Heart of Louisiana: St. Joe Brickworks

Published: Sep. 11, 2012 at 10:09 PM CDT|Updated: Jan. 11, 2013 at 8:42 PM CST
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An image of old St. Joe bricks by David Jonze
An image of old St. Joe bricks by David Jonze

This shed is like a huge mixing bowl, where natural clay, dirt and sand are scooped together in the right proportions, and the process of making bricks begins.

Pete Schneider of St. Joe Brickworks says, "A man is stationed to pick any foreign materials out, roots, rocks, little clods, then it goes into what we call a pug mill where we mix water into it. And it works its way down to the bottom of the brick machine where there's a big arm that wipes the clay into the mold and then it goes under the press and presses down."

If this brick-making process looks a bit old-fashioned, it is. St. Joe Brickworks has been doing it this way for 120 years.

Schneider says, "We do it the traditional, old-fashioned way. We do have a new brick machine that we put into service in 1955, so you can see we've upgraded a little bit as we've gone along."

Pete Schneider's great grandfather, a German brickmaker, bought the brickworks in 1895 and it's been a family run business ever since, passed down from father to son and, eventually, to a great-grandson.

The reason this brick company is here is this sandy clay. For more than a century, St. Joe brick has been made from either clay that's dug on site or within a couple of miles of here.

St. Joe is one of only a half-dozen brick makers in the country that still uses an old-fashioned wooden mold.

Schneider says, "So it gives it the aesthetic appeal that has been, from colonial times through 2012, where we are today."

The bricks get their color when they are baked in these massive brick kilns.

Schneider says, "99 percent of our colors come from the firing process. We fire anywhere from 22,000 degrees Fahrenheit to 25,080 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest fired-face brick in the world"

And this unique process, and the ability to custom match colors, has created a demand for St. Joe brick that stretches from coast to coast, and even to historic Fort Jefferson off the tip of Key West, Florida.

Brick mason Howard Colvin says, "This is Fort Jefferson, the second largest masonry structure in the world. The only thing that beats this is the Great Wall of China."

St. Joe bricks were used in a major restoration of the fort. You'll also find the bricks in many of the buildings on LSU's campus. St. Joe's secret to success is family. Today, a fifth generation is learning the trade.

Schneider says, "The family has a love for the making of the product because it's part of their being. All of the kids have grown up in the business from 12 years old up and we've all learned how to do it."

It's a hands-on process that has put a bit of Louisiana on the fronts of buildings all over America.

It takes about three weeks for each brick to go from wet clay to a finished product. The St. Joe brickyard produces bricks at a rate of 30,000 a day.