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Explore the History of Clay City Tile

The orange-red tiles stand out on structures across Baldwin County. Their history is just as colorful.

ABOVE A barn made entirely of Clay City tile proudly stands on the edge of Highway 181 in Daphne. Local farmer Jay Corte’s father built the barn to store corn to feed his cattle through the winter. The building is a fine example of the local tile still in good working use today, and is one of the largest tile-made buildings in Baldwin County.
 

In 1896, two years after the town of Fairhope was established, the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation (then known as the Fairhope Industrial Association) wanted to launch a tile-making business. There was a tremendous history of clay industry and pottery-making dating back to colonial days in Baldwin County, and the Fairhope leaders felt much could be made of this natural resource. They invited “Fantastic” Frank Brown, a jewelry store owner in Iowa, to run the enterprise. So, like any good businessman would, Brown purchased a sawmill and made his way down to Fairhope. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds: Fairhope’s founders were themselves from Iowa and must have known that Brown’s father operated a brick and tile mill in Denmark, Ohio, near the largest clay vein in America.Clearly, clay was in the family’s blood.

Brown’s first brickyard was located on Fairhope Avenue, just off Greeno Road. His company eventually outgrew this spot, and it moved to its second and final home. This location, between County Roads 9 and 33, is what we now know as Clay City. Clay was already an industrial and cultural staple on the banks of Fish River between 1850 and 1900 but, before Brown’s arrival, no one referred to it as Clay City. That’s how big and important his business became to the local area.

Brown’s story of success is a textbook example of right place, right time. There was an abundance of naturally-occurring building material in Baldwin County at the moment it was experiencing a period of growth. The iconic orange-red tiles are still apparent throughout Baldwin County.

The manufacturer also built Fairhope’s first people’s railroad car and its first steamer, appropriately named Fairhope. What he may have lacked in creative boat-naming talents, he more than made up for with business savvy and contributions to his community. Both he and his wife, Minnie Brown, held positions with the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation and the Marietta Johnson Organic School. His wife, Minnie, was also the first woman to become a member of the Fairhope City Council.

ABOVE Several small Clay City tile structures are clustered together on the Bertolas’ farmland just off Highway 181 in Daphne. The diminutive structures are no longer in use today, but you can imagine them as farm worker housing units in years gone by. When windows and roofs give way to time and decrepitude, the bricks stand strong.
 

All Over Town

The focus is on the clay tile, “because that’s kind of the unique thing, but they made brick like there was no tomorrow, of course,” says local librarian and Fairhope historian Alan Samry. “Chances are, when you see the tile, they supplied the brick as well.” Rather than traditional flat tiles, they better resemble modern-day cinder blocks, although they did make traditional tiles as well (Brown’s “structural clay tiles” are considered a precursor to the cinder block). The tiles were sought after for the clay’s natural fire resistance and, luckily for Brown, the city of Fairhope passed an ordinance requiring all city buildings to be constructed of fireproof masonry construction. As a result, builders essentially had to buy Brown’s product.

We Didn’t Start the Fire

The best example of Clay City Tile’s fireproof prowess was in the remains of the old Point Clear School. The school was only partially built using the tiles; the rest was constructed of timber and other materials. In 2014, after the school burned down, the only parts that remained standing amid the ashes were the walls made of the clay brick and tiles.

Undoubtedly, you’ve seen a dozen different structures in the area comprised of original Clay City tile. Dotting County Road 64 are many recognizable terra-cotta-colored, bare-tile constructions. Some are homes, and others once served as grain silos and chicken brooders. On State Highway 181, orange-red — and very small — structures are real head-turners. The tiny places were built in the 1930s to house transient farm workers. (“Think about the pickers in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’” says Alan Samry.)

Exterior Clay City tile walls are often disguised under plaster or stucco, however. These cover-ups provide the exterior facade with a fresh face and prevent moisture from seeping into the tiles (clay is, by nature, a porous, moisture-susceptible material, and the humidity in Baldwin County is so high it could make a volcano sweat). Covered-up tile buildings in downtown Fairhope include Fairhope Pharmacy, Fantasy Island Toys, the Bank of Fairhope and the Fairhope Museum of History.

ABOVE The former Masonic Lodge on Young Street in Fairhope is a picture-perfect example of a Clay City tile building. The structure underwent a complete renovation in 2004 and was the headquarters of the local Outward Bound program before welcoming its new tenant, Kudzu Aerial, in 2015.
 

One Last Batch

The very last run of Clay City Tile production was in 1994, and was used to build Bay-area native Dean Mosher’s iconic castle, right near the heart of downtown Fairhope. It was modeled after the circa 1950s Clay City tile and Mobile Bay stone castle next-door — his father-in-law Craig Sheldon’s home. In typical Fairhope style, this tile that was so often being used to build utilitarian structures was now being used to create something so completely unique, now a fixture of downtown Fairhope.

Clay City Neighbor

Just across the road from Brown’s old manufacturing site is another building of Clay City tile and brick, but this one still churns out items made of clay. Well-known local potter Tom Jones moved his pottery studio here. Across the street from the studio stand the large, now-dormant kilns of Clay City Tile. Covered in grass, they almost look like hills. It’s hard to believe that this field, occupied by a few derelict half-structures of the past, used to be home to anything, let alone the booming manufacturing center that was Clay City Tile.

Even as the site fades away, its brick and tile stand tall and strong in the walls of many of the buildings throughout Baldwin County. While a new business thrives nearby, the old one fades away — from earth to earth.

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