They rebuilt Chicago after the Great Fire, supported thriving farms, and entertained generations with their decorative pottery.
The Chicago Fire of 1871 played an unmistakable role in America’s architectural story. Upon the ashes of the old city rose a commercial center that embraced new ideas, designs and technologies.
Fire-proof structures became a must. Adornments of stone, brick and clay – layered over massive iron skeletons – declared Chicago’s newfound wealth and status. They were the marks of new architectural leaders and bore a distinctly American look.
More than 30 miles away, vast deposits of clay soil fed the city’s appetite.
While the Haegers, the Gateses and the Berrys built their legacy on Chicago’s building boom, what happened just after the fire was only the beginning of their ongoing story.
The kilns are quiet now, silenced after 145 years. Under new owners, the former Haeger Potteries factory still sits off River Street in East Dundee, on the site where four generations of Alexandra “Lexy” Haeger Estes’ family have worked. Their pottery was iconic in earlier generations, their designers superstars who made beautiful vases, lamps, figurines, serving ware and more – all made from clay.
The factory closed in 2016 after economic factors dealt fatal blows to the company’s business model, says Haeger Estes. But the memory lives on.
“Carrying on a 145-year-old business, that was pretty special,” she says. “It was a privilege and it was a heartbreak as well, at the end. But, looking back on it now, it was timely we closed when we did. We never would have been able to survive COVID.”
At one time, the factory hired hundreds of skilled artisans and laborers. Dundee native Jack Wendt had many friends who once worked there. His wife, Nancy, was a tour guide there in the 1980s. Most days, she led four daily factory tours for schoolchildren and curious visitors.
“Everybody felt like part of it,” says Nancy. “It was a family business, and they made you feel like you were part of the family.”
The family’s story began when David H. Haeger arrived in East Dundee. He was born in Mecklenburg, Germany, and raised on a farm in southeast McHenry County, around what’s now Barrington Hills.
Since 1852, the largely German settlement had been making bricks. They dug clay from the banks of the Fox River and its surrounding hills, in the area around River Street as far away as Immanuel Lutheran School. There was lime in this soil, lending Dundee bricks a signature creamy yellow hue. Haeger took a stake in the Dundee brickyard in 1871, just a few months before fire leveled some 3.5 square miles of Chicago in October 1871.
Bricks were in great demand thereafter, as they were more fireproof than the wood frame structures of early Chicago. Haeger bought out his partners the next year and eventually opened factories in Elgin, Gilberts and Coal City. Files at the Dundee Township Historical Society Museum suggest that the Dundee and Elgin yards together produced more than 10 million bricks a year around 1880.
Bricks were made by packing clay into a wooden form. The clay was then dried in the sun and fired in a kiln.
“There’s a really neat old photograph that shows mold after mold for bricks that are out drying in the sun, which is the way it was done at the time,” recalls Jack Wendt, a board member at the Dundee Township Historical Society. “The story was that, if somebody in the neighborhood learned a storm was coming, they would sound the alarm and the neighbors would come out and cover all these bricks with tarps.”
Stamped with “HD” – H for Haeger, D for Dundee – these bricks also supplied the needs of neighboring communities.
Immanuel Lutheran Church in East Dundee, the Hunt Block (now Emmett’s Brewing Co.) in downtown West Dundee, and what’s now OTTO Engineering in Carpentersville all bear Dundee brick.
Haeger’s former mansion, located at the top of Hill Street, is also fashioned from his yellow bricks. When he died in 1900, he owned eight farms of more than 200 acres and 500 head of dairy cattle.
The Old Mill
The story of American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Co. intersects with that of luminaries like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and notable buildings like Carbide & Carbon, The White House, and the Wrigley Building.
These days, what once was a grist mill and then one of America’s foremost producers of terra cotta carries on that legacy as a specialist in heat-treated metal and cutting edges. While George A. Barry IV and his brother Bob look toward the future, their family’s story actually starts with a creative lawyer named William Day Gates. Much of his story has been preserved by the late George A. Berry III and Sharon S. Darling in their self-published books “Common Clay” and “Bars & Blades.”
