TRUE STORIES — Follow the purple brick road
The past couple of months a crew from Sprouls Construction of Lamar, Mo. has been leveling sections of the 100-plus-year-old brick paving in front of my home on Euclid Street and in the surrounding neighborhood.
It got me thinking about how the brick streets came to be in the first place so I gleaned a little history from old issues of the Headlight-Sun as well as the Pittsburg Kansas Memories and Kansas Historical Society websites.
At the Dec. 3, 1890, Pittsburg City Council meeting a petition was presented requesting the council adopt, for the improvement of Broadway, a first class vitrified brick for pavement at a cost not to exceed $1.60 per square yard.
Two types of brick were used on the early day streets. One, said to be one of the first, bears the imprint that resembles the top half of a clock face with minute and hour hands at the ten minutes before two position, beneath which are the words PITTSBURG, KAS.
The second of these is marked PITTSBURG VP&B BRICK CO. or NESCH and was one of the vitrified bricks discussed and approved for the city’s streets to stand up longer than the previously used bricks to the punishment of steel-rimmed wagon wheels.
Pittsburg’s first brick plant was built by Fred Massman, a construction man and brick mason who came to Pittsburg in 1880. Because there was no brick readily available nearby, he purchased land just south on Quincy where it crosses Cow Creek and manufactured his own. Among the many buildings Massman constructed using his brick were the Lincoln and Central school buildings and the multi-storied Globe building on the southwest corner of 4th and Broadway.
In 1890, John Moore of Atchison came to Pittsburg to visit friends and returned home with a basket of shale to show to Robert Nesch back in Atchison. Not long afterward the two returned to manufacture brick for building and paving.
Moore and Nesch proposed to build their plant in Pittsburg if the city would pave the city streets with their vitrified brick. (Vitrified brick is fired at a higher temperature and for a longer period of time than conventional brick making it harder and impervious to the absorption of water.)
The city agreed and Broadway was paved from 2nd to 11th with a two-course brick surface over a cinder base about six inches thick. This attracted the attention of other towns and the demand for vitrified brick resulted in the expansion of the plant and construction of more kilns.
When Kansas City asked various companies seeking contracts to lay a block each before choosing a contractor, the Nesch plant opted in and was chosen to pave many miles of Kansas City streets. 50,000,000 bricks went into the K.C. Stockyards Company pavements.
Their plant, the Pittsburg Vitrified Brick Co., which was located north of what was then Lincoln Park and now Four Oaks Golf Course and the ball field complex, eventually employed over 100 people and was one of the foremost industrial plants in this part of the country, producing 100,000 brick a day.
According to the Pittsburg Kansas Memories website, the Pittsburg Vitrified Brick Company eventually paved most of the city and supplied masonry bricks for most of the buildings built in town. In addition, Nesch vitrified bricks became so well known for their high quality and durability they were used all over the country and, at one time, paved the Indianapolis Speedway.
Most of the city is still paved with Nesch brick, only most everywhere but in my neighborhood (various sections west of Broadway between 3rd and Quincy and around Winwood Street) they’ve been overlaid with asphalt.
The reason they’re still exposed in front of my house is because of a petition filed with the City Commission in 1977. Written by preservationist Karen Brady and circulated by her and my next door neighbors, Pat and Phil Martin, to preserve the character of the neighborhood, it included the signatures of residents below the statement, “It is in fact, true that the streets add character and enhance, rather than detract from the beauty of the area. And, it is our opinion that to change this would only destroy that beauty.”
Both Karen and Pat Martin told me that some signed the petition to preserve the “character and beauty” of the old neighborhood and others signed after they convinced them cars would travel much faster through the neighborhood if the bumpy bricks were replaced with smooth asphalt.
After circulation and signing, the petition was submitted to the Pittsburg City Commission, which approved it 5-1.
Pittsburg wasn’t the only city in the area to manufacture brick at the turn of the century. Girard had a brick plant once upon a time, as did Weir. To get more area history and names, I called local collector Mark Monsour. He’s amassed over 2,000 city printed bricks that include ones not only from Pittsburg, Girard and Weir, but also Coffeyville, Independence, Chanute, Moundville and more.
At one time, most cities of any size with access to usable clay had a brick plant. Pat Martin, a native of Coffeyville whose mail carrier dad collected and traded them at swap meets, has over 200 bricks stamped with names of cities from all over the country.
Thanks to Karen Brady, the barely-worn, vitrified NESCH bricks still round Euclid’s curve in front of my house — their patchwork shades of deep purple and mauve changing texture and sheen at different times of day and with different weather conditions. Just like they’ve been doing for over 120 years.
Indeed, when I asked Karen what got her started on the petition she told me, “Well, the city had started laying asphalt all around the town and they were beginning to encroach on our neighborhood and the character of our turn of century houses. Plus, I just liked the brick. They’re beautiful.”
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or firstname.lastname@example.org