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Goodhue County's Clay Industries

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photograph showing clay sewer pipe sections next to a boxcar

Workers load sewer pipe into boxcars near the West Main Street location of the Red Wing Sewer Pipe Factory, c.1900.

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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Angell, Madeline. Red Wing, Minnesota: Saga of a River Town. Minneapolis: Dillon Press. 1977.

Bray, Edmund C. "The Ice Age Sculpted Goodhue County." Goodhue County Historical News 10 (February 1976): 5–6.

Burt, James. "The Red Wing Clay Line. Part I DRW&S Beginnings." North Western Lines (Fall 1991): 21–22.

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn. History of Goodhue County. Chicago: H.C. Cooper, Jr., & Co., 1909.

Dobbs, Clark A. "The Archaeology of 21GD158: A 13th Century Native American Village at the Red Wing Locality." Reports and Investigations No. 250. Minneapolis: Institute for Minnesota Archaeology, 1993, 1, 5–6.

Erickson, Harriet. "Barrclay." Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society Manuscript Collections, June 5, 1971, unpublished manuscript.

"Forecast of Doom Came in 1957." Red Wing Republican Eagle, August 25, 1967.

Gillmer, Richard S. Death of a Business: The Red Wing Potteries. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1968.

Grout, Frank F. Clays and Shales of Minnesota, Bulletin 678. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919.

Johnson, Amanda. "Reminiscences." Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society Manuscript Collections, undated, unpublished manuscript.

Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County, Minnesota: A Narrative History. Red Wing: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2000.

Johnson, Vernold. History of the Clay Pits near Clay Bank [sic] and Bellechester. Red Wing, MN: Privately published, 1986.

League of Women Voters. Women in the Work Force. Red Wing, MN: The League, 1991.

Morgan, Caroline A. Danielson. "The Beginning of the Clay Industry." Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society Manuscript Collections, undated, unpublished manuscript.

Red Wing Industrial Development Corporation. "Assistance for New Red Wing Industry." (Red Wing, MN: Privately printed, 1954).

Red Wing Sewer Pipe Company. Raw Clay Tells the Story. Red Wing, MN: Red Wing Sewer Pipe Company, 1927.

Sansome, C.J. "Goodhue County's Geologic Story." Goodhue County Historical News 10 (February 1976): 1–2.

Schwartau, John. "The Red Wing Clay Industry: How it All Began, 1819-1900." unpublished document, Goodhue County Historical Society Manuscript Collections, 1993.

"Sample Small Town City Has a Good Record in Postwar Years." Minneapolis Star, September 10, 1952.

Smith, G. Hubert. "Minnesota Potteries: From Pioneer Craft to Modern Factory." Minnesota History 33, no. 6 (Summer 1953): 231–232.

Tooker, Charles and John Koepke. Red Wing Archaeological Preserve: An Ancient Native American Village and Cemetery. Minneapolis: Institute for Minnesota Archaeology, 1990.

Upham, Warren. "Glacial and Modified Drift of the Mississippi Valley from Lake Itasca to Lake Pepin." Bulletin of the Minnesota Academy of Science 4 (December 1905): 272–299.

Zumbro Valley Historical Society Centennial Book Committee. Zumbrota: The First One Hundred Years. Zumbrota: The Committee, 1956.

Related Images

photograph showing clay sewer pipe sections next to a boxcar
photograph showing clay sewer pipe sections next to a boxcar
photograph of clay miners
photograph of clay miners
Photograph of a group of factory employees
Photograph of a group of factory employees
photograph of clay miners in a clay pit
photograph of clay miners in a clay pit
photograph of a train in a clay pit, filled with clay
photograph of a train in a clay pit, filled with clay

Turning Point

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.



German immigrant John Paul, a potter by trade, arrives in Goodhue Township. He finds the high-grade clay needed to make quality pottery.


Red Wing Stoneware, the first of three commercial potteries in Red Wing, is organized in February.


In September, Red Wing Stoneware acquires John Paul's former holdings and other clay-bearing land in Goodhue County.


Red Wing's potteries become a regional supplier of stoneware storage goods such as butter crocks, large pickle jars, and jugs.


In October, Red Wing Sewer Pipe incorporates and begins producing clay-based pipe.

c. 1893

The "company town" of Claybank comes into being.


Zumbrota Clay Manufacturing opens a large production facility in Goodhue County's Minneola Township. Barr Clay Products, located nearby, soon follows.


Clay mining operations begin in deposits southeast of Claybank in southern Belvidere Township and Bellechester.


Goodhue County's clay industry is in decline, although Red Wing Potteries remains a major employer.


Red Wing Potteries cease operations, ending major clay industry operations in Goodhue County.