The Inimitable Nelson Mackey
Nelson Mackey first appeared in San Antonio in the late 1870s. San Antonio legend relates that Nelson Mackey was born in Catskill, New York in 1825. At one time, he lived in Des Moines, Iowa and Chicago, Illinois. He reportedly lost his mercantile business to the Chicago fire in 1871.
He invested in Texas land as a partner with Adams and Wickes. It is reported that he made $16,000 on a land investment in the Rio Grande Valley, which would become the nucleus of his wealth. He managed the Maverick Hotel in downtown San Antonio and created a business hauling sand from Leon Creek to the builders of San Antonio.
Supposedly, during regular trips to Leon Creek, Mackey would stop and take lunch on a small rise west of San Antonio. He was so fond of the location he purchased the surrounding 170 acres and named it after a landmark of his native New York: Prospect Hill. He divided the property and sold lots creating one of San Antonio’s earliest suburbs.
He built the Mackey Building on Houston Street (known as the Mackey Block) in San Antonio and later converted a portion into the St. James Hotel.
The baseball team, the San Antonio Mackeys, with their distinctive uniforms, made of striped mattress ticking, was his creation and passion. Their games with San Antonio’s other team, the Jokers, were well-attended spectacles.
Mackey served three terms as San Antonio City alderman-at-large and acquired the nickname “Cyclone Mackey” for his combative style. He was often urged to run for mayor but always declined.
He patronized the San Antonio Opera House and was instrumental in its reopening in 1893. His nephew, Walter Allen, brought the production The Isle of Champagne from Brooklyn, New York to San Antonio. That season the audiences were treated to one of the most exciting schedules of comedies, dramas, and novelty acts in San Antonio’s history.
However, by far Nelson Mackey’s greatest contribution came from his association with Calaveras of Wilson County, Texas.
The names of the tributaries that feed the San Antonio River east of San Antonio echo the Spanish origin of those that first mapped the area: the Salado, Roscillo, Calaveras, Chupaderas, Martinez, Salatrillo, Caicasta (now Kicaster), Aguila, and the Cibolo. The Calaveras (Spanish for skulls) meanders from it origin in east Bexar County to its junction with the San Antonio River 20 miles southeast of downtown San Antonio.
On May 5, 1855 a correspondent for the Galveston News provided a description of the settlement at the junction of Calaveras Creek and San Antonio River as he traveled along the river from San Antonio to Goliad.
“At the crossing of the Calaveras, there is a large cotton plantation, owned by a Mexican, called Cantu, who works several hands, and is extensively engaged in stock raising. The lands lying along the river, are very rich and produce well, though there is but little in cultivation, as there is not an American settlement for thirty miles, and the Mexicans are chiefly engaging in stock raising, cultivating just enough land to supply them with corn, and furnish the teamsters employed on the road…”
In the Calaveras area, ancient stone artifacts and burial sites of indigenous people bear quiet witness to human activity in the area for many centuries. The ruins of Rancho de las Cabras and El Fuerte del Cibolo, down river from Calaveras, attest to the earliest presence of European settlers in the area.
From archeological surveys, it appears the earliest Europeans favored native sandstone for building structures and lining hand dug wells. Neither the indigenous people, nor the earliest European settlers, appear to have used or manufactured brick.
Before the creation of Wilson County in 1860, this junction of Calaveras Creek and the San Antonio River was a part of Bexar County. Residents recorded their deeds, probated wills, and registered marks and brands in San Antonio, the seat of government during Spanish and Mexican administrations and then briefly under the Republic of Texas.
Clay – Nature’s Gift to Wilson County
Before the arrival of the San Antonio Aransas Pass (SAAP) Railroad in the mid 1880s, brickyards in Wilson County were small-scale operations designed to serve the needs of the local population.
The community of La Vernia in the northwest section of the county was the home of potters Isaac and George Washington Suttles, known for their salt glazed pottery. In 1877, they advertised bricks and a franchise for the Kennedy Brick Press in the Sutherland Springs Western Chronicle.
Another mention of brick making in Wilson County was reported in the Galveston News on January 8, 1884: “Andy Pickett (Andrew Pickett, County Commissioner) loses 15,000 to 20,000 bricks to a freeze in his yard at Floresville.” These bricks may have been intended for the Wilson County Courthouse, whose foundation was completed in August of 1883.
