Clay provided the basis for thousands of jobs in Goodhue County during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stoneware, roof tiles, and clay pipes were all produced by area firms and widely sold.
In 1861, German immigrant John Paul , a potter by trade, arrived in Goodhue Township. He soon found that high-grade clay, the kind needed to make quality pottery, was abundant near his land. Paul turned a former schoolhouse into a small pottery, and soon was making and selling storage crocks, jugs and jars.
In September 1881, Red Wing Stoneware Company acquired Paul's former holdings and other clay-bearing property in Goodhue and Belvidere townships. That firm, organized in 1877, was the first of three large pottery firms that would incorporate in Red Wing. Minnesota Stoneware and North Star Stoneware were the others. The three firms merged to create Union Stoneware in 1906.
Red Wing's potteries became a regional supplier of stoneware storage goods in the 1880s and 1890s. Butter crocks, large pickle jars and jugs were among the most favored products. As the clay industry grew, it provided jobs in a range of industries, including mining, railroads, pottery-making, and in retail sales.
In 1891 , Red Wing businessmen experimented with making durable clay pipe from the poorest grade of clay and liked the result. That October, Red Wing Sewer Pipe incorporated and started producing clay-based pipes. A year later John Rich formed a sewer pipe company that carried his name. Advertisements boasted that Red Wing-made sewer pipe was the best available and asserted that pipe buyers insisted upon Red Wing quality.
Red Wing-based stoneware companies created the company town of Claybank on top of a clay deposit during the early 1890s. Immigrants, mostly from Sweden and Norway, made up the workforce in Claybank. The stoneware firms built a dozen homes for families living on-site. Claybank's unmarried laborers paid for their board and room at company-owned-and-managed boardinghouses.
The Duluth, Red Wing & Southern Railroad opened a Red Wing to Zumbrota route, later known as the "Clay Line," in 1889. Its owners saw money to be made in shipping clay to Red Wing production centers, building its first branch to Claybank in 1893. The DRW&S eventually owned thirty-two clay cars, and kept them running between Red Wing, Claybank and Bellechester.
Zumbrota business owners also capitalized on Goodhue County clay. In 1906 Zumbrota Clay Manufacturing opened a large production facility in Minneola Township. It struggled, but another nearby firm, Barr Clay Products, did better. Ed Barr had done some clay prospecting and found good deposits. Barr Clay made silo tile, a building material used in the construction of silos.
In 1908 prospectors found clay to the east in south Belvidere Township and Bellechester. New Town, a clay-mining district in Bellechester, was founded after deposits were located on land owned by Nick and Matt Strauss. Red Wing Sewer Pipe bought 160 acres from the men for $150 per acre, which was three times the typical land cost for the area. New Town clay operations began in 1912.
Clay mining was demanding work. Deposits typically laid about four feet beneath the land surface. Horse or mule-drawn scrapers slowly removed the topsoil to reveal the clay. In early years, workers hand-dug the heavy material. Later, steam-powered draglines attached to a large boom crane handled the job. Once the clay was exposed, workers shoveled it by hand into a bucket attached to the crane. Its operator dumped loaded buckets into railroad cars.
Goodhue County clay came in three basic varieties or grades. Grade One, the most rare and valuable, was gray and without impurities. Grade Two gray was the most commonly dug and used, while Grade Three was the brown clay used in sewer pipe.
Goodhue County's clay industries weakened gradually during the first half of the twentieth century. More American competition and later foreign as well as new materials for tableware that replaced stoneware. Clay tiles and sewer pipe also gave way to similar products made of more durable materials.
A 1954 study showed that Red Wing Potteries still had 257 workers and Red Wing Sewer Pipe 100, but those numbers were dropping. In 1956, twenty American pottery makers ceased operations due to stiff foreign competition and new dinnerware products. Red Wing's sewer pipe factory shut down first, and the potteries closed in 1967.
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In 1861, German potter John Paul immigrates to Goodhue Township in Goodhue County, Minnesota, and discovers good quality clay. He makes and sells his own earthenware, the first commercial use of clay in an area that would became famous for clay products.