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February/March 2018 Edition of History & Heritage – Common and Pressed Brick – The St. Jo

Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

We are located at 421 Summer Street.  Our winter hours are Monday through Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. thanks to a wonderful staff of volunteers. Don’t forget to check out the “Owl Bed.”

This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Check out our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.

Common and Pressed Brick – The St. Johnsbury Brick Co.

Two things brought this column to mind: Denise Scavitto emailed me the picture taken by Katherine Bingham (future column) of a local brick yard circa 1907 and the finding of a trade card from my father’s collection of odds and ends of St. Johnsbury memorabilia. The card was for St. Johnsbury Brick Co. and spoke of common and pressed brick, well brick and beveled brick for bay windows. N. P. Bowman was the agent for the company. Using the Beers Atlas of Caledonia County of 1875, Edward Fairbanks’ history of St. Johnsbury and the St. Johnsbury Caledonian of April 9, 1880 we find the most complete picture of this industry.

In 1870, twelve acres were purchased by Bowman on the east side of the Passumpsic River in Paddock Village as seen on the Atlas map. The land was rich in clay and sand was gotten from a bank opposite the Buzzell Shops on the Passumpsic. The Caledonian article spoke of nine to fifteen men that might work there and usually about three horses. The ingredients consisted of clay, sand and water and amounts varied according to the strength of the clay. Generally one third sand and two thirds clay with the water added to make the mortar of the right consistency. The mixing is where the horses come in providing the power for the machinery to do the mixing. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the horses providing the power.

After the mixing has been done, the next thing is to “strike” the brick, which is accomplished by filling molds the size and shape of bricks with the mixture. They are then laid flat side down for about 24 hours and then turned up edgewise in piles to dry. Final step is to be put under cover and laid up in kilns ready for burning. The Caledonian article writes, “The weather has very much to do with brick making – the general saying is, that weather good for making hay is good to make brick. The brick yard is level and smooth, and in good weather almost as clean and orderly as a house kitchen. Workmen in the immediate process of striking brick, go scantily clad, for everything is sloppy and muddy, and white pants and broadcloth coats would soon get soiled.” Notice the workman in the foreground.

Minding the kiln is a work of art for one must be mindful of flues underneath where the wood is placed for burning. Proper draughts allow for the heating process to be even and as powerful as required. The brick burners must keep a watchful eye day and night for six to eight days. They are divided into four qualities: the face, arch, hard pale and pale. A million brick were made in 1879 with about a half of that number being face brick and usually the rest are close to being equally divided between the other three types. The paper reports that in the nine years that this yard had been in operation, $25,000 was paid for labor with six million brick having been made. During this time of operation, three thousand cords of slab wood were used at a cost of $8,500. In October of 1882, 400,000 brick were made, the largest single bunch ever produced in St. Johnsbury. Many of these bricks became a part of Summer Street School. Also under the management of N. P. Bowman and son Thomas, it should be noted that “hard pressed” bricks (the best) were often for special projects such as Underclyffe, the home of Franklin Fairbanks.

One other earlier brick yard was that of the Bagley Brick Works that were established in 1810. This yard is shown on the 1875 Beers map on the plain above Paddock Village. Ira, the son born in 1813, continued the business through his lifetime. Brick made here could be seen in the first Catholic Church on Cherry Street, the present Court house and the Athenaeum.

Yes, there were other brick yards; space and time have been given to these two which seem to have longevity and have their talents still showing in places. Bricks and mortar #2 may still have to be written! I never cease to be amazed at what went on in early St. Johnsbury history!

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