Gates was raised in Nunda, what’s now the northern part of Crystal Lake, the son of an early settler and farmer. He became a lawyer in Chicago and, in 1880, used his inheritance to purchase an old grist mill between Nunda and McHenry. Gates was wandering near the mill when he stumbled upon a clay pit. He scooped up a litle clay to fashion a vase, fired it in a makeshift kiln and was pleased with his work.
Gates soon established the Spring Valley Tile Works, through which he sent out brick and terra cotta drain tile – hollow terra cotta pieces that help to drain farm fields of excess water.
Terra cotta is made from clay that’s been fired and glazed, and in Chicago’s building boom, it offered several advantages. It was lighter than stone and more weather-proof. It was easier to create fanciful ornamentation, as was the style of the time. Most importantly, it was fireproof.
Gates rebranded as the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Co. (ATC&C) and competed head-to-head with major manufacturers in Chicago. Gates’ rural location, far from Chicago’s urban reaches, were an advantage in that labor was plentiful and cheap.
By the 1890s and early 1900s, the factory was producing 40,000-pound rail car loads every week to places like the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., the Inter-Ocean Building in Chicago and sites in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Kansas City and Spokane, Wash. Gates lived in a house at the mill and had an office in the city. There was a chapel and worker housing. A post office on site declared this area as Terra Cotta, Ill.
Business inevitably slowed during the winter, so to fill the void Gates and his artists began experimenting with decorative pottery in the 1890s. He settled upon a moss green matte glaze that became a signature of his Teco pottery. The name, pronounced “tea-co,” was a combination of “terra” and “cotta.”
Designs reflected the styles of the day and were completed by factory designers, Gates and working architects. Teco produced bookends, ashtrays, figurines and sculptures, and pots of all shapes and sizes – some nearly 8 feet high. Wright made a vase in 1902 for his Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Ill., and another for Oak Park’s Unity Temple in 1906.
Following the Trend
Gates and his crew were well-established when David Haeger’s sons, David H. III and Edmund, took over the brickyards in 1900. At the time, brick and drain tile were the family’s specialty.
Edmund took over the Dundee yard and began producing decorative flowerpots in 1912. Two years later, he hired Martin Stangl, a designer for New Jersey-based Fulper Pottery, and asked him to develop more artware. Items like decorative flower pots, “lemonade sets,” and small figurines became a major focus.
“I think they figured with families growing, the economy was starting to boom in those days, so they ought to make some beautiful pieces for the home,” says Haeger Estes, Edmund’s granddaughter. “It had to be quite a change, though, because to produce holloware – vases, planters, lamps – that’s a whole different kind of production.”
Through the 1920s, Haeger ceramists developed the glazes and colors that became Haeger’s distinctive look: sleek sheens and vibrant tones.
At the 1933-34 World’s Fair in Chicago, Haeger opened a fully functional ceramic factory where an estimated 4-5 million visitors saw artisans use ancient and modern production methods.
Closer to home, Haeger opened a factory outlet store and sold “seconds” – pottery that bore an imperfection and couldn’t be sent to vendors. According to old clippings at the Dundee Township Historical Society Museum, the tradition began when Edmund’s wife, Betty, used a seconds pottery set with her bridge club. The other wives suddenly wanted their own.
Royal Hickman’s arrival in the 1930s set the tone for decades to come. His distinctive flair – intricate with smooth, flowing, fanciful lines – laid the groundwork for many of Haeger’s most distinctive designs. Hickman’s signature piece was a 1941-issued black panther. The sleek, black-glazed beast was first sold at Carson Pirie Scott and became so iconic it was copied by 30 other potteries, according to the Wisconsin Pottery Association.
“[Royal] was a design genius,” recalls Haeger Estes. “He took normal, pretty things in life like a shell, a leaf or a feather, and he could turn them into this incredible vase, figurine or ashtray. The man knew how to make things absolutely sing.”
Haeger Estes met Hickman when she was a girl.
“He was a very charming guy,” she says. “He was very forthright in his opinions.”
Hickman’s departure in the 1940s brought designer Eric Olson, whose signature piece was a red bull figurine first produced in 1955 – the year after Edmund died. The business passed to his daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Joseph F. Estes, who had served as general manager since 1938.
