Brickyards in early Grand Forks spurred the evolution from pioneer town to established city
One of the more prominent yards was located on Belmont Road.
The 1880s were a time of amazing growth for Grand Forks. The primitive frontier town of the 1870s was transformed with the arrival of the railroads and population boom that followed. The earliest photographs of Grand Forks show wood-framed buildings along Third Street. Dry goods stores, saloons and the Hudson Bay Company’s Northwestern Hotel were subjects of early photographers. Within a decade these buildings would all give way to new construction made from brick. Brick buildings were more durable and cheaper to insure compared to wood frame construction.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company made maps of towns showing the construction materials of buildings, block by block, with a color code indicating the materials used in the construction of each building.
The earliest Sanborn maps for Grand Forks were made in 1884. The maps confirm that most buildings at that time were made from wood. The first brick business block in Grand Forks, known as the Syndicate Block, was constructed in 1883. It was owned by Alexander Griggs, Jacob Eshelman and William Budge. Other brick buildings recorded in 1884 included Central School, the Union National Bank and a billiard parlor and harness shop on South Third. By 1900 most of the buildings downtown were made from local brick.
Frank Vzralek, state archivist at the State Historical Society of North Dakota from 1977-1981, published a book titled “Brickmaking in North Dakota” in 1998. According to Vzralek, “Grand Forks became one of North Dakota’s brick production centers very early. …” He wrote that the first brickyard here was established by Edward F. Curtis in 1880-1881 and was located on the bank of the river near downtown.
Another pioneer who arrived in 1880 was John S. Bartholomew from Painesville, Ohio. Bartholomew was a stone and brick mason. He came west to engage in the brick manufacturing business. In April of 1880, according to his hometown newspaper, he planned on settling in Crookston, Minnesota. A month later the paper reported that he had settled in Grand Forks, Dakota Territory, instead. Joining him were his wife Myra and 6-year-old son, Frederick.
Vyzralek wrote that the first Bartholomew brickyard was located at South Sixth Street and Minnesota Avenue. The Sanborn maps record that site as “Bartholomew’s Addition.” Which is near Reeves Triangle Park today. Soon, Bartholomew relocated his brickyard to a larger property farther south on Belmont Road and away from the expanding townsite of the 1880s.
Bartholomew may not have provided all of the brick used in the construction boom of the 1880s but his yard surely produced a large percentage of the material. At that time brickmaking was very labor intensive. Most of the bricks were made by hand, pressed into sand-dusted molds and dried on racks before being placed in a kiln to remove the remaining moisture. It was seasonal work; brick yards advertised for laborers in the spring promising steady work for good pay throughout the season. Many hands were needed to mold, dry and deliver bricks to construction sites locally or to the railroad for use in other towns, like Devils Lake.
The brickyards were vulnerable to weather. In 1897 spring flooding destroyed tens of thousands of bricks. In June of 1909 a severe thunderstorm washed away 300,000 bricks, according to a report in the Grand Forks Herald.
Other brickyards opened to meet the building boom. John and James Dinnie came to Grand Forks from Ontario to work as brick and stone masons, eventually starting their own construction company and brick factory near the university. Michael J. Moran, another Canada native and brick mason, operated a brickyard in East Grand Forks. A fourth yard operated near Riverside Park.
By 1897 the four brickyards merged to form the Red River Valley Brick Company, with offices in the Security Building. They later built their own business block at 215 South Third Street. This location housed the Windmill Restaurant in the 1980s and 1990s, offering dinner served on an outdoor courtyard during the summer long before it was common downtown.
The promotional book “Grand Forks Illustrated,” published in 1897, lists two officers of the consolidated company: J. S. Bartholomew, president, A.I. Hunter, secretary. It also boasts that the company was able to produce 12 million bricks annually. Bartholomew sold his brickyard to Hunter in 1902.
The manufacturing process improved over time, utilizing machines to relieve much of the physical labor. Eventually the sites operated by Bartholomew and the Dinnie brothers closed. The Red River Valley Brick Company continued to produce brick from the yards near Riverside Park and in East Grand Forks. These sites had direct access to railroad transportation. The Riverside location was near the Home of Economy warehouse on North Sixth Street. The East Grand Forks yard was near the present site of American Legion Post 157.
Tracing the company through city directories, the Red River Valley Brick Company operated through 1942 but by 1945 it is no longer listed. Vyzralek reports that it relocated to Fertile, Minnesota, but closed shortly thereafter.
The Bartholomew Brick Yard was on Belmont Road. It seems an odd location because it did not have access to railroad transportation; wagon loads of brick had to be pulled by teams of horses to the business district. It can be located on the plat map for Grand Forks Township of 1893. It is included in some Sanborn maps also.
Many of us drive through it every day not knowing about its history. Traveling south on Belmont from 13th Avenue South, the land dips toward 15th Avenue South then rises just ahead of 17th Avenue South. Moving west, the depression rises between Walnut Street and Cottonwood.
The author of this piece, Leah Byzewski, is director of the Grand Forks County Historical Society.