Heritage, Volume 13, Number 1, Winter 1995 Page: 23
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The Brickmaking Industry in the Lower Rio Grande Valley
In order to understand
G uaj ardo-Ve la
ladrillera, it was necessary
to have a better
understanding of the
throughout the lower
Rio Grande valley.
Through a twist of
fate, it was determined
professors Scott Cook
(University of Connecticut)
have been working for Plain bricks (wi
more than a decade Vela site. Views
on a research project, Right, frogged b
,1 , ~ . Views A and B
tracing the origins and
in the Rio Grande valley. The information
that they provided, in addition to
that provided by Robert Steinbomer, enabled
the archaeological team working
in Pharr to understand the true historical
significance of the Guajardo-Vela site.
According to Spielberg, the "Ranch
Period in Brickmaking" in the lower Rio
Grande valley dates from the 1840s to the
1920s. The broad pattern throughout the
region was one that involved traveling
maestros ladrilleros (or master
brickmakers) who came from Mexico.
They often brought with them and spread
knowledge of Mexican masonry traditions
and were called maestros albanil-ladrilleros
(or master bricklayer-brickmakers).
Apparently, many maestros ladrilleros
traveled both sides of the Rio Grande to
find work. When hired by a rancher,
they would organize the local ranch hands
to build a kiln, usually of adobon (large
unfired adobelike bricks). The maestro
ladrillero would then supervise the molding
and firing of bricks that were used for
constructing ranch buildings.
Although "every ranch probably made
brick on a small scale" at one time or
another, there are only a few documented
cases of ranch-related kilns in the region.
Downstream from El Capote, there were
brick kilns at two other Hidalgo County
ranches: Relampago Ranch (four miles
thout any markings) are thought to be the earliest made at th
A and B show the plain mold faces; view C shows the rough
ricks, with indented panels, are thought to be the latest mad
show frogs on molded faces; view C shows the rough struck
south of Mercedes) and Toluca Ranch
(three miles east ofProgreso), and at Rancho
de Santa Maria (one mile east of Santa
Maria) in Cameron County. These locations
are mentioned in the Texas Historical
Commission's Hispanic Texas: A Historical
Guide. Like El Capote, these ranches
were located on or near the Old Military
Road (the route now approximated by U.S.
Highway 281), and the brick churches at
Toluca Ranch (St. Joseph's Church built
in 1899) and Rancho de Santa Maria (Our
Lady of Visitation Catholic Church built
between 1880-1882) are still standing.
Ultimately, the commercial brick industry
evolved out of the Mexican-influenced
Ranch Period brickmaking tradition
around the turn of the century. Brick
production at most ranches probably began
on a small-scale basis, but many ranch kilns
evolved into successful larger scale commercial
operations. This appears to be the
case with brick manufacturing at the Santa
Maria (reported to have had three kilns,
each with a capacity of 30,000 bricks) and
Relampago (reported to have had 10 kilns
of unknown capacity) ranches, for example.
Notably, Rancho de Santa Maria served as
a U.S. Army subpost of Forts Brown and
Ringgold in the 1850s and may have provided
some of the bricks used in construction
at these forts. Still other commercial
brick plants came into the region and set up
.. (u :! as large-scale producers
from the start, but even
these were heavily influenced
by the Mexican
The earliest large
plants, such as the one
started by Lon C. Hill
in Harlingen around
1909, clearly made
bricks by traditional
methods learned from
The same is true for the
large brickyards run by
the German immigrants
face. who operated a plant
de at the site. between 1886 and 1907
faces. m 5 cin Roma, and Guenther
Weiske, who started the
Madero plant south of
Mission sometime before World War I.
Even the 20th century brick plants in
Edinburg, Harlingen, and elsewhere in
the region apparently grew out of the
Mexican ladrillero tradition.
Small-scale production of handmade
bricks is still being done at some plants in
Mexico, but the last small-scale brick
factory north of the Rio Grande went out
of business in 1980. Large-scale brick
production is still a major industry in
northern Mexico, and as late as 1980 the
Brick Institute of Texas estimated that
"as much as 50 percent of the brick sold in
Texas comes from the 84 brick plants
operating less than five miles south of the
Texas-Mexico border." Conversely,
Steinbomer noted that "in 1980, there
remained only 21 producers with a total
of 30 plants in operation within the geographic
confines known as Texas".
Except for the research by Cook and
Spielberg, not much is known about the
details of brickmaking. In fact, the brick
kilns at the three ranching sites mentioned
above apparently are gone, and the
Guajardo-Vela kiln site is the only ranchrelated
ladrillera known to exist in the
entire region. Cook said that the GuajardoVela
site "is of considerable historical
importance as probably the best-preserved,
and possibly only extant, ranch brick plant
site dating from the late 19th century."
HERITAGE * WINTER 1995 23
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 13, Number 1, Winter 1995, periodical, Winter 1995; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45408/m1/23/: accessed April 26, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.