Getting the Dirt on a Brick Helps Solve Fossil Mystery

Written by Dale Gnidovec, Curator at Orton Geological Museum, Ohio

I have loved dinosaurs since I was a kid.  I grew up in the small town of Wickliffe, a suburb east of Cleveland, Ohio.

When I was about 8 years old, I dug a hole in our back yard hoping to discover some fossils.  All I found was clay and the occasional pebble of igneous or metamorphic rock.

When I became a geologist, I learned that the pebbles were glacial erratics – stones carried some distance by the huge sheets of ice that covered northern North America 15,000 years ago during the Pleistocene.  I also realized that most of Wickliffe was covered by a thick layer of glacial debris – sand, clay, and erratics – collectively called till.

Because of that, I was skeptical when I saw the label for a fossil on exhibit in the Wickliffe Public Library.  The specimen was a fossil sponge from the Devonian Period, about 380 million years ago.  I didn’t dispute the age or the identification – it was certainly a fossil sponge, similar to many Devonian specimens I had seen – but the locality listed was Wickliffe.  How could that be, given the thick cover of till?

A Devonian glass sponge similar to the one in the library that caused my confusion. © Dale Gnidovec.

The mystery was solved a few years later by the donation, to the Orton Geological Museum, of a paving brick.  

In the late 1880s American cities began paving their streets with bricks.  Paving bricks are larger than bricks for buildings – the larger size kept the brick from being dislodged by a vehicle or the weather.  It required approximately one-half million bricks to pave 1 mile of road 25 feet wide.

Ohio used to be the paving-brick capital of the world – in 1893, 292 million were produced here.  In one year, a single company in Canton produced 92 million bricks.  The industry lasted for about 50 years, from the 1880s to the early 1930s.  When the depression hit, demand for paving bricks plummeted and never recovered.  After the depression the number of automobiles increased dramatically, and good roads were needed.  They could be built much faster and cheaper with materials like concrete and asphalt.

The brick that solved my fossil mystery was made around 1910 by the Kline Brick Co. of Wickliffe.  It is a large brick, 5 inches wide – normal pavers are 4 inches wide – with “Buckeye” prominently embossed on the surface.  Cleveland required such large bricks when paving its streets. 

The brick that solved the mystery. © Dale Gnidovec.

Founded in 1893 as the Buckeye Brick Co., the plant went through a number of name changes through the years.  A 1923 Geological Survey of Ohio publication states that the company made bricks from Devonian-age shale.  Their pit was probably the source of the fossil sponge.

A trip to our geology library to look at old maps confirmed that a pit existed in the northeast corner of Wickliffe at least through 1953, the year I was born.  By the 1968 map, the pit had filled with water, and now there is an industrial park there.  No wonder I never knew about it.

As a kid, I guess I just didn’t dig deep enough.

Me, holding the brick, in front of the map cases that confirmed the location of the brick pit. © Pati Dittoe, Geology Librarian at Ohio State University.

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