Trouble for Gates
The American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Co. owed its success to Gates. His company newsletter, “Common Clay,” celebrated not only the work of his firm but that of other builders and producers. Copies still available through the Crystal Lake Historical Society share industry knowledge on producing and installing terra cotta, and full-page photographs show off beautiful structures. Gates retired in 1912 and handed over the daily management to company officers, including his younger sons, Major and Neil.
Three years later, Gates returned to avert a financial crisis. He again retired in 1920 and passed ownership to Major and Neil, who by this point were introducing their own innovations in the industry. They quietly ended Teco pottery and expanded into plumbing fixtures. Gates was completing his own terra cotta home, Trail’s End, just as economic warnings began to appear in the late 1920s. When the market finally crashed and clients shut down, Gates, by then 77 and in poor health, mortgaged the company, defaulted on the loan, and hired lawyer George A. Berry Jr. to help him recover the firm.
Berry Jr. managed the company until Gates’ death in 1935, after which he and his wife, Helen Royer Berry, bought the company at auction for $280,000, paying for it largely through Helen’s own inheritance. Berry Jr. fought through the Depression and landed jobs at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pool in the White House, at the federal Bureau of Printing and Engraving, and at public schools in Chicago.
Confident the market would recover, Berry Jr. modernized the plant and installed a tunnel kiln that fired more economically than the old beehive kilns, which workers had always loaded and unloaded by hand.
World War II brought new opportunities when Berry Jr. realized the kilns could heat treat metal for the war effort. His son, George A. Berry III, expanded the company’s abilities with metal after the war. At the same time, demand for terra cotta steadily declined. The new generation of architects instead wanted glass and steel.
Their competitors steadily folded but the Berrys still accepted small terra cotta jobs, mostly replacements for existing structures. Yet Berry Jr. insisted his firm would be the last major architectural terra cotta manufacturer east of the Rockies. He died in 1969, three years after his firm outlasted its final competitors and shipped one last terra cotta order: replacement pieces for Chicago’s Wrigley Building.
The Writing on the Wall
Lexy Haeger Estes recalls happy childhood memories writing order forms and playing “president” over her stuffed animals. Dinnertime conversation inevitably focused on the factory.
“Business was always discussed very openly and freely, and my mother was very involved in it, even though she did not exactly work there,” she recalls. “She was on the board and was very interested because it was her grandfather’s business, and then her father’s. We always had discussions going on about what was happening at the factory, and the new glazes and new designs, and what was occurring in production.”
Haeger Estes began her career at the family business in 1973. She worked through each part of the factory, from clay making to casting, finishing, glazing and setting the kilns. It was hot in the summer, working alongside kilns that belched out 2,000 degrees of heat.
“I felt very comfortable with the employees and learned what it was like to stand on your feet for six to eight hours a day, on the concrete, doing these different kinds of jobs,” says Haeger Estes. “I had a real empathy for what needed to be addressed in the factory.”
Joseph Estes stepped back in 1979, naming Lexy the company’s fourth-generation president. Her brother, Nicholas, took over the family’s decorative lamp business in Macomb, Ill. Her husband, Craig Zachrich, an architect by trade, became involved, too.
“It was wonderful because I had the opportunity to know my father, of course very well as a father, but also as a businessman,” Haeger Estes says. “He was extremely revered by everybody. My dad was just one of those kinds of people who people loved, and he loved them back.”
Though her mother, Barbara, never took a leadership role, she was a significant influence.
“She and Dad were a real team. She was on the board, and she really had practical business acumen,” recalls Haeger Estes. “She had a sharp, sharp mind, and in the background she helped see what the potential could be on things. My mother instilled in me a well-rounded business sense.”
Through the 1980s and ‘90s, Haeger Potteries evolved with the times. Department stores bought by volume, and an annual tent sale of factory seconds kept people coming to East Dundee. Italian-born designer Sebastiano Maglio brought his own flare to a lineup of dishware, cookware, figurines and decorative lamps.
The 2000s brought uncertain times as the economy fluctuated, department stores collapsed, internet shopping boomed and foreign competition flooded the market with inexpensive goods.
