Brick masonry–more precisely, construction utilizing modular fired-clay products–is one of many building technologies found in the Great Plains. Bricks are the product of a complex manufacturing process that converts naturally occurring raw clay into an inert, vitrified building material by baking it to very high temperatures (kiln firing). The quality of the finished product (in terms of hardness, uniformity, and color) varies widely, based on the raw clay "body," the method and conditions under which the bricks are fired, and the chemical or mineral impurities present in the clay. Colors typically tend toward either a buff tan color or a reddish color range. Masonry is regarded as a highly desirable building material in the Great Plains, as elsewhere, because of its durability and fire resistance as well as the expression of permanence it conveys.
Reasons for the prevalence of brick masonry in the Great Plains include the time frame of settlement, environmental requirements, and the imported skills and traditions of ethnic groups that settled on the Plains. In many locations the earliest buildings were constructed of other available materials, but after settlements became better established the second generation of buildings often included brick masonry in combination with more costly ornamental stone masonry. Masonry is a relatively massive material with good thermal performance where temperature varies widely from day to night. Brick is inherently fire resistant, a characteristic important in both tightly grouped buildings in urban commercial districts and isolated buildings in the countryside. Many communities adopted building codes mandating masonry construction in downtown locations after disastrous fires like the Great Fargo Fire of 1893 in North Dakota.
The type of clay used to make bricks is present in many Great Plains locations. Immigrants to the Plains (particularly those from northern Europe) were familiar with methods necessary to make bricks and often selected town sites where clay was available and where there were suitable fuels for firing kilns. German Americans in particular had a fondness for brick masonry in buildings. Early brick making sometimes entailed firing piles of hand-molded bricks in the open, referred to as a scove kiln or a clamp. This method was soon supplanted by beehive-shaped kilns, which were fired intermittently, and eventually by industrialized tunnel kilns, which were fired continuously. By 1900 there were more than twenty brick manufacturers in North Dakota alone. Now there are fewer than a dozen manufacturers on the entire Northern Plains.
Brick-making technology led to the design and construction of many types of masonry buildings, including civic and commercial buildings, schools, churches, and a variety of agricultural structures (structural claytile silos, grain storage buildings, and rural creameries). Use of brick to construct houses in the Great Plains has been relatively uncommon, but in certain localities significant concentrations of brick residences do occur in both towns and rural areas. Notable examples include areas of German American settlement in river valleys where brickyards are situated, continuing a pattern found farther east in the Minnesota River valley and along the Missouri River near Hermann, Missouri. Similar patterns of brick production, distribution, and usage occur from the Prairie Provinces to the Southern Plains, with the extent of brick masonry diminishing as one moves farther westward onto the Plains. Buildings that appear to be of primarily brick masonry construction were often actually constructed using a mixture of available materials, commonly including wood-floor framing. Brick buildings were generally limited to about four stories in height, which made them relatively well suited to the scale of buildings in most Great Plains cities and towns.
Brick masonry buildings range from the vernacular to high-style buildings designed by professionally trained architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. Historically, ornamentation tended to be accomplished less by molding unique, individual pieces of brick than by the patterns in which the bricks were assembled. Detailed features of brick masonry buildings thus reflect the skill of the masons who erected them and the aesthetic judgment of the architects who designed them.
Steve C. Martens North Dakota State University
Foster, Joseph Arnold, ed. Accounts of Brick Making in America Published between 1850 and 1900. Claremont CA: Privately published, 1971.
McKee, Harley. Introduction to Early American Masonry. Washington DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1973.
Noble, Allen G. Wood, Brick, and Stone. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.