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PMJ bricks came from old kiln in St. Elmo

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By The Staff

Over the years I have stockpiled bricks, recycling them into sidewalks around my house and garden. These bricks have come from various places in both Fayette and Bond County.

Those from the home of my great-grandfather Yund, built in l9l5 in St. Paul, Wilberton Township, are bright red and smooth, having been made from clay found in that area and fired in the kiln at Frogtown.

In addition to common bricks in various shades of reddish-brown clay, I have black bricks, gray bricks - some with smooth surfaces, a 9 1/2-inch rough paving brick and some with holes -- from two to 10.

The brick in my inventory that I consider my favorite comes from the demolition of the Johnson, Stephens & Shinkle Shoe Factory in Vandalia. It is dark-red in color with the letters P M J pressed into the surface.

I have worked this brick into my sidewalk and patio designs, and often wondered what the P M J stood for, finally satisfying myself that it probably was Peoria or Pekin Manufacturing, or something on that order. That is, until a couple of years ago.

While researching old houses built around the county, I became interested in some of the fine architectural examples to be found in St. Elmo. Two of the largest were built by the Johnston boys, Presley Morgan and Benjamin Franklin.

In l869, these men along with their widowed mother, Henrietta, and married sister, Eleanora Reed, were among the first to settle in St. Elmo.

The Johnstons were entrepreneurs and founders of P.M. Johnston Brick Works, later called St. Elmo Brick and Tile Company. My bricks werent from Pekin after all but rather from the kiln of Presley Morgan Johnston: P M J.

The pictures accompanying this story come from postcards. There were two types of kilns: an older dome-type periodic kiln and a continuous kiln where the bricks are placed on cars that passed through three chambers; one each for preheating, firing and cooling the bricks. The firebox was located outside the kiln and thus conducted heat to the individual chambers. The St. Elmo company had a daily capacity of 65,000 bricks.

P.M. and his brother, Ben, were astute businessmen with diverse interests. Their business partnership began when they were young men and continued throughout their lives.

Their first venture was a drug business, followed by a livery that they operated in St. Elmo for ten years. Their first railroad project was construction of the Vandalia Line between Avena and St. Elmo.

Their greatest undertakings and one that attracted national attention was construction of nearly 200 miles of rail in the Oklahoma and Indian Territory for the Frisco System. This job earned brother Benjamin the title King Of Railroad Contractors."

In addition to building railroads, P.M. Johnston is credited with building the first concrete road in Fayette County. He donated half the money for construction of the Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Elmo and in l897, along with brother Ben and Mr. Faught, built the Hotel Elmo.

Presley was a banker and president of the Farmers & Merchants National Bank at Vandalia, as well as its reorganized form, the Farmers & Merchants Bank.

Benjamin F. was a well-liked St. Elmo mayor, and together, the brothers were great boosters for the city of St. Elmo. Benjamin is credited as the founder of Villa Grove.

Presleys great-grandaughter, Suzanne Ambrose, said the brothers were known and respected for believing they should provide jobs for the local people first when looking for workers. I was told that P M J was also translated into "Poor Mans Job."

As I bend to my task of aligning the bricks in my latest sidewalk building proect, I cant help but feel pleased to see the P M J bricks as part of the interlocking design just as Presley Morgan and his brother Ben were integral parts of St. Elmo and Fayette Countys history.