Originally created 11/16/99

Old building masks rich past



To the casual passer-by, the old, abandoned, red brick building on Old Augusta Highway is just another relic of a bygone era, sitting in the noonday sun in the rural South.

But to some Columbia Countians, this structure brings back many fond memories of yesterday.

It was once the commissary and store for employees and families of nearby Georgia Vitrified Brick and Clay Co. Remnants of the company survive today. For many years, Alva Blount and Murray Craig were among the well-liked village storekeepers. It is one of the first, if not the oldest, Columbia County-born companies still holding on to existence in the area.

Georgia Vitrified Brick and Clay Co. opened in 1902. The main part of the institution was at Campania, about two miles outside Harlem. One of the company's founding officers, Frank R. Clark, was instrumental in helping locate the first bank in Columbia County, at Harlem, in November 1905.

The company's kilns were used to produce sewer pipes, chimney liners, flues, tiles and other clay products. During its heyday, the enterprise rented small apartment homes in Belair to house many of its employees at Campania and its mines.

Typically, the homes were clustered around the central company store, where workers purchased food and dry goods. In the company's early days, it provided jobs to more than 150 people and had about 50 rental houses for some of its work force.

Today, all but one of the houses are gone.

Prior to 1930, the community was a railway flag stop on the former Georgia Railroad, when its local "picayune" train provided passenger service between Washington, Ga., and Augusta. A spur track connected the company to the main line for shipping purposes. The plant used its own shale and clay, which it had in abundance and variety. At one point, the company owned about 5,000 acres between Harlem and Belair. During initial production, before automation took over, mule and horse power were used at the company's excavation pits.

The sewer pipes made at the plant probably were in a class by themselves for quality, and the company's exports were widely and favorably known. Over the years, trucks and rail flatcars have transported its products to destinations across the country.

The company's legacies include bricks embossed with the "AUGUSTA BLOCK" trademark, manufactured and produced through the 1940s.

These bricks still can be found at some locations across the South. They are on some walkways near Riverwalk Augusta and Daniel Village, and some are embedded in highways throughout the vicinity. Old courthouse and cemetery yards in Georgia still yield the famed bricks that were processed at the ovens in Campania. Moreover, many also can be found in areas of Florida such as Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The company was sold in 1995 to an Indiana firm. Its facility at Campania has been used primarily as a distribution point.

During the factory's golden days, approximately 26 kilns were running at full blast. For a while, the company had office headquarters in the Lamar Building on Broad Street in Augusta. Today, "brick" has been dropped from the company name and it is known as Georgia Vitrified Clay Corp. Longtime Harlem resident Karl Klein has been affiliated with the firm for almost 40 years.

As late as the 1950s and 1960s, many of the locals of Campania had their own baseball team for recreation on weekends.

After almost a century of service, the brick and clay company has provided much to the history and welfare of Columbia County. Even though Campania as a community has virtually disappeared, it still exists in the memories of those who years ago called the once-enterprising settlement home.

Charles Lord is a Columbia County historian who lives in Grovetown.