It looks like an industrial hobbit village. Ten round, domed huts built in a motley mixture of grey, black, red and brown brick sit in a dusty compound. The place seems dropped from another century. These are the big beehive kilns of Colonial Brick Company in Cayuga, near the Indiana-Illinois border.
Colonial is the only place left in the United States that makes bricks using coal-fired beehive kilns. The bricks you find at your local home improvement store move in vast numbers on a conveyor through a tunnel-shaped industrial kiln and come out uniform in color, shape and texture. Since 1904 the bricks at Colonial have been cut using antique equipment, from clay mined on site, and laid by hand in the kilns.
Colonial’s venerable method produces bricks used throughout the U.S. to repair historic buildings, where restorers need to match old bricks that are unusual in color or dimension or texture. At Union Station in Indianapolis, you may not be able to tell the original from the Colonial bricks used in the restoration.
The company wastes nothing, also selling its mistakes called clinkers, misshapen, bloated bricks created when the firebox in a kiln gets too hot. The clinkers they don’t sell pave the road from the brick factory to the clay mine on the property.
Western Indiana—noted for its deposits of clean clay—once claimed more than 15 brick and clay tile factories. Asphalt, concrete, steel, and the Great Depression took a big bite out of the brick business and left Colonial the landmark equivalent of an endangered species—a factory that has managed to hang on using historic equipment and industrial artistry to produce just the right brick, in the right color, and the right size.