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In the 1880s, brick manufacturing commenced on the grounds of what became known as the Western Clay Manufacturing Company. Until its closure in 1960, this industrial facility received numerous technological updates and underwent periodic expansion. Members of the Bray family oversaw the production of brick and hollow clay tile products for most of the plant’s seventy-five years of continual operation. In the early years, Charles Bray, who emigrated from southweast England to the United States, acted as Western Clay’s general manager. Charles later became the company's sole proprietor, passing ownership along to his son, Archie Bray, Sr. whose tireless work ethic and advanced knowledge of ceramic engineering ensured the company’s success. The industrial clay products manufactured at Western Clay—from brick pavers to sewer pipes; from zinc-glazed face brick to hollow clay tile—literally built and expanded the City of Helena and furthered development in many areas within the State of Montana.

Images associated with Nickolas Kessler and Jacob Switzer, early proprietors of what would later become Western Clay. (Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society)
In 1866, Nickolas Kessler, a Luxembourg-born brewer, began firing brick near his brewery on Ten Mile Creek in west Helena. Nearly twenty years later, in 1885, Kessler acquired a small brick operation on the current site of Western Clay—a business founded two years prior by New Hampsire native Charles Thurston. Kesller placed Charles Bray, who was an apprenticed brickmaker, in charge of Thurston's yard, and Bray embarked on a series of upgrades. Western Clay Manufacturing Company was born in 1905, when Kessler and Bray merged with Alsatian Jacob Switzer, who had mined clay and fired architectural ceramics in nearby Blossburg since the early 1890s. Western Clay's first stockholders were Switzer and Nick Kessler's son Frederick, while Charles Bray served as secretary and general, day-to-day manager of the yard. Switzer's brick and tile extruding machines were moved from Blossburg to Helena, and all brick-, tile-, and pipe-making activity was relocated to the Kessler works on modern-day Country Club Avenue. Switzer's clay pits at Blossburg became the major clay supply for the new company and expansion continued.
Kiln No. 4, then and now. Slide bar left and right to compare J. P. Rowe's 1908 black and white image to a 2011 shot by J. Elliott.

By 1908, Western Clay was the most complete heavy-clay manufacturing facility in Montana. The plant was connected to both the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific railroads, enabling quick, convenient shipping across the state. Products were shipped as far as Wyoming, Idaho, and eastern Washington, as well. Western Clay was the largest producer of brick in Montana by 1918, producing more than twice as much common brick as its nearest competitor in Great Falls. Charles Bray continued to upgrade the plant by converting wood frame structures to brick, enclosing the brick and tile shops in brick, and expanding capacity in both the brick drying tunnels and raw clay shed.


Charles Bray died in 1931, leaving his oldest son Archie as Western Clay’s president and general manager. An alumnus of the Ohio State University’s ceramics engineering program, Archie was, by all accounts, a technician of intuitive genius. He converted the plant from coal to natural gas, increased its drying capacity, and installed the first de-airing machine for brick production west of the Mississippi River.

This aerial view of the Western Clay facility, captured by Archie Bray, Jr., in 1956, depicts the site at a time of great change. The infant Archie Bray Foundation is established in the pottery building at the bottom of the frame, and in one year, a large tunnel kiln will be installed just below the clay shed—an investment which will lead the business into bankruptcy. (Courtesy of the Archie Bray Foundation Archives)

With Archie Bray in charge, Western Clay maintained a diverse line of heavy clay products into the post-war era. As demand for brick waned, however, Archie devoted more of his energies to the arts―music, dance, and, most famously, ceramics. In 1951, friends Branson Stevenson and Peter Meloy helped Archie establish a small potttery adjacent to the brickyard. What was supposed to be the first step in a larger arts complex, the pottery took off under Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio―then just two green graduate students from Bozeman and Butte, respectively.


Ironically, as the fledgling pottery grew, the fortunes of its industrial progenitor continued to decline. Archie’s untimely death in 1953 left Archie Bray, Jr., at the helm of Western Clay. A pilot by trade, Archie, Jr., attempted to further modernize his father’s plant with the installation of a tunnel kiln in 1957. Unfotunately, technical problems ensued and poor markets persisted. Unable to repay a loan from the Small Business Administration, Western Clay failed in 1960 and was purchased by the Medicine Hat Brick and Tile Company (later I-XL Industries) of Alberta, which subsequently mothballed the plant. Only in 1984, with the support of Kurt Weiser, Chip Clawson, and many others, did the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts succeed in buying back the brickyard from which it was born.