The Calaveras Bridge Company
In 1885, newspapers reported that J. P. Johnson of Cotulla set up a brickyard in Calaveras. In May of 1887, Johnson recorded a lease with the Wilson County Clerk indicating that the Calaveras Bridge Company had granted him a lease of 4 to 6 acres for a period of five years to build kilns and mine clay.
The Calaveras Bridge Company was formed to finance a bridge over the costliest obstacle to the SAAP Railroad’s route from San Antonio to Rockport: crossing Calaveras Creek near its junction with the San Antonio River. At a shareholder meeting in Floresville on March 19, 1881, A. G. Pickett, A. H. Abney, Sidney Mead, A. C. Schryver, and Anton Oppenheimer were elected as its board of directors.
The SAAP Railroad would traverse the San Antonio River Valley and become an essential element to the development of Wilson County. With transportation now in place, all that was required to fully exploit the clay beds of Calaveras was an entrepreneur with imagination.
Nelson Mackey Comes to Calaveras
On January 1, 1887, Nelson Mackey purchased four-hundred acres, near Calaveras, from land speculators Josiah Cass, Fred Cocke, and Leroy G. Denman. In October of that same year, with James A. Smith, his brother-in-law, he purchased an adjacent 2,300 acres from Sophie B. Shwartz. Smith and Mackey formed N. Mackey and Company, eventually, controlling 3,200 acres of land in and around Calaveras. One-hundred-fifty acres of the operation were dedicated to mining clay and brick manufacturing, the rest would provides 40,000 cords of wood (5,120,000 cubic feet) to fire the brick kilns.
Labor for the operation was recruited from the local population most of whom were descendants of Spanish and Mexican families. Mackey paid his workers $1.00 per day; woodcutters were paid $2.00 per cord of wood. Mackey provided housing on site for $.75 per week. Mackey paid workers with tokens minted with the company name, which they could use at the company store to buy essentials.
A specially constructed spur from the main line of the San Antonio Aransas Pass Railroad allowed for direct loading of bricks from the massive kilns onto rail cars. In collaboration with Mr. Jose Cassiano, sand was mined on the site and loaded onto rail cars for shipment to San Antonio. With labor, financing, clay, and fuel in place N. Mackey and Company was poised to benefit from a building boom in South Texas.
Calaveras Brick builds San Antonio
Before the creation of the Mackey operation, the builders of San Antonio relied on brickyards in Laredo and Eagle Pass for their bricks. With his operation just a few miles by rail from San Antonio, Nelson Mackey, a great showman pressed his advantage.
Delegations of businessmen and newspaper reporters were frequently brought to his operation and debarked at the Mackey spur for an elegant meal and entertainment at the Mackey Ranch. Circus performers and a live band would entertain the crowds.
The success of the Mackey operation was both immediate and phenomenal. By September 1888, the San Antonio Daily Light reported numerous structures completed using Mackey’s brick.
The residences (all sizeable mansions) of Senator Houston on Travis Square, John Campbell, A. P. Rivers, Mr. Sauer, and E. H. Cunningham were constructed of Mackey’s Calaveras brick.
The commercial structures built in San Antonio using Mackey brick were H. D. Kampmann’s business block on south Flores St., the Joske’s block on the corner of Alamo and Commerce, the foundation of the Federal Building, an addition to the Menger Hotel, and the Vance Building. The commercial structures built outside San Antonio using Mackey brick were the Fisher & Bro Block in Gonzales, Texas, the Cotton Press at Yoakum, Texas, the foundation of the Rockport Hotel, the business of H. Runge and Co., Runge, Texas, and the business of F. F. Muench, Breckenridge, Texas.
Mackey Brick and Tile Company
In 1889, Mackey bought out his brother-in-law’s interest in N. Mackey Company and recapitalized the operation under the name of Mackey Brick and Tile Company. Herman and Gus Kampmann of San Antonio were brought in as investors and management. Gus Kampmann moved to Calaveras and supervised the brick making operation.
