This is my third post for the April A-Z Challenge. I am blogging every day in April using the letters of the alphabet as prompts. Today I am going to write about Samuel Cleage’s building operation. Samuel Cleage owned the plantation where my Cleage ancestors were held as slaves. When he died, the slaves were divided between his sons. I am writing about the time before this today.
Samuel Cleage, who spelled his name “Clegg”, was born in Lanchaster County, PA in 1781. He moved with his parents and siblings to Botetourt County, VA. After his parents died he moved with his family and slaves to McMinn County, TN.
As I was getting ready to write this I realized that he didn’t just get on the train and move, that they must have traveled by wagon down well worn, but primitive roads. Not only was he moving his whole little community of married children and slaves, 339 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains, he also carried the tools of his trade – whatever he needed to build brick houses. As he traveled he would convince farmers along the way that they needed a fine brick home to go with their fine farm. For payment he accepted slaves, gold or livestock. They say that some of these houses are still standing. I can’t imagine how long it took the group to travel this way. A fully loaded Conestoga wagon, the usual method to move through the mountains in the early 1800s, could travel 5 miles a day. That would take about 4 months if you traveled straight through. They didn’t. They were stopping and building brick houses. And they had to make the bricks! How could that work? All sources agree that by the time he reached McMinn County, Samuel Cleage was a very wealthy man, both in slaves and gold. I think I will have to check into this a little further. Here is a description of the way traveling worked. To read more, click the title.
First the word, Conestoga, America’s first big truck. It was made in Conestoga, Pennsylvania, and it was one huge wagon: 26 feet long, 11 feet high, with the capability of carrying 8 tons. Pulled by five or six horses and followed by as many as a dozen packhorses, the Conestoga wagon became any traveling family’s best friend.
It became the expected sight along the road known by many names: the Warrior’s Path, the Carolina Road, the Valley Pike, the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, or simply the Great Wagon Road.
With a body the shape of a swaybacked horse, Conestogas could float across a river as long as the wheels were taken off. And those wagons were so heavy and laden with a family’s every possession, they created deep wheel ruts all along the Great Wagon Road…
Above I mentioned that they had to make the bricks before they could build the houses. “They” being the highly trained and skilled slaves that were traveling too. It was not easy to make the bricks. And it wasn’t a quick process. Here is how Joe Guy described it in his book “The Hidden History of McMinn County” There is also a link to this chapter in the title.
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.”
After arriving in McMinn County, Cleage picked out a spot and built the house below, which is still standing. The black and white photographs were taken during the 1930s. The color photo is more recent. I read an article online that described the renovations the new owners were carrying out to make the house livable again. Unfortunately, I cannot find the article again.
- Ghost of Cleage House – a ghost story that took place in the Samuel Cleage house.
- Library of Congress pages with drawings and photographs of the Samuel Cleage house.
- Article of Agreement Between Samuel Cleage and Overseer – 1834. My great grandfather Frank Cleage is mentioned as one of the slaves.