California brick
CALIFORNIA BRICKS


California Pottery Company, Merced

company letterhead
Letterhead donated by Chris and Sandra Ingram

History


Frank A. Costello
Frank A. Costello. Photo courtesy of Heather Young.

In 1920, Frank A. Costello, a San Francisco attorney and president of the California Pottery Company, went to Merced, California, to investigate a fine clay deposit and the prospects of expanding his clay products in the San Joaquin Valley. Two miles south of Merced, he found a sandy loam beneath a layer of hardpan that was excellent for making red-burning clay products. Costello acquired 53 acres of land along Brantley Street and State Highway 99, and commenced to build a new plant mainly for hollow tile production.

Frank Anthony Costello was a native of Petaluma, California. He was born on December 19, 1880 to the parents of Thomas and Rose Costello, both natives of Ireland. His father was a teamster and had died when Frank was just a teenager. Both Frank and his older brother Stephen became attorneys in San Francisco. Frank was admitted to the bar in 1904, and in 1905, he was selected to the position of Assistant Warrent and Bond Clerk in San Francisco. About 1910, Frank became involved with the California Pottery Company, which was based in Oakland, California. The Oakland plant was built in 1873 by A. Windsor, who made it into a well established firm in the manufacture of pottery, sewer pipe, and chimney flues. The California Pottery Company went through a reorganization in 1910, when the directors of the company were looking to expand its business and products. The company had a capital of $500,000, when it incorporated in 1924. As part of this expansion, they purchased the Niles Canyon property in Alameda County from the California Pressed Brick Company in 1917, and the Merced property in 1920.

View of the California Pottery brickyard
View of the plant of the California Pottery Company in Merced, California. From Laizure, 1925.


The Merced plant started up in January 1922. The plant consisted of clay sheds, an elevator, a bin, a mixing and machine room, a press room, a large drying room, a storage shed, eight round down-draft kilns 30-feet in diameter, three smoke stacks, an oil tank, a water tank, and an office building. One of the square brick smokestakes was marked with the date of 1921 on all four sides. Electric power was used, requiring 290 horsepower. The plant capacity was 50 tons per day. The plant employed 35 workers. Edward A. Forde was the manager and Patrick E. Mehan, plant superintendent, who had formerly worked at the Carnegie Brick and Pottery Company in San Joaquin County. Perry Lingren was manager in 1924. Myros C. Alsip was the plant superintendent in 1925.

Clay on the property was mined using Fresno scrapers and this supplied 60 percent of the clay used by the plant. The rest were shipped in by rail. Fire clay came from their property at Valley Springs in Calaveras County, and buff-burning clay from Lincoln in Placer County. The material was ground in a Stevens and Raymond dry pan. The stiff-mud process was used. A No. 290 American Clay Company auger machine was used for making brick and hollow tile. A No. 233 American Clay Company auger machine was used for making roofing tile. The brick and tile were conveyed on a belt and stacked by hand on drying cars. The drying cars were then run into a 20-track American Clay Company dryer, where they would be dried for 36 hours using waste heat from the kilns.

California Pottery roofing tiles
California Pottery Company roofing tile.

When properly dried, the products were fired in the kilns, which was fueled by crude oil of 14 degrees gravity, atomized by steam. The products were burned for 98 hours, with a finish temperature of 2,100 degrees F (Cone 0.01). The products included red hollow building tile, red roofing tile, red sewer pipe, chimney pipe, flue lining, floor tile, irrigation pipe, drain tile, segmental vitrified blocks, partition tile, buff face brick, and buff fire brick. The products were shipped out by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which had run a spur known as Creegan Siding, to the west side of the plant. The siding was named for the company secretary J. F. Creegan.

The first hollow tile went into the home of J. H. Simonson of Merced in 1922. Roofing tile and face brick were added in 1924, upon completion of the sixth kiln. Tiles were shipped to as far away as Hawaii. Firebrick and other products were added in 1925, when the eighth kiln was finally completed. These bricks were marked with either the name "MERCED" or with the abbreviated company name "C. P. Co." The colorful face brick and tiles produced by this company can be seen in buildings and homes in Merced that were built between 1922 and 1930.

California Pottery office building
California Pottery Company office building still stands today on the plant site, owned
by Central Valley Concrete. Merced ruffled face brick, hollow tile walls, red floor tiles
and four shades of Escornada, Sierra, and handmade roofing tiles are visible on the exterior.

In 1930, Frank Costello was forced to close the plant because of the depression and low demand for clay products. Local investors, in an attempt to keep the plant open, formed the Merced Clay Products Company and rehired the laid-off workers. But the plant was closed again within two years of operation. Gladding, McBean and Company from Lincoln, California, acquired the property by auction for only $9,000. In a competition-elimination move, Gladding, McBean and Company razed the plant, kilns, and smokestacks. Only the office and a shed survive.

After leaving the clay business in 1930, Frank Costello returned to his law practice in San Francisco. He died there on February 13, 1954 at the age of 73 years.

California Pottery Company Merced Brick

Firebrick

Firebrick is buff and mostly uniform in color. Some may have faint iron staining on the surface. The surface is smooth with minor crackles. The sides display faint transverse striations and faint light brown flashing. The faces have curved wire-cut marks. The edges are straight and sharp. The corners are sharp if not broken. There are two known marks "MERCED" and "THE C. P. CO. / MERCED". The "MERCED" name is recessed in block letters that span 5 1/2 inches in length and 3/4 inch in height. The second mark spans 6 7/8 inches in length and 3/4 inch in height on the first line and 5 3/8 inches in length and 3/4 inch in height on the second line. The periods are square-shaped. Surrounding the name are six round screw imprints 5/8 inch across. The interior consists of 15 percent subangular cream feldspar, 5 percent subangular white quartz, and 5 percent round black iron, all less than 1/8 inch across, in a fine cream clay body. The brick was made using the extruded stiff-mud process, wire-cut on the faces, and repressed. Length 8 3/4 - 9, width 4 1/2, height 2 3/8 inches.

