Just north of Route 6-A in West Barnstable, a narrow path runs through a nature preserve to the edge of what looks like a pond. It’s actually the flooded clay pit from the West Barnstable Brick Company, the ruins of which lie just out of view on the opposite side.
Historian Nancy Vail Shoemaker says the story begins 18 to 20 thousand years ago, when the glaciers came south and melted, leaving behind large deposits of clay.
“It was near the surface and very accessible,” said Shoemaker. “In 1820, Noah Bradford, a potter, had a site here, and he made clay pots, bean pots, dishes out of the clay, and he had a wood-burning kiln to dry it out.”
In 1878, his son started the West Barnstable Brick Company, and the business continued to thrive into the early part of the 20th century. The structures on the 17-acre compound housed a kiln, a mixing area, and a building for the brick molds.
“A lot of the work took place in the open,” Shoemaker said. “They first had to mix the clay in one of the buildings with water and a reds coloring…and then they would pound them down into the forms and the bricks would sit there for weeks to dry out.”
The factory produced millions of bricks each year. Most were used to build structures on Cape Cod, including the main building at the Marconi wireless station in Wellfleet.
Most of the workers at the brick factory were Portuguese and Finnish immigrants who had come to Cape Cod looking for work. The Portuguese workers built the nearby Our Lady of Hope Catholic church entirely with West Barnstable bricks, which they bought at cost from the factory.
“They looked at every single brick to make sure they were all the same color, so when you go in it almost looks fake, because someone cared so much about the standardization of color in the church,” said Shoemaker.
In the early 1930s, the government adopted a new standard for brick measurements, but the size of the West Barnstable bricks was about half an inch short of the mark. It would have been too costly to upgrade the machinery to adapt to the new size.
And company owners faced more bad news. While drilling to see how much clay remained at the site, they hit an Artesian well – where water is under enough pressure to force it to the surface without pumping.
“The water really sprung up on its own power and flooded not just the pit with the clay, but most of the grounds of the factory,” said Shoemaker.
The company went into foreclosure in December of 1933. Today, the remnants of the West Barnstable Brick Company sit on protected land owned by the Orenda Wildlife Trust.
“What’s left is a few arched brick walls that show that it was a factory, but they are crumbling and crumbling quickly,” said Shoemaker. “Nature has taken over.”