Brickmaking in Alabama: Bickerstaff Brick Company and Bickerstaff Clay Products
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
Several sources were used for this Spotlight: Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley, Heritage Park: A Celebration of the Industrial Heritage of Columbus, Georgia by Dr. John S. Lupold, “Few Things about Bickerstaff” by Mr. Richard H. Bickerstaff, Sr., the obituaries of Albert W. Shepherd and Andrew H. Shepherd, and Bickerstaff, Lindsay, Neill and Related Families by Sara B. Bickerstaff. Special thanks to editors
Mary and Bo Bradley and Frank Bickerstaff III for several images.
For millions of years, the Chattahoochee flooded its banks, dropped its silt, and created vast deposits of clay on the banks of the river downstream from the site of Columbus. The Native Americans worked this clay into pottery for centuries. Early settlers began using this clay for brickmaking as soon as they moved to the area.
In 1825, the United States treaty with the Creek Nation was signed. Chief MacIntosh represented the Creek Nation in making the treaty to move their people from Georgia. The other Chiefs were very unhappy with this outcome and shortly after had MacIntosh killed. In 1828, Columbus, Georgia was founded, and the headquarters for the Creek Nation was now located across the river where Bickerstaff Brick Company would be established.
On July 29, 1839, Anderson and Charles Abercombie received a grant from the United States government for substantial acreage about five miles south of Girard (now Phenix City). This tract was a piece of land taken over by the United States as a result of the Treaty of 1832 with the Creek Nation. This treaty resulted in sending the Creeks west on what became known as the Trail of Tears.
The land soon became known as the Abercombie Plantation. In the 1840s, they established a small brickmaking operation. This location became known as Brickyard, Alabama, a whistle stop on the Mobile and Girard Railroad. In later years, additional stops between Girard and Brickyard were Ceramic, the location of Empire Brick Company; Kaolin, the George O. Berry Brick Company; Bright, the Homer Howard Brick Company; and Dixieland, the Dixie Brick Company.
In 1885, James Henry Bickerstaff (above left) and his brother William Jefferson Bickerstaff, Jr. (above right) bought the Abercrombie Brickyard. A partnership was formed and styled Bickerstaff Brick Company. In 1898, James Henry’s sons James Henry, Jr. and Augustus Howard were brought into the partnership. Prior to the sale of the Brickyard, the Abercrombies sold the northern portion of their lands to Henry P. Moffett, who continued to operate that section as a farm. Mr. Moffett died in 1889 and his heirs took over the operation. On January 2, 1901, Henry Moffett’s heirs sold the Abercombie Plantation to James Henry Bickerstaff and William Jefferson Bickerstaff, Jr. They operated as a partnership under the style of J.H. Bickerstaff Farm Company with James Henry’s son, Frank Jeter Bickerstaff, serving as general manager. Frank Jeter Bickerstaff was also made partner in Bickerstaff Brick Company. In 1909, both the brick company and farm company incorporated. Hugh Bickerstaff, after graduating from Auburn University, worked for General Electric Company for sixteen years in New York. In 1910, he returned to Columbus and became affiliated with the brick company.
James Henry Bickerstaff died in 1906. In December 1913, his heirs and William Jefferson Bickerstaff, Jr. worked out a trade. The heirs of James Henry Bickerstaff would buy William Jefferson, Jr.’s interest in the brick company and in turn sell their interest in the farm company to him. James Henry Bickerstaff’s son, Frank Jeter Bickerstaff, and later grandsons Frank Jeter Bickerstaff, Jr. (below left) and Richard H. Bickerstaff (below right) improved the brickyard operation.
Arthur Bussey of Columbus bought a large piece of land that joined the Abercombie Plantation on the north, owned by William Jefferson Bickerstaff, Jr. Mr. Bussey had organized the Dixie Brick Company. He arranged with William Jefferson Bickerstaff, Jr. to join the venture and provide on his land a plant site and clay lands off the northern end of the Abercombie Plantation. They recruited John E. Minter as general manager and shareholder. Mr. Minter, at the time, was general manager of the W.S. Dickey Company clay sewer pipe plant located on Glade Road. The plant was built by the “Minter System Company” of Columbus, headed by John’s brother M.M. Minter. The company had a patented design involving fuel efficient heat transfer. Production began in 1921.
