Cream City Earthcache
In Wisconsin, United States
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Cream City brick is a cream or light yellow-colored brick made from a clay found around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the Menomonee River Valley and on the western banks of Lake Michigan. These bricks were one of the most common building materials used in Milwaukee during the mid and late 1800s, giving the city the nickname "Cream City".
Wisconsin clays may be divided into two basic types, residual and transported. Residual clays are created by the disintegration of rocks where they stand. Transported clays originate in the decomposition of rock on the slopes and crests of high ground and slowly work their way into the valleys with the assistance of water. Since the number and variety of sources for a single deposit of transported clay may be great, these clays tend to be more complex. Milwaukee’s is a member of the Lacustrine group of water-deposited sedimentary clays and was supposedly formed during the successive advances and recessions of the ice during the glacial epoch.
Although the state’s Lacustrine deposits are in a small area, they are unusually deep, reaching in places over 100 feet in depth. The reason for the rarity and unique color of Milwaukee’s clay lies in its chemical analysis. Typically, the average clay contains silica (silicon dioxide), lime (calcium oxide), magnesia (magnesium oxide), alumina (aluminum oxide), iron (ferric oxide) and potash (potassium oxide) along with insignificant amounts of soda, titanic acid and manganese oxide. Since almost all clay contains the same list of ingredients, it becomes obvious that their proportions are the critcal factor. When compared with clay used for making the more typical red brick, Milwaukee’s clay has a very low iron content, but greater amounts of calcium and magnesium.
By the mid 1830’s, brick makers in Milwaukee discovered that the stratified clay beds along the shores of Lake Michigan provided material that could be made into a durable cream-colored brick which became so popular as to give the city its nick-name, "The Cream City." The geology of the Milwaukee area made the bricks a matter of convenience. There was an abundant supply of the clay used to make the bricks in the Menomonee River Valley and along the Lake Michigan Shore. While clay deposits throughout the Milwaukee area produced cream brick, the clay could be removed easiest from the steep banks of the Menomonee River Valley where brothers George and John Burnham set up their business. The brick makers used a strip mine technique to remove clay from the banks, and, as a result, the valley was widened considerably. Generally top soil was removed to a depth of about three or four feet. The stratum of clay consisted of an upper, reddish-colored layer and lower grayish blue layer. In some areas the usable clay layer was as deep as forty feet.
The earliest brick making process in Milwaukee was crude and required considerable hard work. Horses turned a large wheel in the circular pit that mixed and tempered clay and sand. Then the pliable mixture was packed by hand into molds so that it could be fired in kilns for a period of a week or more. The Burnham brothers, and one of their employees identified only as Mr. Martin, revolutionized the brick making process by inventing the first operable brick making machine in the U.S. that tempered the clay and packed it into molds. The brick making apparatus allowed the Burnhams to make their product faster and cheaper than their competitors enabling a greater number of people to purchase a product that previously had only been affordable by the more affluent. The Burnhams eventually eclipsed the efforts of all other Milwaukee brick makers combined.
Cream City bricks came in two more-or-less rough categories, common and pressed. Common bricks were inconsistent in both size and color. Their position in the kiln could cause colors ranging between white and yellow-green because of the differences in temperature. Whatever their color, it was frequently diminished in effect by the moulding sand which adhered to the surface. Being coarser and sandy, they tended to attract and retain dirt and become black faster. Steam-pressed bricks, on the other hand, were uniform in size and color. Having been subjected to terrific pressure, they emerged with perfectly smooth faces and sharp, square corners and had a metallic ring when struck. The absence of sand in the mold left a cleaner, more uniform yellow color than the common variety.
Although color was its most famous attribute, this venerable brick was superior in other ways as well. It was more durable in the face of weather and had a much harder texture which required four times more fuel to “burn” than red brick. It is said that the light color reflected the sun instead of absorbing the heat and allowed the day’s temperature buildup to escape rapidly after nightfall. Milwaukee's first cream brick structure was erected in 1836. As the turn of the century passed, advances in construction methods and improved materials -- like concrete and steel -- brought an end to Milwaukee's brick-making heyday.
To log a “Found It” for this earthcache, you MUST perform the following:
- The posted coordinates take you to a national historic landmark sign on the front of a building made of Cream City brick. Thanks to Ramie Camarena, Projects & Communications Coordinator, for granting permission to use this building as part of our Earthcache. Using the sign as your guide, send the answers to the following questions to the owner of this earthcache (NOT in your “Found It” log):
- What is the name/function of this building?
- It is a major component of what kind of system?
- What was its daily capacity?
- Observe the Cream City bricks used in the construction of this building. Is the color consistent from brick to brick? What about the size and shape? Based on the information presented above, would you classify this as common or pressed brick?
- Now go out and find another structure made of Cream City brick elsewhere in the city. You may already know of some. Otherwise, you will probably have to do some internet research, but it shouldn’t be too difficult. If you still have no luck, you may email the owner of this earthcache for suggestions. Then include in your “Found It” log:
- Photograph of your Cream City brick structure
- Identification of the structure by name if possible (i.e.: Menomonee Valley sign)
- Location of the structure by nearest cross streets (i.e.: 13th & St. Paul)
When performing this portion of the Earthcache requirements, please use common sense: no trespassing on private property, observe any posted parking restrictions and/or hours of operation, etc. NOTE: DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH ANY BUILDINGS ON THE GROUNDS OF THE VA MEDICAL CENTER! AS IT IS CONSIDERED A MILITARY FACILITY, HOMELAND SECURITY HAS DISALLOWED IT.
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Last Updated: on 9/30/2015 4:11:29 AM Pacific Daylight Time (11:11 AM GMT)
Coordinates are in the WGS84 datum