“We just couldn’t compete with that,” says Haeger Estes. “We kept trying to get into different markets. We went into cookware and new avenues, and we were very successful with some large-contract companies that were buying a lot of our product. But then they, too, were seeing the writing on the wall and it was becoming more difficult to stay competitive.”
In June 2016, the plant closed for good.
“It was hell. It really was,” Haeger Estes says.
It wasn’t any easier for the employees, who were like an extended family. Some had been there for 50 years; for many it was the first job they took out of school. Many in Dundee and the surrounding area worked there or knew someone who did.
“Truly all of the employees were considered part of the extended Haeger family,” says Haeger Estes. “We always had them utmost in our minds.”
Steel and Beyond
George A. Berry Jr.’s family remains committed to the legacy of their predecessors. Expanded by the late Berry III for many decades, TC Industries is still headquartered in Crystal Lake, with additional plants in Ontario, Winnipeg and England. With customers like Caterpillar, Komatsu and Volvo, the firm specializes in heat treating applications and cutting edges, wear parts and fabrications.
George A. Berry IV and his brother, Bob, assumed the reins from their father in 1988. Bert Berry, the family’s fourth generation, is general manager of TC Mill Products Division. His sister, Sterling Decker, works behind the scenes and oversees the American Terra Cotta Museum at the plant off Illinois Route 31. This one-room museum shows off historical artifacts and the terra cotta manufacturing process, in addition to several works produced by Gates, Teco and American Terra Cotta workmen. It’s open on a limited basis, by appointment only.
Drive through downtown Crystal Lake and you can still see beautiful examples of terra cotta along Williams Street, in particular on the facades of Raue Center for the Arts, Heisler’s Bootery, Moretti’s Pizza Pub and Carlos Pancake House. Trail’s End is now a private residence located off Terra Cotta Road.
“My father gave me a sign when I became president. It reads, ‘To rest content with results achieved is the first sign of business decay,’” says Berry IV. “It’s simple and to the point, when you’re in manufacturing for the long-term.”
The Haeger Legacy
Haeger Estes now focuses on her family farm, an area of roughly 500 acres in West Dundee. Giving back to her community remains a priority.
“The family business meant the employees and the greater community, too,” she says. “That’s something my mother and father instilled in me: serving your community and having the business excel.”
Memories of Haeger Pottery live on locally, but affections endure far beyond. Haeger Estes has seen it herself. Haeger Collectors Clubs exist all over the country. Pages upon pages of Haeger goods show up in online auctions. This past summer, one dedicated collector reached out.
“She invited me to her house, and it is like a Haeger museum,” recalls Haeger Estes. “Every single room has shelves full of beautiful old Haeger artware and newer pieces, as well. I walked in and it was quite emotional to see so many pieces that our company had made over the years. It was kind of a shock, and I had to gather my wits realizing how these people revere and love Haeger pottery. It was thrilling, really.”
At a recent Wisconsin Pottery Association show and sale, Haeger and Teco goods were front-and-center among some 50 vendors.
“These collectors just love this. This is their hobby and passion, and they seek out all of these different kinds of pottery,” says Haeger Estes. “Now, there are collectors who only collect Haeger or some other well-known pottery, but it’s pretty amazing they love the artware so much.”
How’s it Made?
Artists at American Terra Cotta & Ceramics Co. first took the architect’s drawings and translated them into a 3-D shape. When the model was complete, a plaster casting was made. Then, the plaster casting was filled with slip – a watery mixture of clay and grog (a clay that’s been fired and ground up). Because clay shrinks when it dries, the grog helps to reduce the amount of shrinkage. Special rulers helped artisans to fit exactly the right shape and size. This was physically demanding, as workers were expected to spread and pound just the right amount of clay in the molds. The backside of the clay form is hollow, to aid in kiln firing and installation.
Dried pieces were then removed from the mold and loaded into the kiln, where high temperatures removed moisture and hardened the clay. The pieces were cooled, glazed and refired before heading to the fitting room, where workers painstakingly assembled the final design. Imperfections were carefully chiseled away, and the final piece was packed – between handfuls of hay – into a railcar for delivery.