West Point, PA
 West Point Brick Yard


The West Point Shale Brick Company had its beginning sometime between 1881 and 1883, started by Civil War veteran Enos Vaughn. It was located on 23 acres east of the village on land that had been part of the Jones Farm. 

 
 
     Under the topsoil of West Point, and most of Gwynedd, is a thick layer of shale. West Point has the good fortune of having the softer shale of the "Brunswick Group" running under it. Bricks made of blocks of this shale are a superior building material, as they don’t absorb water. Crushed shale can be mixed with clay and baked, which forms a better brick than a brick made of clay alone. These are "composite bricks" and were the main product of the brickyard.

    
Edward Vaughn, son of Enos, operated the yard beginning in 1884. The Vaughns lived in a farmhouse on the property until 1914. Whether that farmhouse was the old Jones Farm house isn’t known, but it’s probable. Enos began his brick company using several “Dutch Kilns” to bake the composite bricks. One can imagine it was a pick and shovel operation with back breaking manual labor to dig the shale out of the ground. 
 

     As the years went by, demand for bricks increased. In 1914 there is a record of two hundred thousand bricks made for a building on Bells Mill Road in Chestnut Hill. Orders were also taken for several buildings in Ambler. In  October of 1914 a contract was made to furnish bricks for the new sewer system in North Wales.

     In December of 1914 Edward Vaughn sold the brickyard to three men,  A. H. Wills, H. W. Willet and S. H. Thompson of the Royersford Brick Company. He kept 500,000 bricks to fill the orders made before the sale.  An application was then made to charter a corporation to be called “West Point Shale Brick Company.”

     The Vaughn's moved out of the farmhouse and Edward Brey moved in as the “head farmer” for the brickyard. The Vaughn's moved to Garfield Avenue.


     In January of 1915 H. W. Willet did a study and determined that by using the railroad to send bricks to Lansdale, they could then be sent to Jenkintown and over the Bound Brook Line and he could supply eastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey and lower New York State with bricks.  In March new steam powered machinery was installed, along with train tracks leading to the Stony Creek RR. By April there were 15 men employed, a new force pump was installed and brick making was resumed on the 3rd. At least two kilns were in operation by the end of May and the largest kiln was set to be fired, containing 300,000 bricks.

     In July more improvements were made to the yard.  18,000 bricks a day were produced. 100,000 bricks were delivered to build homes in Olney (Philadelphia). The company also exported carloads of shale to other brick and tile making companies.

     In 1916 work was halted. The name of the brickyard was changed to “Montgomery Shale Brick Company” with officers H.W. Willet as president and John E. Fluke Jr. as secretary. The steam engine was overhauled by a Philadelphia company and the main office of the yard was relocated to Philadelphia.

     Work soon resumed at a brisk pace and in June it was decided that the old Dutch kilns were to be replaced by new “down draft” kilns. By August the plant was in operation with at least one new kiln, though there was now a labor shortage as America geared up for World War I. Three men from West Point PA would soon die in France.

     To make the labor situation even worse, in November a worker (William Quinn Jr.) fell while moving a wheel barrow of bricks up a wooden plank. The plank suddenly tipped and he severely injured his arm, hand and back. That same week Martin Smith, a “brick burner” was found dead in his home at age 38. The brickyard nevertheless remained busy and another Dutch kiln was replaced in November. By December the weather was turning bad but the yard was in operation full time.

     In January of 1917 the plant received 200 tons of coal and another 300,000 bricks were made, but it was soon shut down because of the weather.


     In March of 1917 repairs and upgrades were made and it was back in operation by April at full capacity. In May enough bricks were made to fill three train cars. Large shipments of bricks were sent to Bethlehem and Petty's Island (on the Delaware). By August the number of orders totaled 3,000,000 bricks. In November orders were filled totaling 105,000 bricks. However, in December there was a coal shortage and the plant couldn’t fire its kilns.

     In January of 1918 the temperatures were as low as -10F. The only newsworthy event was that an employee fell and broke his leg. At the end of the month the plant closed for the winter. Later in 1918 some of the property was sold to pay back taxes.

     In September of 1918, 155 people in West Point were subject to military draft because of World War I. A month later half the village was ill and under quarantine as the Spanish Flu pandemic swept through. A mile away in North Wales, undertakers were being taxed to their limits burying the dead, sometimes with several family members in the same grave. Was this a contributing factor in the next crises to hit the brick yard??

