Dakota Datebook: The Story of Hebron Brick
Aug. 19, 2019 — In the early years of North Dakota, there was a severe shortage of building materials, which is why many people made their homes from prairie sod. In some areas of the state, however, a good grade of clay was discovered, and within a few years, at least 18 brick factories sprung up. It was on this date in 1904 that the Hebron Fire and Pressed Brick Factory was founded.
Hebron was settled as a spin-off of a successful campaign in New Salem, where the NP Railroad worked with the German Evangelical Colonization Society to recruit settlers. In 1882, Society pastors from Illinois and Wisconsin had sent recruitment pamphlets to other Evangelical pastors and also wrote optimistic letters to German-language newspapers.
An agent in New York caught German immigrants coming off the boat, promising them a town with a church, school, and “Christian hotel.” By the following spring, New Salem had two hundred new settlers, and in 1885, the Society established a second colony 33 miles west called Hebron.
The majority of those who ended up settling in Hebron were from Johannestal, Crimea, in South Russia. The town’s founder was generally considered to be 31-year-old Ferdinand Lutz. Less than ten years later, Lutz and his partner, Charles Weigel, started the Hebron brick factory. Within a few years, their proposed budget of $50,000 quickly escalated as equipment and other improvements were added.
The clay has been coming from the Bear Den Member of the Golden Valley Formation, which is about 58-64 million years old. At first, it was brought to the factory by horse and wagon.
A couple different methods were used to form bricks – some were dry-pressed and others were made of “stiff mud,” which used powdered clay mixed with water. The clay was cut into bricks and then fired – or “baked” – in large coal-burning kilns for many days before hardening into usable bricks.
In 1913, the plant expanded, and 12 continuous kilns were built into an outdoor embankment. With arched brick openings, the side-by-side kilns resembled an ancient Roman aqueduct.
That year, the factory turned out slightly fewer than five million bricks. By the following year, railroad cars replaced horse-drawn wagons, and 8,500,000 bricks were produced by 1916, with a potential to turn out as many as 13,000,000.
Market conditions during World War I hit the factory pretty hard, and it became almost impossible to keep the plant solvent. Bankruptcy looked likely, and the stockholders authorized the sale of the property. The “general and sales office” was moved to Fargo in 1921, and five years later, the sales manager, the plant superintendent and the president were all replaced. Disaster hit just a few months later when the major portion of the operating plant burned to the ground. Still, the company hung on. The factory was rebuilt, converting to gas-fired kilns.
Since then, the company has survived the Great Depression, another world war, has gone through five different owners, and is estimated to have manufactured one billion bricks.
After more than a hundred years of existence, Hebron Brick is not only the only surviving brick factory in the state, it is also the oldest manufacturing company, of any kind, in North Dakota.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public Broadcasting in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org.