Retort pipe hints at area’s past

Register Reporter

Register/Anne Kazmierczak
This collection of 14-inch diameter retort pipe holds up the bank of a slough leading to Elm Creek. The pipe, pottery shards and kitchenware fragments have been exposed due to heavy rains. Local historians figure the pipes were placed when brick factories in the area were still in operation, possibly 100 years ago.

Some old pipes sticking out of the bank of a tributary to Elm Creek at Iola’s south edge have probably rested quietly for most of the past 100 years. Curiosity as to what the pipes were, and why they were there, led to inspection by some resident Iola old timers. Turns out, they knew.
“They’re retort pipes,” said retired City Clerk Vic Perkins. The pipes were produced, along with fire brick, at brick factories near the creek in Iola’s younger days. They were most likely laid along the bank “to shore it up,” Perkins said.
Stub Heigele, who was born in the south Iola neighborhood in 1920, said the tributary, which he and local boys referred to simply as “the slough” was a popular play spot in their youth.
“We always came down here to get crawdads,” Heigele said.
Lining waterways with retort was apparently a common practice.
“At Concreto, they used retort to line the ponds,” Heigele said.
The pipe was originally made through a painstaking process that involved hand layering two-inch thick clay walls around a mold, then drying over some weeks before firing in special kilns.
Standard retort was about 14 to 21 inches in diameter and eight to eight and a half feet long. The finished pipe was used to burn coal to produce coal gas for illumination. The practice was used from about 1820 through the latter end of that century. Collections of 15 to 20 retort columns would be placed together to burn the coal. After burning the coal, coke remained.
“The cinders were used for driveways and such,” said Perkins. Later, they were removed as an environmental hazard due to their high lead content, he said.
Retort pipes weren’t made at every brick factory. Because the pipes had to be heated at very high temperatures, it was natural for the same clay used for fire brick to be utilized for the pipes.
It isn’t known whether the pipes that line the branch that washes into Elm Creek were put in new or used, but Heigele said “if people had a use for them, they took them.”
In the same creek bed, a family’s old house dump has been exposed by recent rains. Large crockery shards and fragments of china plates jut out from the mud.
The pipes and kitchen-wear fragments are the only clues to a forgotten time on the edge of town.