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Brick and tile manufacturing plants were once ubiquitous throughout much of the United States. Today, however, only a fraction of these industrial complexes survive, and even fewer, still, persist in the production of structural clay products.

Of those brickyards still standing, almost none preserves the buildings, machinery, three generations of kiln technology, and overall industrial landscape as does the Western Clay Manufacturing Company, a site on the western outskirts of Helena, Montana. Shuttered in 1960, Western Clay retains an extraordinary array of original features and artifacts—a serendipitous result of the plant's fifty-year dormancy.

Now, thanks to a partnership formed in 2011 between the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts (ABF), the Montana Preservation Alliance (MPA), and the Architectural Conservation Laboratory (ACL) of the University of Pennsylvania, a multi-year investigation of the site is underway. Teams have begun to document Western Clay's major structures, analyze and stabilize its fascinating "beehive" kilns, and develop a program for conservation and interpretation that will honor this remarkable industrial landscape.

 
Exterior of downdraft Kiln No. 4, Western Clay Mfg. Co. Photo: J. Elliott (2011)
 
 
   

Panorama of the Western Clay Manufacturing site with downdraft kilns in the foreground. Photo: J. Elliott (2011)