Monday, March 05, 2012
The Golden Age of Hudson Valley Brickmaking, 2: The Brickmaking Process
As a business venture, brickmaking was financially extremely risky. Partnerships were formed easily and dissolved quickly. Fortunes were made and lost.
Brickmaking was also a seasonal business that shut down for the winter when the ground became frozen. Wages were low, and the physical labor involved was arduous.
Many brickyard workers found winter employment cutting ice in the area’s many lakes and ponds, and hauling it to ice houses for storage and later use.
A brickyard was labor intensive, and dependent on immigrants and itinerants for its workers. Owners of brickyards supplied housing to many of their laborers.
So isolated was the brickmaking community on Croton Point that the Underhill brickyard built a school for the children of its brickyard workers.
Clay and sand banks could suddenly peter out. Warm, dry weather was necessary for the initial drying of bricks--but the weather could be unpredictable and capricious.
Overproduction in this highly competitive industry was common. The price of bricks was dictated by the state of the economy, the amount of new construction and the annual production of bricks.
Extracting the Clay
Bricks were made by what was called the "soft mud process." Early brickmakers laboriously dug the clay for bricks by hand. (The steam shovel was not invented until 1879.) Fortune smiled on any brickyard whose clay deposit was overlain by sand, another necessary brick ingredient.
Clay and sand were transported in wheelbarrows or horse-drawn carts to the tempering pit and mixed with water. The mixture was then kneaded by being trod upon by oxen until it reached the proper consistency. Later, tempering was done in horse-driven or steam-powered pug mills.
To achieve more thorough burning of the heavy
Hudson River clays, powdered anthracite coal dust (called "culm") was added. This also saved fuel by reducing the burning time.
After being properly tempered, the clay mixture was removed from the pit or pug mill and delivered to the molding table.
Molding the Bricks
The assistant brick molder, also called a "clot molder," would prepare a lump of clay and pass it to the brick molder. The latter, the key worker in the brickmaking process, was the star of the team. Highly skilled, the brick molder would take the clay and "dash" it into the already-sanded mold, making sure that the corners were filled.
Any excess clay mixture was removed from the top of the mold with a "strike"--a flat board kept soaking in water--and reused.
Molds could make one, two, four or six bricks at a time. Smaller capacity molds had the advantage that a child could carry them. Child labor was common in brickyards.
Hardwoods--cherry, beech or maple--were used in making the open-topped rectangular molds that were often reinforced with iron straps to prevent excessive wear.
The next worker in the team would take the mold from the molding table and move it by flatbed wheelbarrow to a leveled and carefully swept "hacking" (drying) area.
Bricks slid easily from molds because their sides had been coated with fine sand. The empty molds were then returned to the molding table to be refilled.
Drying the Bricks
At the roofed-over hacking area, the bricks were laid out to dry. After two days, they were turned over. At this stage, rough handling could easily damage a brick.
While the bricks were still moist, young boys used special tools called "edgers" to straighten the edges of the bricks. After four days of drying in warm weather, the bricks were sufficiently hard to allow them to be stood on one side with a finger's width between them to continue drying. After another two weeks of drying, the bricks were ready to be moved to the kiln shed.
Building and Firing the Kiln
A temporary kiln was constructed of "green" (raw) bricks, stacked 54 bricks high, with "arches"--apertures in which fuel was placed--at the base. Wood was used until the supply of local trees was exhausted, and then coal was substituted. Several hundred thousand to a million bricks could make up a kiln.
Even with the drying that had taken place, the unburned bricks still contained about 15 percent water, so fires were kept low at first to complete the drying process. Too much heat applied too soon could cause bricks to explode.
Steam would issue from the top of the kiln. Old-time brickmakers called this "water smoke." After the water had been driven off and it was safe to increase the heat, the temperature of the kiln was raised slowly until it reached 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.
It took a knowledgeable and experienced brickmaker to know when the fire holes should be bricked over and the heat allowed to dissipate slowly. Burning the bricks took about a week. Another week was needed to allow them to cool before the kiln could be taken apart.
Sorting the Bricks
Bricks closest to the fires received an unwanted glaze deposited on their surfaces from wood ash or vaporized sand that dropped in the fires and was vaporized. Such bricks could still be sold for use in the interior courses of walls.
Bricks that were overburned or cracked or warped were designated as "lammies" or "clinkers" and sold for use in garden walls or footpaths.
Bricks making up the outer walls of the kiln were always less properly cured. Called "light-hards," these were put aside to be used to cover the outer walls of the next kiln and then daubed with mud to seal it.
Marketable bricks were transported to docks at the river's edge. In the early days they were loaded on sloops, but barges holding from 300,000 to 500,000 bricks later supplanted sloops for the trip to
’s docks. Twelfth Avenue and 52nd Street became the site of an informal brick market, a gathering place for the city's building materials dealers. New York City
Decline and Fall
By the turn of the 20th century, some 120 brickyards, employing between eight and ten thousand workers, were producing over a billion bricks a year in the
--more than any other part of the world. Hudson Valley
A quarter-century later most of the brickyards in Westchester and
counties closed, having depleted the banks of clay and sand along the river. Moreover, these brickyards had not modernized or mechanized their brickmaking. Except for machines to mix the clay and pack the molds, much of the work had still involved manual labor. Rockland
Brickyards upriver around Beacon,
Newburgh and managed to hang on longer, thanks to abundant reserves of clay and the introduction of machine methods. Despite modernization, many of these brickyards succumbed during the Depression, and only a few survived the Second World War. Kingston
Other brickmaking methods had supplanted the soft mud process. A steam-driven machine that forced a stiffer mixture through a rectangular aperture could make 100,000 bricks a day. The extruded column was then cut into bricks by a wire cutter similar to a hard-boiled egg slicer. Tunnel-type dryers and kilns were also introduced.
After the building boom that followed the war, builders in the 1960's decided that
brick was too porous. The cost of added ingredients to overcome the porosity problem made it impossible for Hudson Valley brickmakers to compete. Hudson Valley
Today, shale is the preferred raw material, and most of the country's bricks come from the South and the
Midwest. Only one brickyard making molded bricks survived in the Hudson Valley--the Powell & Minnock Brick Works at Coeymans, about a dozen miles south of Albany. This company ceased operations in 2001.
The visitor to the sites of previous riverside brickmaking operations between Croton and
Peekskill will find little to show that this chapter in Westchester’s industrial history was once written here. The harsh outlines of gouged-out clay and sand pits have softened and merged with the landscape. Never intended to be permanent, brickyard buildings have long since disappeared. A diligent searcher may scuff up a few discarded imperfect bricks. With luck, their brands may be identifiable.
Tangible proof of the area's prodigality with its natural resources, however, can be found miles to the south in
. From humble tenements and millionaires' mansions to soaring skyscrapers, thousands of sturdy brick buildings still stand, their bricks mute testimony to the golden age of brickmaking in the New York City . Hudson Valley