You might think that something so basic as a brick hardly merits a history, but the names still legible on the brick faces, such as Hutton, Brigham and Terry Bros., are a hint that you’d be wrong. Webmaster Don Bayley, who lived in the Bronx and now lives in Cape Cod; originated and developed the brick collector’s website, http://brickcollecting.com, assisted by Fred Rieck, a resident of Elizaville, near Red Hook; and Andrew van der Poel, who resides in Kingston. The website sheds light on the dozens of brickyards that stretched up and down the Hudson River and extended into New England, with historic photos paired with contemporary shots of the sites today. The yards are listed alphabetically, so you can easily find a description of the eroded brick dug up in your yard.
Rieck said that he started collecting bricks after admiring the patchwork of names embedded in a friend’s patio. He did a swap with another collector, began subscribing to a journal published by a brick collectors’ club and from there “did some serious damage.” He hooked up with Bayley, an engineer with ABC radio, who started the site six years ago, and has since served as researcher, answering inquiries that are increasing in volume as more people find out about the site and often, contribute a genealogical link – such as a great-great-grandfather who worked at a particular yard.
The research by Rieck and his colleagues has yielded up some new data, such as discovery of a yard in Hudson that the International Brick Collectors’ Association didn’t know about. Haverstraw was a major center of manufacture until it started running out of clay; beginning about 1890, the industry started moving upriver. Around 1905, “All hell brook loose. Everyone and their daughter and their dog got in the brickmaking business,” Rieck said. Brickmaking was labor-intensive, “all brawn and muscle,” and low-paying – although he said that important positions, such as the foreman responsible for firing the brick at just the right temperature, probably made a decent wage.
The mania resulted in some unsafe conditions, with cave-ins both in Haverstraw and Kingston that resulted in the destruction of homes, Rieck said. Hutton’s brickyard was one of the most successful and longest-running operations, he noted – one of two manufacturers that persisted into recent times.
Nowadays, most bricks are manufactured in Pennsylvania and the South. What caused the demise of the industry along the Hudson River? It wasn’t so much the depletion of the clay (in fact, there’s still plenty of it in certain places, Rieck said) as it was changing business conditions. One challenge of Hudson River clay was that it contained about twice as much calcium as other clays, and substantial amounts of silica. This meant that bricks comprised of it had to be fired very carefully and slowly before they would be of proper strength. In contrast, clay from the South was more suited to brickmaking on a large scale, such as extrusion, as opposed to molding, with a much faster burning (baking) time. Brick manufacturers in the South also conspired with the railroads to create price advantages, and then Portland cement became the building material of choice because it was strong, cheap and could be poured around a piece of steel. Eventually bricks were being used merely as a veneer.
For more fascinating facts about this bygone industry, check out http://brickcollecting.com. Note that the site does not sell bricks; but then, it doesn’t need to: If you want an authentic antique locally made brick, just take a stroll along Kingston Point beach or the many other places on the Hudson River shore where the eroded red bricks have become part of the landscape.