Brickmaking in Columbia County, NY
By Mindy Potts Jun 2002
Webpage and Notes by Cliff Lamere 22 May 2003
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This historical article about brickmaking in Columbia Co. is part of series written by Mindy Potts for publication in the monthly newspaper "OK Times & The Hudson River Sampler", Northern Columbia County Edition. Published in Stuyvesant, Columbia Co., NY, the newspaper also distributes a Southern Columbia County and Northern Dutchess County edition. The text and title of the original article may have been slightly revised for this webpage so that they would be more meaningful to a geographically diverse audience.
Original publication: June 2002, pg 1
Original title: Columbia County Brickmaking Combined Skill and Hard Work
(Introduction by Cliff Lamere)
Columbia County Brickmaking Combined
Skill and Hard Work
If you get a chance to do some exploring in the swamps of the Newton Hook area, you’ll find thousands of rejected bricks from the turn of the last century. This area of Columbia County was perfect for brickmaking for a combination of reasons. The area had plenty of sand and plenty of clay, but another important factor was that the brickyards had a simple way to export the bricks not used locally . They were put on barges on the Hudson River and shipped down to New York City .
Brickmaking is an ancient craft used even earlier than the period in which the Egyptian pyramids were built . As late as the 20th century, brickmaking required highly skilled craftsmen to produce strong, quality bricks.
Valatie resident, Guy Gamello recalls the days at the Empire Brickyard watching his father, a Chief Brick Burner. Although he never worked in the yards, Mr. Gamello learned many of the details of the craft of brickmaking from his father and his grandfather who also worked in the brickyards.
Often starting at age 15 or 16, the boys would begin working full time in the brickyards. After putting in a full day’s work, breathing fumes from the fires of the drying bricks, the men would walk home covered in the red dust. Brickmaking was difficult work.
The steps to making a brick may be more complicated than you think. The sand was first dried on a flat piece of steel over a fire pit and mixed with red powder. The mixture was placed in the molds before pressing in the clay, giving the bricks that familiar red color. The amount of powder used determined how deep the red coloring went into the brick. Generally, it penetrated ¼ to ½ inch. The bottoms of the molds contained the brickyard’s name, permanently labeling the brick with the manufacturer’s name. Once all the clay was pressed into the mold, a flat palate was placed on top and the mold of 8 bricks would be flipped over. The palate of bricks would then be shoved into dryers which were heated by circulating hot water through pipes in the dryers. The bricks remained in the dryer until they were dry enough to handle without breaking.
From the dryers, the bricks went to the kilns. Here the bricks were fired so they would become strong. As the bricks came off the palates, they were placed on rail cars and taken into the kiln, a large area 50 feet by 100 feet where brick setters would build arches out of the bricks. The Chief Brick Burner would supervise this process to make sure they were placed in such a way that the heat would be vented and could reach each brick. As the bricks were fired, the Chief Brick Burner would need to monitor the fire in the kiln constantly. The firing of the bricks at this stage would take approximately 4 days and nights although the Chief Brick Burner would have to decide exactly when the bricks had been fired enough. Because he was responsible for correctly firing these bricks, the Chief Brick Burner would spend the entire time at the brickyard keeping the heat at the correct temperature. If the temperature was too low or too high or if the air wasn’t circulated to all the bricks evenly, some bricks would not become strong enough to be used in construction. The bricks that were not strong enough or were formed incorrectly were rejected as jumbo bricks or cull. Jumbo bricks would have been used for borders on gardens or walkways or just dumped into the local swamps. Thousands of bricks still lay half buried in various areas around Newton Hook.
To avoid the jumbo bricks, brickyards would have to rely on the brickmaker's skill in building the arches out of the dried bricks so that the air would circulate correctly. He also maintained the kiln fire so that the bricks would stay the correct temperature. These skills were very important ones learned only through experience.
Finally, the bricks were allowed to cool and then were moved by cranes onto barges, to be shipped to New York City and sold.
This was the standard brickmaking process at Empire Brickyard, and for the years around 1900-50, it was a fairly modern process. The local Carey Brickyard made bricks the same way. This smaller brickyard was the last operating in the area. It also used the railway to transport bricks in its later years of operation.
There was a third brickyard in the area, the Little Yard. This was an open yard, using more traditional techniques in their brickmaking. A man needed to be very tough and strong to work in this yard, because almost all of the work was by hand. There was no dryer, so bricks were molded and then laid in the sun to dry. The bricks would need to be turned so the sun could reach all sides of the brick. When loading the bricks onto barges, the men would use planks and wheelbarrows. It was very hard work.
Brickmaking was seasonal work, with the colder temperatures from around November to April freezing the raw materials used in brickmaking. Often men would migrate between winter work in the south and brickmaking in the north. Others would spend winters harvesting ice on the river or picking up odd jobs wherever they could.
Fortunate workers, like Mr. Gamello’s grandfather, owned their own property. But if they did not have property, there were also company houses available rent-free. The workers were also allowed to build houses on company property using company wood. The houses were 14 by 16 foot shacks furnished with wood stoves and oil lamps. For food the workers could hunt and fish or they might have chickens and pigs to butcher. Additionally, Empire Brickyard had a company store stocked with supplies and groceries in the same building as the pay office.
Most of the brickyards in the area closed in the 1950's. Natural resources were becoming less available and there was a decline in demand for bricks because the cost of bricklaying for the consumer was getting to be too expensive. Today, bricks are machine made with computers monitoring the kilns for temperature and firing times. The brickyards and the brickmaking techniques I have described have become a thing of the past, but there are those in our community who remember those times. Their memories are valued treasures.
Visitors since 22 May 2003
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