The town was aptly named: Brickton.
From 1887 to 1927, five brickyards a couple miles north of Princeton annually parlayed rich clay deposits to churn out as many as 20 million cream-colored bricks between April and October.
At its heyday, Brickton boasted 400 residents, nearly 200 workers, three boardinghouses, two stores, a two-room school, post office, sawmill and a train depot — the buildings all made, naturally, out of what bricklayers called “Princeton Cream” bricks.
Nearly 2,000 train cars a year lurched past the cream-brick depot, hauling bricks 50 miles south to the fast-growing Twin Cities.
Then Brickton disappeared. Its remnants now are hidden under asphalt, marked with a 40-year-old roadside plaque.
“Anybody driving up north on Hwy. 169 has driven, well, over Brickton — mostly at 65 miles per hour,” said Barry Schreiber, the volunteer curator of an exhibit at the Mille Lacs County Historical Society in Princeton titled “Brickton: Mysteries Revealed.”
Schreiber, a criminal justice professor at St. Cloud State University, leads Saturday tours between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the museum, housed in the old Great Northern depot.
Researchers have traced Brickton’s conception to 1886, when the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (later the Great Northern) came to Princeton. The town’s demise nearly 40 years later has been attributed to the brick industry’s move near the Twin Cities where clay deposits were unearthed, cutting down on freight costs. The growing use of concrete in construction also reduced the demand for massive loads of bricks.
At its peak, though, Brickton was one rough-and-tumble place, akin to Old West towns.
“The men worked hard, drank hard and fought hard. At times they were the most miserable bunch you’d ever seen,” according to the late Willis “Tud” Young, who worked in the brickyards as a teen and later was president of the Mille Lacs historical society.
Young made the remarks at the 1977 dedication of the highway plaque, which sits where the old front porch of the Brickton Mercantile general store once stood.
The men earned about $1.50 a day. Adolph Minks, one of the brick makers, once told the Princeton Union-Times his pay went up to $1.67 a day when he started “hacking” — piling bricks 11 rows high. “If you’d have given up,” Minks said, “they’d have asked the next boy [if he wanted the job] and he’d have said, ‘Yup,’ and you’d have been out of a job.”
The last bricks were pulled from kilns around 1927, according to Schreiber, a longtime museum volunteer. He had heard whispers about Brickton and asked old-timers, who would wave a hand north and shrug. But a local surveyor used old plat books and new Google Earth satellite imagery to pinpoint the town’s location.
An old journal was among the key documents uncovered during the museum’s preparation for the exhibit, which runs through April. William Stillman Oakes, born in Brickton in 1896, jotted down 23 pages of memories in longhand and punched them into a three-ring, spiral notebook in 1960.
“I saw Brickton in its heyday, with five brickyards running full blast,” Oakes wrote. “It was not unlike a mining camp of the west. Five big steam boilers, five big steam engines, with machinery to match for making brick, with their shrill steam whistles, make it a busy place during the brick season.”
Oakes said the brick industry payroll was the economic engine of the era in central Minnesota.
“Princeton’s economy was just about kept going for many years as a result,” he wrote.
By 1902, Brickton’s status in the brick world was validated when the Northwestern Brickmakers Association held its meeting in town and elected E.M. Farnham its president. Farnham Brothers, Princeton Brick Co. and Cream Brick each made 4 million bricks that year. Woodcock and Oakes counted 5 million and Kuhn Brothers added 2 million — putting Brickton’s annual capacity at nearly 20 million bricks. All the bricks were made in six months.
Schreiber explained the seasonal limitations on the brickyards. When frost came in the fall, there was no way for moisture to escape during the brickmaking process. Moist bricks fired in kilns could explode. So the workers logged the forests in the wintertime and made bricks during the milder months of the year.
Horses played a critical role in Brickton, according to Oakes, performing “so much hard work, so faithfully. They worked in the yards during the brick season, and in the winter they were all taken north to the woods for logging operations — long hours of toil, all for a little oats and hay. I hope they are all happy in horse heaven.”
Several buildings in Princeton still showcase the blond bricks from Brickton. And two teams of horses moved one of the boardinghouses between Highway 95 and the town of Long Siding.
Some of the old clay pits were filled in with water and stocked with crappies, sunfish and walleyes. Local Boy Scouts netted the fish to stock other lakes. Those nets would often snag on sunken machinery, including a horse-drawn scrapper used to dig clay. Those tangled nets scrapped the stocking of fish in the old pits, according to the Union-Times.
“Brickton’s brick business flourished until clay deposits nearer Minneapolis and St. Paul were developed,” Oakes wrote. “Brickton, after 800 million bricks and 36 years of production, at last gave up.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.