Grand Ledge Clay Factories

A Grand Ledge Tradition

Clay Manufacturing was a long tradition in Grand Ledge. The area is rich in clay and shale deposits. Pioneers in the area noted Indians came to the area and to use the clay for pottery. Early remembrances describe ash kilns used by the Indians on both sides of the river. Small potteries came to the settlement very early, however the local industry was dominated by three large factories

Early Potteries

George Loveless started his pottery c.1859. The exact date is unknown, but it is very likely to be the first in the State. Loveless was located on West Jefferson street between Sandstone Creek and the Railroad Trestle. The pottery was known to make jugs, crocks and other household goods.
L. Herrington started his pottery about 1862. This was located west of the Loveless pottery near the entrance to Fitzgerald Park. Like George Loveless, Herrington made jugs, crocks and other household goods.

American Vitrified

This factory was founded as the Grand Ledge Sewer Pipe company in 1886. The plant was located across from the Loveless and Herrington potteries on West Jefferson street. The plant had 12 large bee-hive kilns and produced a wide range of sewer and drain tile. In 1896 the plant was sold to the Ohio-based American Sewer Pipe company. The company later became American Vitrified Products. After the sale, the company started a new clay pit across the road near the river. The plant burned in 1923 and was rebuilt larger in 1924.

The factory was in operation until 1966. The following year the land was sold to the City and was later developed into the Ravines Mobile Home Park. The land across the road was added to Fitzgerald Park, providing the land and entrance from West Jefferson.

Clay Products

The Grand Ledge Clay Products was formed in 1906 by local investors. For the first 35 years of its operation, Clay Products manufactured conduits for underground telephone wires. Chicago was a prime market for that product, and many a street in Chicago still has Grand Ledge tile underneath it. These telephone conduits-hollow, pipe-like tiles-were also used as building materials. The plant’s horse livery, built in 1908 and later used as a garage, had mortared conduit tile for its foundation and walls. Other houses and buildings in Grand Ledge also were made of the tiles whose ends were often filled in with cement.

In 1937 a fire razed the factory building, destroying the molds that were used to make the conduits. The factory was rebuilt, and the company shifted production to agricultural drain tiles, chimney tops and sewer pipe fittings. The plant continued until 1986 when the plant was closed.

Face Brick Co.

The brick company was founded in 1914 as the Baker Clay company. The factory bought 50 acers of land along the river from the Walker farm at the corner of West Main and Tallman Road on the northside. The plant featured a continuous kiln design. Unlike the bee-hive design, the continuous kiln allowed heat from one kiln be used to preheat the next adjoining kiln. The plant was founded to produce glazed silo tile. Many silos in Michigan and Ohio were made from these silo tile. However, cement silos soon replaced the tile. The plant soon switched to brick production.

The Grand Ledge Face Brick Co. was owned for a time by the Briggs Company in Lansing, later the plant was sold t the Lincoln Brick company. The plant was closed in 1947. In 1975 the land, now grown to 90 acers, was sold to Eaton County. The site is now Lincoln Brick Park. Grand Ledge brick was used to build the Grand Ledge Library, Grand Ledge Post Office, Grand Ledge City Hall (built as the Catholic Church) and Sawdon School. Sawdon School is made from a blend of bricks called “Old Rose Mission” that was extremely popular.

The Process

The process used to produce tiles did not change much over the years. In the early days, horses pulled railway carts full of shale from open pits to the factory; later, a small locomotive did the job. The chunks of shale were then ground and sifted into a fine granular powder that was mixed with water to form a soft clay. The clay was then forced down through an extruder into a die to form the products.

The fragile, “green” products were dried and then transported to the kilns. Firing took from 50 to 140 hours, depending on the thickness. Vitrification occurred at 1860-1940 degrees F, the temperature at which clay particles liquefy slightly and are thus bonded together. For many years, salt was added during firing to create a glaze on the tiles that made them less permeable to water. However, testing proved that salt also weakened the tile. After the conversion to gas firing, which allowed more precise control of firing times and temperatures, better vitrification could be achieved, and glazing was no longer needed.

Grand Ledge Lion

The workers at the clay factories were known to make art objects during lunch times and fire them with in the kilns. Although workers made alligators, frogs, lambs and other objects, the lion was the best know.