History in the Making: Celebrating the Silica Kiln

Article by Kathy Weiss

 

It literally took a village.

From the fourth-grade girls at Roxborough Intermediate School to a group of devoted volunteers, along with dozens of local businesses and organizations, our community came together to not only save a piece of local history but meticulously refurbish it for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

“The girls insisted they had to help ‘save the kiln!’ They were so cute,” recounted Char Nauman, president of the Roxborough Area Historical Society, as she described the young students’ enthusiasm, which fueled their fundraising in 2017. Meanwhile, historical society members hosted special events, author appearances, group tours, and a silent auction. They also sought donations from the business community to raise $18,000 in matching funds to secure a $102,543 grant from The State Historical Fund and the Denver-based nonprofit, History Colorado.   

Their efforts were rewarded: The landmark kiln, which was once the centerpiece of a tiny, long-gone community called Silica, has received a facelift and structural stabilization, returning it to its 1904 glory. The kiln built by the Silica Brick & Clay Company—later called the Silicated Brick Company—sits where it always has, just south of the West Metro Fire Station near the entrance to Roxborough Park. Its renovation was celebrated during a public event at the fire station last month.

Former Roxborough Park Manager Susie Trumble, who is now retired, was at the celebration on Aug. 24, and shared with Rox Lifestyle how the kiln project came about. In her role as park manager, she sought and obtained historical landmark designation status for the kiln from the Douglas County Historic Preservation Board, which was approved in 2007.

Explaining why the kiln was built at that site, Trumble said, “There were really two reasons. One was Henry Persse, who owned the land and wanted to build a resort in this area. He started Roxborough Land Company and leased the land to the brick company.”

The Silica Brick & Clay Company was established at that location, Trumble explained, because of specific minerals available in this area, namely, limestone and silica sand, which produced unique white bricks. 

Art Tonelli, a retired engineer who served as the project manager for the historical society board, said he and his wife, Flo, researched efforts to preserve the kiln and other local historical sites. “They used the kiln to fire limestone mined from the inland sea,” he said. “This was the edge of the inland sea 300,000 years ago. They would mine the limestone during the day to fill a cart on a track that would come three-quarters up the hill. They filled the kiln with wood, coal and coke, and then put the limestone in and fired it up.”

Through the firing process, limestone was reduced to lime, which was then combined with silica sand excavated from the Dakota Ridge hogback behind the kiln, Art added. “They put it in a mold and then loaded it on a cart, which was then pushed into the [adjacent separate] building to be steamed and pressurized,” he continued. Bricks weren’t baked the traditional way, but rather were “cured” through a process using high-pressure steam. “In the morning, they would bring it out, load the bricks on a rail spur and ship them off to Denver,” he explained.

Art’s wife researched the brick company and co-authored a book with Nauman titled ROXBOROUGH, which details the area’s history. “Silica was a company town,” Flo shared, adding that it was made up of miners and brickyard workers. “The company brought in housing for the help to live in—cabins and even railroad cars to sleep in,” she said.

Fast forward to present day and the historical society’s campaign to “Save the Kiln,” which got a jump-start after Nauman and Flo heard talk of tearing it down. “We said we can’t have that,” Nauman recalled. “Roxborough Foundation owned it and so it was decided that we needed to renovate it.” Flo submitted news articles to the Denver Post and other media outlets to raise awareness. “I was really worried,” she recalled.

As fundraising got underway, and grants were secured, archaeological professionals and structural engineers were consulted with the consensus urging them to “do it now!” Denver-based Building Restoration Specialties Inc. was hired to stabilize the kiln. Art noted that all of the materials used to renovate the structure were found around the site including partially buried granite stones and bricks. “It’s all original,” Flo said. “They even analyzed the mortar and duplicated it. It’s just amazing!”

Combing the ground around the kiln for artifacts, Art said, “We found a fork,” which actually turned out to be a type of old-fashioned fastener, and “beer cans,” he added with a chuckle, while Flo chimed in, “I found chains!” And yet, through all of their research, the members shook their heads when asked what caused the sudden halt to what was then a booming brick-making operation. (The business, which employed 27 workers, closed in 1916.) “It’s hard to know why the company went out of business,” Art said, while his wife surmised, “I think it was competition.” The couple noted that mining still continues today along the hogbacks of Dakota Ridge.

Asked about their plans now that the kiln has been saved, historical society members said they will continue to work to enhance the kiln site. “We have plans for benches, signage, and safety enclosures” so visitors can learn about the history, Nauman explained. In the meantime, Art said, if needed, he’ll take care of the weeds.

 

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