California brick
CALIFORNIA BRICKS


Pierce and Wood

History


View of John Marsh Stone House at Marsh Creek State Park.
View of John Marsh Stone House at Marsh Creek State Park.

So why is the historic John Marsh Stone House near Brentwood in Contra Costa County, California, included on this brick website? Local historian Carol Jensen brought to my attention the bricks in the historic Marsh home. The bricks were used in the interior walls of the stone house and in the chimneys. So I made a visit to see these bricks on Heritage Day, October 11, 2014, when the park invited the public to see the stone house. The park is not yet opened to the public.

Dr. John Marsh (1799-1856), native of Salem, Massachusetts, came to settle on Rancho Los Meganos in 1838 and was claimed to be the first American settler in Contra Costa County. He was a Harvard graduate, who practiced medicine while running a cattle ranch. He is recognized as one who encouraged the westward migration of Americans to California prior to the Gold Rush. In Minnesota, prior to coming to California, John and his common law wife, Marguerite, had a son. When Marguerite died, he left his son to be raised by another family in New Salem, Illinois. John arrived in Los Angeles, California, in 1836, and then he went to San Jose before settling on Rancho Los Meganos in 1838. In 1851, he married Abigail Tuck and they raised a daughter. In 1852, John wanted to build a new house for his family. Abbey chose the site and construction was started. But Abbey died in August 1855 before the house was completed. Shortly after Marsh's Stone House was completed in September 1856, John Marsh was murdered by robbers on the road to Martinez.

Marsh's stone and brick house was built by San Francisco masons Charles Pierce and Zephaniah Wood. The house was designed as Gothic Revival by San Francisco Architect Thomas Boyd. Charles Pierce was listed in the San Francisco city directories as a mason or bricklayer. Little else could be found about Pierce. He was last listed in San Francisco in 1867 as Charles P. Pierce, bricklayer. Zephaniah Wood was also listed in the San Francisco directories as a mason, builder, and architect. By 1867, he had moved to Alameda, Alameda County, and was working as an architect. The Federal Census of 1870 listed Wood residing in Alameda, Alameda County, occupation architect, native of Massachusetts, 60 years old, and married to Nancy Wood, also a native of Massachusetts, 58 years old. He married Nancy Bunker in 1831. Wood was last listed in the city directories in 1870.

A close examination of the brick and materials used indicate that Pierce and Wood made the bricks on site. Rounded pale green, yellow and red chert pebbles in the brick match those found in the soil on the property. Also the range in quality of the brick from pale orange under-fired brick to black clinker brick, some of which are badly warped or twisted, supports the bricks being made on site. Some Snowball bricks imported from England were present and very likely came out of the lining of the fireplaces in the house.

There is no description of Pierce and Wood's brickmaking process, but from the bricks on hand, we can determine that they were handmade using the material from the property. The material was not screened but put directly into a pugmill, which was probably mixed with creek water by horsepower. The larger stones were probably removed from the mix by hand but they did not get all of them. The clay mixture was then thrown into wooden molds to form the brick and struck with a light coating of quartz sand for lubrication. Excess clay was struck off the top of the mold in a longitudinal direction. The wet brick was dumped onto the ground to dry in the sun. When sufficiently dried, the bricks were set in a field kiln, which probably held in a single firing all of the bricks made for the house. Locally cut wood was probably used to fire the kiln as indicated by the range of soft to hard bricks.

All of the fired bricks from the kiln were used in the house. Even the twisted clinker bricks, which at that time, would not have been acceptable for use in buildings in the city. Both under-fired and clinker bricks were usually rejected at the brickyard. Seventy years later, clinker bricks became popular in decorating the exterior walls of city buildings and homes. So it is interesting to find clinker bricks used in a home built in 1856, though not for decorative purposes, but more for the lack of building materials.

Marsh's Stone House is now being restored by the California State Parks, which designated it as part of Marsh Creek State Park. The John Marsh Historic Trust is selling historic brick bats from Marsh's Stone House among other items for the house restoration funding.

 brick
View of a souvenir John Marsh Stone House brick bat being sold for fund raising.

Pierce and Wood Brick

Common brick is pale orange-red and mostly uniform in color. Under-fired bricks are more orange and clinker bricks are black and often warped or twisted. The form is poor with uneven ends or sides. The edges and corners are dull. The surface has a light coating of quartz sand, which contains mostly subrounded orange-stained quartz. The sides display transverse grooves, stack indentations, and rare minor cracks. The top face has strong longitudinal strike marks with pits and an occasional pebble of chert or greenstone. The bottom face is flat and even with no markings. The interior contains a porous orange-red sandy clay body. The pores constitute 2 to 5 percent of the clay body and range as much as 1/4 inch in diameter. One or two well-rounded to subrounded pebbles of pale green, pale red, and yellow chert, greenstone, and black metabasalt may be present ranging from 1/4 to 1 inch in diameter. The chert contains white veinlets. In under-fired bricks, the clay spalls easily or crumbles into an orange powder. This brick was made using the soft-mud process. Brick sizes vary by 1/4 inch and are notably thinner than standard size. Length 8 1/8, width 4 1/8, height 1 3/4 - 2 inches.

View of some of the Pierce and Wood brick that came out of the interior wall of the John Marsh Stone House.
View of some of the Pierce and Wood brick that came out of the interior walls of the John Marsh Stone House.

View of the sides and ends of the Pierce and Wood brick.
View of the sides and ends of the Pierce and Wood brick.

View of the smooth bottom face of the Pierce and Wood brick.
View of the smooth bottom face of the Pierce and Wood brick.

View of the smooth bottom face of the Pierce and Wood brick.
View of the rough top face of the Pierce and Wood brick. Note the strong longitudinal
strike marks commonly seen on all bricks and the round green chert pebble near the center.

View of the some black warped clinker bricks that were used in the house.
View of the some black warped clinker bricks that were used in the house.

View of the interior of a Pierce and Wood brick showing a porous clay body.
View of the interior of a Pierce and Wood brick showing a porous clay body.

References

A California Home, California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences, August 15, 1856.

Alameda City Directory, 1870.

Federal Census Records, 1870.

Horrible Murder in Contra Costa County by Highwaymen, Sacramento Daily Union, September 26, 1856.

Jensen, Carol A., written communication, 2014.

John Marsh Story, John Marsh Historic Trust, http://johnmarshhouse.com (accessed October 11, 2014).

MarciaPriscillaGrant Family Tree, Ancestry.com (accessed October 12, 2014).

San Francisco City Directory, 1856.

San Francisco City Directory, 1861.

San Francisco City Directory, 1867.

The Stone House, John Marsh Historic Trust, http://johnmarshhouse.com (accessed October 11, 2014).

Wolfe, Ann, John Marsh, East Contra Costa Historical Society, http://ecchs.net/history/early/marsh.html (accessed October 11, 2014).

Copyright 2014 Dan Mosier

Contact Dan Mosier at danmosier@earthlink.net.