Eureka Manufacturing Company of St. Louis, Missouri installed a nineteen ton Eureka brick-making machine, which improved the quality of the brick. Mr. H. Keller, vice president of the Eureka Manufacturing Company demonstrated the quality of the new Mackey brick by using an unfired brick to drive a ten-penny nail into a hemlock plank without breaking the brick. The recapitalization allowed Mackey to invest in better equipment and pursue increasingly ambitious projects.
In 1891, one such project, the Southwest Texas State Lunatic Asylum five miles south of San Antonio was constructed using seven million Mackey bricks. Mackey pointed out that if lined end-to-end they would reach from San Antonio to Chicago. Bee County constructed its two-story jail using Mackey Brick; the massive Cathedral School of Galveston used Mackey brick in its construction.
“Tile” in the name Mackey Brick and Tile underscored Mackey’s venture into the manufacture of clay pipe from fine potter’s clay. In 1892, the San Antonio newspapers announced that Nelson Mackey and Pittsburgh millionaire and Manufacturer Aaron French had purchased 685 acres of land on the SAAP railroad fourteen miles below San Antonio: “there is an inexhaustible deposit of potters clay, and they will engage in the manufacture of bricks, tiles, sewer pipe, fire and vitrified brick, and pottery…. the land was purchased for $7.00 per acre.”
Mackey’s venture into the use of red potters clay at this site provided the impetus for the creation of the San Antonio Sewer Pipe and Manufacturing Company (SASPAMCO). This location provided the basis for an industry that lasted well into the 20th century.
Fuel Shortage and Labor Problems
The furnaces at Mackey Brick and Tile were insatiable in their need for cordwood. The land surrounding the operation had been cleared of timber. This required that timber leases be secured at ever-greater distances from the Mackey kilns. Woodcutters attempted to organize and demanded higher prices. Nelson Mackey responded by bringing brown coal (lignite) from mines in Lytle, Texas. It was reported that one ton of brown coal would yield the same amount of heat as two cords of wood.
The Brick Wars
By the mid 1890’s, numerous competitors had entered the brick manufacturing business. Now Mackey was forced to compete with large brickyards in Gonzalez and Elgin, Texas and Monterrey, Mexico for projects in South Texas.
One such project was San Antonio’s Navarro Street sewer works. The competition for this project was fierce. When Monterrey brick was chosen over locally produced brick, and was later found to be an inferior product, those in charge were accused of corruption. By 1897, many of the brickyards, including those at Calaveras and SASPAMCO were idle due to overproduction and a collapse of the brick market.
On June 8, 1898, Nelson Mackey died after a brief illness. His remains were sent to Perry, Iowa where his obituary from a San Antonio newspaper was reprinted under the name of Nelson Mackey Laraway.
Nelson Laraway grew up in the Hudson River Valley of New York the son of Isaac Laraway and Sarah Mackey. While no direct record of kinship has been discovered, the Mackey name is associated with brickyards in the Valley, including Mackey Brick of Verplanck, New York.
His circle of friends and acquaintances reveals a list of American business legends:
- Potter Palmer, a boyhood friend that rebuilt Chicago after the Great Fire
- James Rice, the largest seller of glass west of the Allegheny
- Spoor Mackey, a cousin, whose paint and wallpaper business was reputed to be the second largest in the United States
- Aaron French, a millionaire investor from Philadelphia who financed Nelson’s creation of SASPAMCO
William Marsh Rice was Nelson’s last investor. After Nelson’s death, the estate of William Marsh Rice acquired the assets of Nelson Mackey (Laraway) and sold them to raise cash. The Rice estate was used to finance the creation of The William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Letters, Science and Art, which would become Rice University in Houston, Texas.
All that remains of Mackey Brick and Tile Company are countless broken white Mackey bricks that cover the fields below the Johns homestead, the ruins of massive kilns peering from beneath the Calaveras soil, and the notion that for a brief period of time, Nelson Mackey Laraway created something special at this place.
The home of Ed and Rosie Johns, built with Mackey bricks, is a place of singular beauty. From a bluff, overlooking the San Antonio River valley, the stately 19th century, two-story brick structure dominates the countryside surrounding the village of Calaveras.
Ed’s grandfather, Theodore Johns, purchased the property from the Mackey Brick and Tile Company in 1899. Ed and Rosie Johns have made this place their home and raised their family in the shade of its massive oaks. They generously shared their story and provided the starting point for research of the Mackey Brick Company.