After completing school in the 1920s, William Jefferson Bickerstaff, Jr.’s sons, Lindsay Neill and George Hale, both joined the Dixie Brick Company. The next generation reported when they came of age. They included Lindsay Neill, Jr. and George Hale’s three sons George Hale, Jr., Sherwood Bilbro, and Howard Jefferson.
At this time there was also a Columbus end of the business. Andrew Shepherd was born in Stewart County in 1851. His family soon moved to Columbus and a younger brother, Albert, was born in 1854 in Wynnton. The Shepherd brothers operated the Shepherd Brothers Brick Company on 10th Avenue between 4th and 5th Streets (where the old farmer’s market was located for many years). In 1920, the brothers sold the business to William Jefferson Bickerstaff, Jr. and it was organized as a part of Dixie Brick Company. In 1923, the name of the Columbus plant changed to Dixie Brick and Tile Co. Lindsay Neill Bickerstaff (pictured to the right) would marry Arthur Bussey’s daughter, Sara Respess Bussey in 1936 and become President, Treasurer, and General Manager of Dixie Brick and Tile Co. in 1938.
In the middle and late 1930s with brother-in-law Joe Blackmon, Neill and Hale acquired the Bussey and Minter stock. Later, the two Bickerstaff brothers acquired the Blackmon interest.
In 1927, Frank A. Heard, a Columbus industrialist, established the Empire Brick Company just south of Girard on the Central of Georgia Railroad at Ceramic, Alabama. During the Great Depression, Dixie Brick Company and Bickerstaff Brick Company set up a joint selling agency to keep from going broke. Empire came into this activity for one year and then pulled out, which created severe competition against the Bickerstaff. About ten years later, Empire Brick was jointly purchased by the Dixie Brick Company and the Bickerstaff Brick Company in 1944.
In 1952, Bickerstaff Brick Company and Dixie Brick Company another joint venture for the establishment of the Material Handling Division which was a machine shop operation making front-end attachments for lift trucks which were designed to handle bricks without pallets. They were sold all over the United States and abroad with many going to the United Kingdom and Australia. In 1963, the two companies jointly built a new plant in Bessemer, Alabama.
In 1966, Bickerstaff Brick Company acquired Dixie Brick Company. The name of the resulting company was changed to Bickerstaff Clay Products Company, Inc. The other various interests were purchased and merged into this corporation. After the reorganization under the leadership of Richard H. Bickerstaff as President and Frank Jeter Bickerstaff, Jr. as Vice President, the company expanded, modernized, diversified, and Bickerstaff Clay Products became one of the largest family-owned brick manufacturers in the world.
In addition to Richard and Frank, other family members affiliated with the reorganized company were Richard H. Bickerstaff, Jr., Walker Reynolds Bickerstaff, Richard Y. Bradley, Frank J. Bickerstaff III, Robert Raymond Bickerstaff, George Hale Bickerstaff, and Sherwood Bickerstaff.
Russell County operations grew to include its plants in Bessemer, Alabama (1963); Cobb County, Georgia (1971); and Pensacola, Florida (1968) shipped brick all over the Eastern and Southwestern United States. Much of the elaborate brick architecture so prominently displayed within the Chattahoochee Valley was made with brick shaped and fired at Bickerstaff plants.
By 1989, total production had reached a rate of 640 million brick equivalents a year. They became the fifth-largest clay brick maker. Richard H. Bickerstaff, Sr. would also serve as chairman of the Brick Institute of America. He led his family-owned brick manufacturing company until its sale to Boral LTD, an Australian firm in 1995. Today, the company is owned by Meridian Brick, LLC.
Next week: We will be working up to what Margaret Anne Barnes in her book, The Tragedy and Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama, calls "a mortal storm" that was brewing. Economics and The Great Depression hit Phenix City hard and it leads to corruption by the mid-century. If you aren't already a meope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director