at Esters Friday afternoon.
February 16, 1917: E. R. Wheeler and Mr. Dumbleton motored up from Tacoma on Tuesday to inspect the work at the Far West Clay factory.
May 30, 1917: April Fool Party Tuesday night at Redman hall. 13 c. adm.
June 15, 1917: Monday evening an auxiliary of the Red Cross was organized in Clay City under the auspices of the Tacoma Chapter. A goodly number gathered to listen to the addresses made by Mrs. W. W. Seymour and Lieut. Lamonte.

Leaving aside the question of why an April Fool party is advertised in May, the accounts do reveal that community life was active, with clubs, parties and visitors from other cities. However, Clay City began a slow decline in activity after 1920. While the area’s population remained steady, the 1920 census shows a slight decline in the number of laborers, and fewer of them were foreign immigrants. The Clay City post office closed November 29, 1922, and the 1930 census of the area shows only 14 workers listed at the “clay works,” which is now called the Far West Brick and Tile Company.



While Clay City as a community gradually disappeared, the brick factory continued sporadically through Depression times.
A brief mention in the 1934 Eatonville Dispatch says the plant at Clay City recently re-opened and employs 30 men. But eventually the plant fell into disuse and was abandoned. Sheds were torn apart and used to fire the kilns. Kiln roofs caved in. The rails were sold for scrap iron and grass sprouted from the uncovered domes of the kilns. However, in 1944, Clay City was taken over by the Houlahan family of Builders Brick Company, which later became known as Mutual Materials.


After two years of renovations, the plant re-opened and operated with workers living in nearby communities such as Eatonville and Orting. The 1950 Seattle Times article says, “The present permanent population is 12, mostly children. The original company dug its clay with a steam shovel on a narrow-gauge track, which limited its scope. Now trucks haul the earth and motorized equipment strips newly prospected areas.”

However, one month after that article was published, fire destroyed everything that wasn’t brick, including the original office and drafting room, which dated from 1907.

The Houlahans rebuilt, and the plant opened again about two years later. The Eatonville Dispatch reported January 14, 1979, “Today there are six kilns producing in excess of 2,500 tons of brick and tile a month, which finds its way to every corner of the Northwest and Hawaii.” The article, written by Don B. Goddard, further stated the original 320-acre operation had expanded to include 600 acres and that 180 standard bricks could be produced every minute. “The mud forms are loaded onto a half-pint railway within the plant and sent to the dryers. After 88 hours at 225 degrees there, they were ready for the oven. Ninety hours later at near 2,000 degrees and three more days for cooling, mud becomes brick.”

Mutual Materials continued to operate the plant until 1993. Now the road to the brick works is blockaded, with no plans to re-open. The kilns and buildings have been demolished and the ground leveled. According to Marianne Lincoln, managing editor of The Pierce Prairie Post, “The buildings were bulldozed due to the hazards caused by ‘tweakers’ chopping parts down for wood. In addition, all the underground tunnels were at risk of collapsing and the property was a huge liability.” All that exists now is a large flat area, a little asphalt, a few scraps of brick and 25-foot tall alder trees.


Though Clay City is mostly forgotten, the bricks from its 90-year history live on. The First Church of Christ Scientist in Tacoma, built between 1908 and 1911, is an example of a Clay City bricks manufactured in part by Michele Spadoni and brothers-in-law Ruggero and Seghiero Seghieri. St. Leo’s School, which opened in 1912, is also built with bricks from Clay City. Many early streets in Tacoma, Seattle and Portland are built with its bricks. “The Clay Worker” reported in 1911 that all current government contracts for bricks in the Northwest had come exclusively from Clay City. In later years, Clay City bricks were used to cover “Red Square” on the campus of the University of Washington, where I received my undergraduate degree.

My daughter Sandra and her husband Dan purchased a house in North Tacoma last month, and as I pulled up to park while helping them move, I realized that the street in front of their house is paved with bricks that are probably about 100 years old. The bricks are still strong, though the street is extremely uneven because the sub-base has shifted. Sandy and Dan say they like this, because it makes cars drive slowly. I like it because of the likelihood that Nonno helped make these bricks.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this information. This actually helps me with some questions I had about my grandfather Bernard WJG Natucci. He was born in the Eatonville area. I was also having difficulties in finding the other Bernard Natucci and Renato Guelfi that were listed in Holz. Thank you again.

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  2. This is a great story. My son lives on a street in Seattle that is all brick. Very bumpy, but I will think of your family each time I bump up that steep street!

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  3. I just salvaged Far West chimney brick from a Craftsman bungalow in the Northend of Tacoma. When researching the company I found your post. Thank you for providing the history of the brick that will be used for the floor of my backyard pavilion in East Tacoma.

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