     In February of 1919 the brickyard was bankrupt and in debt for $6,854.30 (presumably for the mortgage). It was sold at Sheriff’s Sale on January 29, 1919 for $11,000. 

     This brought Edward Vaughn to court. Mr. Vaughn held one of two $6000 mortgages on the property and was the first lien holder. At the time of the bankruptcy he was owed $3,784, but after the taxes were paid on the brickyard there was only $3,500 awarded to Mr. Vaughn. He contended that he should have had preference of payment before the state got their taxes and was owed another $283.52. He won his case.

     John J. Allen bought the brickyard at the Sheriff's Sale in March, 1919. By April six men were working at the site and  repairs to the buildings were progressing favorably. Advertisements were put in the local papers for "machine men, setters, burners, and laborers.

      Edward Brey, who had lived in the farmhouse on the property since 1914 vacated it, and the superintendent, Mr. Dutter, moved his family into it from Philadelphia. By September the plant was in full operation and several carloads of bricks were shipped weekly via the rail road.

     After being shut down for the winter, men were hired in May of 1920 and the yard was back in full operation. The plant was also in operation in 1921. But in May of 1921 the personal property of John and Mary Allen at the brick plant was sold at Sheriff's Sale .

In 1922, under new ownership, improvements were made, machinery was overhauled and the plant again resumed full operation that April. (It was always shut down during the winter.)

     In October of 1923 a fire broke out on the property which destroyed the drying room and $1,200 worth of equipment and stock. (Equivalent to $16,000 today) The manufacture of bricks appears to have ceased for a time, but by 1925 orders for bricks were being filled as rapidly as possible and 1926 proved to be just as busy.

 
Example of a drying shed. (Photo is not of the yard in West Point).
 
     In 1929 the brickyard, now owned by the Hobson Brothers, was again sold by the sheriff. One of the brothers ended up in court in February. In April the Hobson Brothers announced they will once again operate the brick yard. Junk and loose material on the property was removed. There was hope that brick making would resume but on October 29th the stock market crashed, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression. In 1930 the plant was at a standstill. The complex of buildings and shale pits remained abandoned, and the plant was again shut down.

     By 1931 some of the buildings were inhabited by homeless “colored people” who supported themselves with petty thievery. The most often stolen items were chickens! In April police raided a family shack looking for a man named Clifford Wilson and found him hiding in the attic. Wilson and another man were arrested. There are no newspaper accounts of any conflicts among the people of West Point and the squatters, but a newspaper article reveals that the residents were pleased with the raid.

     There was some excitement in February of 1932 when Charles Ott, an aviator from Philadelphia, lost his way in the fog and landed his plane at the abandoned brickyard. The airplane sank into the mud and local residents helped to get it on dryer ground. Mr. Ott was able to take off and land at Pitcarin Field, his original destination.

     In 1932 the Ambler Gazette reported that all the buildings on the property had fallen into decay. In January of 1933 Clifford Wilson was again arrested at the brickyard for larceny, his shack being filled with stolen items.

     In 1934 the brickyard, machinery and kilns were considered “worthless”.


     News of the yard falls silent after this until World War II. In 1943 weekly ads were placed for needed workers at the new SKF Industries factory in Gwynedd, at the site of Love Apple Farm, which bordered the Jones Farm. SKF made precision ball and roller bearings for military aircraft.

     Also at the site was a plant built by Kellet Aircraft Corporation. Kellet made rotary winged aircraft called gyrocopters, gyroplanes or autogiros. During the war, autogiros were made obsolete by the development of the helicopter, so the company turned to other products. The plant in Gwynedd manufactured refrigerator cabinets for Coldaire Corp. Production stopped on September 9, 1946 when the company declared bankruptcy.

     One of the quarries eventually filled up with water and made an ice skating rink for the village during the winter. Another quarry was used as a dump by SKF, Kellet, Sharp and Dohme and then Merck. Every imaginable thing was thrown in, including trash and chemicals, even movie film of experimental aircraft. The local youths sometimes went on an adventure, going through it.

     In 1947 the pharmaceutical company Sharp & Dohme built a plant at the site. The company merged with Merck in 1953 to become Merck Sharp & Dohme. Today known as Merck & Co., it has manufacturing facilities all over the world. The West Point complex completely covers the West Point Shale Brick Yard.


                                                                                               Source: Articles in The Amble Gazette from 1904 to 1944