Merced firebrick
View of the marked face of the "MERCED" firebrick.

The C.P.CO Merced firebrick
View of the marked face of the "THE C. P. CO/MERCED" firebrick.

Interior view of firebrick
View of the interior clay body of the firebrick, displaying cream feldspar and clay, white quartz, and black iron.

Smooth Face Brick

Smooth face brick come in shades of buff and red. Some may be spotted with large irregular black iron up to 3/4 inch across. The surface is smooth. Edges and corners are sharp. Faces have angled wire-cut grooves. The sides may show faint transverse striations. The interior consists of 5 percent round brown to black iron, some with blister holes, 3 percent subrounded yellowish white clay, and 3 percent subangular white quartz, in a fine sandy clay body. The extruded stiff-mud process was used to make wire-cut face bricks. Length 8 - 8 3/4, width 4 1/8, height 2 1/4 - 2 3/8 inches.

California Pottery face brick
View of the side of a buff smooth face brick, partly covered by green paint.

California Pottery face brick
View of the side of a buff smooth face brick, showing some wear on the surface.

California Pottery face brick
View of the side of a salmon iron spotted smooth face brick, partly covered by mortar.

California Pottery face brick
View of the side of a buff iron spotted smooth face brick.

Close-up view of the California Pottery face brick
Enlarged view of a buff iron spotted smooth face brick, showing the black iron, yellowish white clay, and white quartz.

Rug Face Brick

Rug face brick come in shades of red, buff, brown, and black. The surface is smooth. Edges and corners are sharp. Faces have angled wire-cut grooves. One or two sides are deeply incised with transverse grooves that are regularly spaced 3/8 inch apart. Some appear to be very closely spaced double grooves 1/8 inch apart. The long sides contain 24 grooves, the ends 11 grooves, both with 1/2 inch margins. The interior of the red brick contains 5 percent round black iron, 3 percent subangular white quartz, and 5 percent subrounded yellowish clay in an orange sandy clay body. The stiff-mud extruded process was used to make the face-cut rug bricks. Length 8 3/8 - 8 3/4, width 4 - 4 1/8, height 2 1/4 - 2 3/8 inches.

California Pottery rug brick
View of the sides of buff and red rug face bricks.

California Pottery rug brick
View of the side of a rug face brick, showing the evenly spaced grooves, partly covered by white paint.

California Pottery rug brick
View of the sides of red and black rug face bricks.

Interior view of California Pottery rug brick
View of the interior clay body of a red rug face brick.

Hollow Tile Block

Hollow tile blocks range in color from orange to red to brown, each being mostly uniform in color. Single and double hollow partitions were made with 3/4 to one inch thick walls. One of the sides is smooth while the other sides have longitudinal wide grooves ranging from 3/8 to 1/2 inch in width. Single partition tile have 4 longitudinal grooves, while double partition tile have 8 longitudinal grooves. Another variation is 12 transverse grooves in the single partition tile or 36 longitudinal thin grooves. These tile blocks were made using the stiff-mud extruded process and end cut. Length 11 1/8 - 12 3/8, width 5 1/4 - 5 5/8, height 5 1/4 - 5 3/8 inches for single partition, 8 1/2 inches for double partition.

California Pottery hollow partition tile
View of a double partition hollow tile block.

View of sides of California Pottery hollow partition tile
View of the smooth sides of hollow tile blocks.

California Pottery hollow partition tile
View of the side of a hollow tile block with four longitudinal wide grooves.

California Pottery hollow partition tile
View of the side of a hollow tile block with 12 transverse wide grooves.

California Pottery hollow partition tile
View of the side of a hollow tile block with thin longitudinal grooves.

References

California Death Index.

California Pottery: Merced's Forgotten Art, Merced County Courthouse Museum, Merced, California, Exhibit June 1 - October 1, 2006.

Brick and Clay Record, California Company Builds New Factory, v. 57, no. 8, 1920, p. 678.

Brick and Clay Record, California Pottery Co. Incorporated, v. 64, no. 10, 1924, p. 747.

Brick and Clay Record, Merced Plant Output 15% Bigger, v. 67, no. 13, 1925, p. 952.

Brick and Clay Record, New Half-Million Dollar Company on Coast, v. 58, no. 1, 1921, p. 55.

Brick and Clay Record, New Merced Plant Starts Work, v. 59, no. 10, 1921, p. 752.

Brick and Clay Record, Roofing Tile Production Increases, v. 64, no. 6, 1924, p. 438.

Brick and Clay Record, Ship Tile To Honolulu, v. 65, no. 12, 1924, p. 852.

California Pottery Company Catalogue and Price List, Oakland, California, revised April 1, 1927.

Federal Census Records, 1880.

Federal Census Records, 1900.

Federal Census Records, 1920.

Federal Census Records, 1930.

Laizure, C.M., Merced County, California State Mining Bureau 21st Report of the State Mineralogist, no. 2, 1925, p. 173-183.

Lim, Sarah, Director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum, written communication, 2006.

Merced Morning Star, The California Pottery Co. Bids You Welcome, January 21, 1922.

Oakland Tribune, California Pottery Company of Oakland Common Stock, September 17, 1927.

Oakland Tribune, New Assistant Chosen, July 17, 1905.

Oakland Tribune, To Practice Law, September 15, 1904.

Copyright 2010 Dan Mosier

Contact Dan Mosier at danmosier@earthlink.net.