Tuesday, April 19, 2022

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The West Barnstable Brick Company


The remains of the West Barnstable Brick Company

    Sandy Neck in West Barnstable is a hugely popular and important barrier beach and ecosystem on Cape Cod. It is 3,800 acres of pristine beauty frequented by countless thousands of locals and visitors alike year round. The north side is the well known beach with the south side being just as important as it is home to West Barnstable’s Great Marsh which extends all the way down to Route 6A. It is here, close to the Old King's Highway, where huge blue clay deposits were plentiful. For this reason the southern area of Great Marsh would become home to several aspiring businesses which took advantage of said clay. The most famous of which was the legendary West Barnstable Brick Company. This is its story.

The history of the West Barnstable Brick Company dates back to 1876. It was in February of 1876 that Levi Goodspeed purchased twenty acres of land along the Great Marsh. The land was part of the estate of Henry Fish. Goodspeed’s purchase was bisected by the railroad track, and just over a mile from the West Barnstable railroad depot. This prime real estate, sitting atop large clay deposits, was to be used for a new brick-making business.

The West Barnstable Brick Company(Whelden Library)

Levi Goodspeed was a well respected man on Cape Cod at the time. In the decades leading up to the creation of West Barnstable Brick Goodspeed had been a Selectman, member of the House of Representatives, and finally Sheriff of Barnstable County.

Goodspeed brought aboard Benjamin and Charles Crocker to form the management of the West Barnstable Brick Company. Ads for their bricks first began appearing in the local newspapers in July 1878.

The company started small, inundating the local newspapers with those advertisements about their product. Slowly they gained a foothold, even being contracted to supply the bricks for a new jail in Barnstable in December 1878. Its first decade saw the fledgling company struggling to make inroads on Cape Cod. The growing pains of the company were only exacerbated with the sudden death of Levi Goodspeed in November 1879. It appeared as though the West Barnstable Brick Company might be destined to fail.

That changed when the company was bought in 1888 by Abel Makepeace the Cape’s resident ‘cranberry king.’ He added more machinery and more workers, many from Portugal and Finland, allowing the production levels to increase.

West Barnstable bricks were used to rebuild the Cape Cod Exchange building in Harwich, the new town offices in West Barnstable, the new Training School in Hyannis, as well as Our Lady of Hope church. The actual physical bricks were of the highest quality due to the arduous process of creating them. It included breaking up the clay and removing pebbles and other debris from it before shaping the bricks and pouring them into perfectly level molds.

Working at the West Barnstable Brick Company(Whelden Library)

The entire factory was essentially self-sustaining. The clay was collected on the property while the finished bricks were shipped out via the railroad tracks that ran through the property. The only thing that needed to be shipped in was the wood for the kiln used to dry the bricks.

Under the ownership of Makepeace the West Barnstable Brick Company became one of the giants of Cape Cod business. By the 1920’s it was reported that the factory could produce more than 100,000 bricks per day and more than thirty million per year. They were widely popular not only on Cape Cod but throughout the state of Massachusetts and even further.

In October 1925 the business would change hands after nearly forty years when it was purchased by Thomas Arden. He enlarged the factory as well as adding electric lights and a telephone. The company would receive another boost when the one and only automobile king Henry Ford paid a visit as he was interested in the brick making process. On October 14, 1926 Ford stopped by the factory. He wanted to buy a pair of antique engines however Arden gave them to him as a gift despite his objections. Ford would set things square by sending a brand new tractor to Arden a short time later.

The decaying facade of the West Barnstable Brick Factory in 2022.

However as high as the company was riding its demise had actually been set in motion. Unhappy with the fact that brick sizes were not uniform President Herbert Hoover created a universal size for the creation of bricks in 1928. The problem with this was that West Barnstable Brick was an eighth of an inch too large and so new equipment needed to be bought. This meant that the company needed to raise prices to cover costs.

This was only the beginning of the trouble. The October 1929 Stock Market Crash ushered in the Great Depression. This immediately slowed down the need for new buildings. Higher prices to cover costs combined with lower demand for the product forced West Barnstable Brick to cease operations in the fall of 1930.

All was not lost though. Arden, the directors, and stockholders were all meeting and trying to figure out how to get the business up and running again. The venerable brick company remained closed throughout 1931. In September 1931 it appeared as though a new day was dawning. All of the surplus West Barnstable bricks had been sold, and new orders were coming in. Arden and his staff cleaned and oiled the machinery, inspected the boilers, and prepped the clay pits to resume production.

Despite battling bankruptcy plans were in place for the West Barnstable Brick Company to rise from the ashes. By 1932 it had been over fifty years that the rich blue clay had been collected to make millions of high quality bricks. Arden wanted to know just how much clay, and therefore how many years, West Barnstable Brick Company had remaining in its current location. At some point during 1932 a test hole was drilled. This determined that there was roughly fifty years worth of clay remaining. This should have put Arden at ease. Unfortunately though the test hole struck water. This created an artesian well that flooded the clay pits.

The flooded clay pits were the death knell for the company. West Barnstable Brick Company did not immediately close though. Attempts were made to figure out a way to keep going. The remainder of 1932 and into 1933 were a holding pattern. However the Great Depression did not relent. West Barnstable Brick was no more.

In the spring of 1933 West Barnstable Brick Company was sold at auction to the First National Bank of Yarmouth. In the years after the factory was stripped with parts sold off to other Cape Cod businesses while the remaining brick load would be used up. Today all the remains is part of the broken down facade of the building located a few hundred yards off of Route 6A, not far from Our Lady of Hope.

Nature has reclaimed the area where the West Barnstable Brick Company once stood.

It took more than thirty years for a new business to open on the former West Barnstable Brick property. Florence Ungerman opened The Wind-Ship Shop in July 1967 on Route 6A. The area of the property north of the railroad tracks however remained untouched. Over the nearly ninety years since the brick factory closed down nature has been reclaiming what was not removed.

Today the Orenda Wildlife Trust owns the former West Barnstable Brick Company property. It is a part of conservation land. The factory remains are overgrown and highly difficult to get to. The artesian well created a pond in addition to flooding the clay pits. There are nature trails leading behind the Orenda property but a trip to the brick factory remains in not advised.

For more than half a century the West Barnstable Brick Company was truly a giant among Cape Cod businesses. It bridged the gap from man power to steam power to electric power. Its legacy can still be felt today as authentic bricks created by the company are collector’s items and many of the buildings which used the bricks still stand.


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