Our Iowa Heritage: Sylvanus Johnson – Mr. Red Brick.

Here’s Sylvanus Johnson, Iowa City’s first brickmaker.

Johnson was a Connecticut native, born November 12, 1813, who worked in his father’s brickyard before moving to Iowa City. I like to call him Mr. Red Brick since it was his brickyard in Outlot 24 (at the corner of Burlington and Gilbert Streets) that made much of the building material used in the earliest days of The Red Brick Campus.

Click here to read all about The Red Brick Campus.

Johnson was one of Iowa City’s earliest settlers, arriving here in 1839. From his obituary in The Iowa Citizen (January 10, 1902) we find this info…

The Line War (Honey War) Brings Sylvanus Johnson to Iowa City. In truth, settling in Iowa City was not in Sylvanus’ original plans. Author Charles Ray Aurner explains…

The Honey War was a bloodless territorial dispute in 1839 between Iowa Territory and Missouri over their border. The dispute over a 9.5-mile-wide strip running the entire length of the border, caused by unclear wording in the Missouri Constitution on boundaries, misunderstandings over the survey of the Louisiana Purchase, and a misreading of Native American treaties, was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court (1849) in Iowa’s favor. The decision was to affirm a nearly 30-mile jog in the nearly straight line border between extreme southeast Iowa and northeast Missouri at Keokuk, Iowa that is now Iowa’s southernmost point. Before the issue was settled, militias from both sides faced each other at the border, a Missouri sheriff collecting taxes in Iowa was incarcerated, and three trees containing beehives were cut down.

Here’s a timeline of The Iowa/Missouri Honey War
1838: Iowa Territory is organized
1839: According to legend a Missouri tax collector in Iowa cuts down three hollow trees containing honey bee hives to collect the honey in lieu of taxes.
1839: Clark County, Missouri sheriff Uriah S. (“Sandy”) Gregory is arrested by Van Buren County, Iowa sheriff while attempting to collect Missouri taxes in the disputed territory.
1839: Militias from both sides assemble at the border
1839: Matter is referred to the U.S. Supreme Court
1846: Iowa enters the Union
1849: Supreme Court issues an opinion that since Missouri never challenged its straight-line border ending at the Des Moines River for more than 10 years, the Iowa border was valid.
Click here to read more about Judge Charles Mason and his involvement in settling this issue in 1849.
Click here to read more about Governor Robert Lucas and The Honey War.

1840 – Mr. Red Brick Gets To Work. Once here, Sylvanus got right to work, doing what he knew best, making bricks. He soon set up shop along Gilbert Street just south of Burlington, and his first bricks were made on April 15, 1840, going into a boot store building on Iowa Avenue just west of Dubuque Street. Over the next few decades, Johnson was supplying bricks for every need from chimneys to buildings.

We call him Mr. Red Brick, because his bricks were used in every building built on campus between 1840 and 1875, from the interior walls of Old Capitol, to the Mechanics Academy, to both South and North Hall on University Square.

Sylvanus Johnson Was More Than Just Bricks.

When Sylvanus married his Connecticut sweetheart, Emily Bradley, in 1845, he had already been purchasing large pieces of land north of Iowa City in order to supply adequate firewood for his brick-making furnaces. By 1847, he owned 600 acres and built a beautiful home there which still stands today (see pic below).

The Sylvanus Johnson House, also known as Pinehurst, is a historic building located at 2155 Prairie du Chien in Iowa City. It was constructed in 1857 with bricks Johnson made, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1990). The floor plan is very similar to the 18th century double-hipped roof houses in Johnson’s native Connecticut, and is the first house in the area to have a mansard roof.

Click here to read the original Iowa State Press obituary for Sylvanus Johnson from 1902 “Death of A Pioneer.”

Sylvanus (1813-1902) and Emily (1819-1899) Johnson are both buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. Click here to read the original Iowa State Press obituary for Sylvanus Johnson from 1902 “Death of A Pioneer.”

So, here’s to Sylvanus Johnson, Iowa City’s first brick-maker. Certainly a foundational stone (or shall we say brick) in our fair city’s heritage.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Pioneer Passes Away – Sylvanus Johnson obituary, The Iowa Citizen Newspaper, January 10, 1902.

Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, pp 38-41.

The Honey War, Wikipedia

The Honey War – Forgotten History

Sylvanus Johnson, Find-a-Grave

Sylvanus Johnson (1813 – 1902), WikiTree

The Sylvanus Johnson House, Wikipedia.

Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…

Click here for a complete INDEX of PEOPLE-PLACES-THINGS…

Click here for a complete INDEX of stories listed CHRONOLOGICALLY…

Click here for a numerical INDEX to all of the U.S. postage stamps, postal cards, and coins in our collection…