Samuel Cleage, the itinerant contractor who traveled into the Tennessee Valley from Virginia in the 1820’s, is generally credited for the construction of several historic homes and buildings in East Tennessee, especially in McMinn County. While it is true that Cleage was the driving force behind his construction business, it is important to remember who, in fact, was actually performing the labor.
Besides livestock and gold, Cleage was often contracted to be paid in slaves after having completed a house or building. Many of Samuel Cleage’s slaves later adopted the Cleage name when they obtaining their freedom, and several black families in East Tennessee still trace their lineage to these Cleage slaves. Cleage was a wealthy landowner besides being a builder, and so he used his slaves almost exclusively as bound workers in his construction business. One of the duties often exclusively regulated to the slaves was brickmaking.
By the time Samuel Cleage was involved in building, the art of making brick had been around since 3500 BC. Essentially, 19th century brickmaking involved five steps: winning or digging the clay, preparation, molding, drying, and firing.
East Tennessee is well known for having the natural clay useful for brick production. Once dug by the slaves (normally in the fall), the clay was exposed to the weather so that the winter freezes could break the clay down, remove unwanted impurities, and allow it to be worked by hand. In the spring and summer, water was added and the clay was worked by the slaves’ hands and feet in large open pits until it obtained a smooth consistency and most of the rocks and sticks were removed.
The clay was then taken to the moulding table, where the slave designated as brickmoulder directed several assistants in the process. A skilled brickmoulder would work at the moulding table for twelve to fourteen hours, producing 3500 to 5000 bricks in a day. A clot of clay was rolled in sand and "dashed" into a sanded mould, which prevented the clay from sticking. Once the clay was pressed into the mould, the excess clay was removed from the top of the mould with a flat stick. Moulds ranged from single to six bricks at a time, but single brick moulds were often desired because even the slave women and children could be employed in carrying the “green” bricks from the table to the drying area. The “green” bricks were then stacked and dried for about two weeks.
Once most of the moisture had dried out, Cleage’s slaves stacked the bricks in a kiln, or clamp. Rows of bricks were built up to construct tunnels, which were filled with wood and set fire. For two to five days the bricks were cooked, the slaves feeding the fires and getting very little sleep. After the bricks cooled, the slaves removed them from the clamp and sorted them as to their degree of quality, the best being chosen for the building’s outside walls. Bricks which were closest to the fire sometimes received a natural glaze from the sand that fell into the flames, and were used in the interior courses of the walls. Some bricks would be left with a salmon color, were only slightly underfired, and made for good insulation in the inner parts of the walls. Bricks that were over burned, cracked, or warped were called clinkers and were saved to be used in garden walls or paths.
Five structures that Cleage’s slaves built still stand in McMinn County: the Samuel Cleage House, the Van Dyke House, the Cate House, the Hiwassee Railroad Office, and Mars Hill Presbyterian Church. The fact that these buildings remain after over 150 years is a testament not only to the Cleages, but to the Cleage slaves who performed the hot, back-breaking labor of brickmaking and masonry. I recently inspected the Hiwassee Railroad Office and Mars Hill Church with Travis Haun, curator at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum. Travis believes the bricks in these two structures, near downtown Athens, were indeed locally made by hand, with a fairly high degree of skill.
All across East Tennessee today are families who can trace their roots to the Cleage slaves through names such as Cate, Ferguson, Witt, Johnson, and others. These people can take pride in the fact that their ancestors, though enslaved, were the skilled builders of some of East Tennessee’s most enduring homes and buildings. These historic structures, lasting through the rages of time and use, are a testimony to the unnamed hands that labored in their construction.
Joe D. Guy is a nationally published author, newspaper columnist, and historian residing in McMinn County, TN. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at PO Box 489, Englewood, TN 37329.