Solved! We now know what that mysterious object is in Tallmadge
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Solved! We now know what that mysterious object is in Tallmadge

Aug 13, 2023

You won’t find a blast furnace if you look in Annette Miracle’s backyard.

Nor will you see a pottery kiln or industrial oven.

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But you will notice something unusual: an eroded stone with a mysterious inscription.

The 87-year-old Tallmadge woman has been using the yellowish object as a steppingstone in her well-manicured yard at Robin Ridge Condominiums after digging it up more than 20 years ago while planting sod.

Engraved on the stone are the letters:





After Miracle enlisted the Beacon Journal’s help in trying to identify the flat stone, it became a point of interest in the residential complex off Eastwood Avenue.

“Quite a few of my neighbors came over,” she said.

People have been venturing guesses about its function. Thanks to some history detectives, we have finally cracked the code.

LeRoy Teeple theorized the inscription was a formula for decorative stones. Coincidentally, his cousin David Teeple, former co-owner of the Akron Pure Milk Co., owned a home where the Robin Ridge entrance is today.

“I can’t wait to see what you find,” he wrote. “Maybe my cousin buried the stone there.”

Miracle’s neighbor Emma Porter, who grew up on South Avenue, remembers walking to a farm to buy milk in the 1940s near the present-day location of the condos. Nelson Christian Oliver and his son, John, operated N.C. Oliver & Son until selling their herd of 24 Holsteins in 1959.

Could the stone have belonged to the Olivers?

Focusing on the stamped letters H-W, Janet Morrison conducted online research to find U.S. companies with similar initials.

“Who doesn’t love a good mystery?” she mused.

She emailed several businesses, including Hi-Way Concrete of Wareham, Massachusetts, which she considered to be a prime candidate.

No one claimed the stone, including Hi-Way.

“Mystery continues,” Morrison wrote.

Those H-W initials also stood out to Akron attorney Chris Esker of Roderick Linton Belfance in Akron. He had seen them before.

Having done a lot of asbestos-related litigation years ago, the name Harbison-Walker was etched into his memory from scores of depositions.

He immediately thought of refractory bricks, also known as fire bricks.

Made of ceramic material, the bricks are made to withstand extremely high temperatures and can be found in furnaces, kilns and fireplaces.

The Harbison-Walker Refractories Co. of Pittsburgh was one of the early leaders in the industry. The business incorporated in 1865 as the Star Fire Brick Co., but gained its later name after being purchased in 1875 by Samuel P. Harbison and Hay Walker Sr.

A century ago, it billed itself as “The World’s Largest Producer of Refractories.”

Esker produced a 1950 copy of Modern Refractory Practice, a handbook for the Pennsylvania company, that lists “H-W High Grade XX” as a product that served “many and varied applications.”

The bricks embodied “a happy combination of high refractoriness, low porosity, low permeability, and superior resistance to spalling,” which appealed to brick masons, boiler setting contractors and furnace builders.

“H-W High Grade XX is one of Harbison-Walker’s best established brands in the glass industry for use in checkers, regenerator chambers and ports,” the handbook concludes.

According to a 1941 catalog, the bricks were manufactured in Kentucky with materials mined elsewhere. Esker wasn’t sure about the “MA-1551,” but wondered if it was a reference to the mix containing anthorite, a feldspar mineral with a melting point of 1,551 degrees Celsius.

Reader Bill Winters confirmed the identity of the brick and offered a few theories of his own.

Working 40-plus years in the refractory business, including about 12 years for Harbison-Walker, is “good for something,” he noted.

“The ‘rock’ is actually a refractory brick made by Harbison-Walker Refractories (H-W),” he wrote. “High Grade refers to the quality of brick, probably high grade silica brick used in a coke oven or glass furnace.”

He said the “XX” is probably a spec code and the MA-1551 could refer to the shape, a 2½-inch-thick, straight brick.

Winters isn’t sure of the age, but believes the brick is pretty old.

“Not much silica brick is made in the U.S. any longer; most is imported,” he wrote.

In the late 1930s, Harbinson-Walker purchased a 621-acre tract in Portage County’s Nelson Township to blast out millions of tons of fine silica sand. The silica reportedly was 99.41% pure. During peak operation, the site near Nelson Ledges produced 100,000 tons of sand each day.

In 1952, the Pittsburgh company opened a plant on East Center Street in Windham to manufacture fire-resistant bricks “to line blast furnaces in steel factories, coke ovens, glass industries and processes involving firing of metals.”

Today, the company known as HarbisonWalker International specializes in “world-class refractory products that perform to the highest degree.” It continues to operate the brick plant in Windham, one of nearly 20 factories it owns in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

“A little additional reading would suggest the current iteration of Harbison-Walker, while it carries the name, isn’t quite the same company it was,” Esker wrote.

To make a long story short, Annette Miracle is the owner of an old refractory brick.

“A what?” she asked.

She sounded amused after learning the nature of her steppingstone.

“I just was curious as to what on earth it could be,” she said. “But certainly that wasn’t anything that I would have thought of.”

Sadly, it isn’t a map to buried treasure.

Miracle still doesn’t know why the object was buried a foot deep in her yard, and she might never find out.

Esker believes the brick’s presence indicates “that there was a kiln/furnace of some kind, at some point, perhaps located on her current property — or that someone just used old castoffs as fill.”

We’d like to thank the history detectives who searched for clues in “The Mystery of the Baffling Brick.”

The next time Miracle’s shovel clanks on an object a foot down in the yard, she will be prepared.

“At least I got some answer here,” she said.

Mark J. Price can be reached at [email protected].

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