Feats of Clay

The natural clay deposits along the Hudson were just one more resource awaiting the entrepreneurial spirit to turn earth-formed materials into fortunes. Rich farm land, blue stone, limestone, peat, Shawangunk grit, timber, furs, scenic beauty, fresh air, water power, potable water, ice, and more provided the raw materials to build an individual’s prosperity—and the nation’s. Though raw materials were abundant, owning them was not enough to insure the blessings of wealth. It took financial and sometimes physical risk, often brutally hard work, determination, and foresight to transmute those resources into the gold of ease—it took the Philosopher’s Stone that resides within each of us.

Today, industrial use of our region’s natural resources is reduced to a shadow of its former bustle. No one heats with peat, water power is a memory, limestone is hardly mined at all in the lower Hudson Valley, logging is rare, no need for mill stones from Shawangunk grit, no one wears furs, bluestone is too expensive for public sidewalks, brick is made elsewhere and farming is declining. We do still draw tourists to our fresh air, parks, and lovely scenery. Just thinking about the transient nature of wealth and its production can provide some perspective in troubling economic times. It tells us sources of wealth change, but it still takes the same human initiatives to bring it to fruition. Timing and luck help, too.

brickbrickWhich brings us back to clay and its history in the Valley. Pictured here is a brick mold my father found in the Roseton area, near Marlboro. The huge Roseton generating plant is at the site of a once flourishing brickmaking operations owned by the Jova and Rose families. This particular form has an iron face protecting wood forms for making ten brick. It’s “JJJ” stood for Juan Jacinto Jova, a wealthy Cuban sugar merchant who purchased the stately mansion, “Danskammer,” and the clay deposits along the Hudson. The area surrounding the mansion was also called Danskammer, named by early explorers (reputedly Henry Hudson) to mean the “devil’s dance chamber.” The point so named on the river was broken off when a steamboat crashed into it in the late 1800s. The mansion was built by the Armstrong family who manufactured brick under the Arrow brand.

The Roseton Church still stands near what was the Rose brick company.

The Roseton Church still stands near what was the Rose brick company.

According to the late George Hutton in his exhaustively researched book, The Great Hudson River Brick Industry, the clay banks providing the material for brick making in the area were extensive… “beginning at Haverstraw (25 miles north of the George Washington Bridge) and extending 150 miles north to Mechanicville (18 miles north of Albany), remarkable uniform in physical properties and plastic to the point ot stickiness” (Brownell). He further states that not only was quantity amazing, but it was easy to mine. The thickness of the banks varied … “with 18 feet at Port Ewen, 180 feet at the Rose Plant (north of Newburgh) and, close to 240 feet at the Jova plant.” The area’s raw clay is blue-grey, the firing turns it red because of the clay’s natural iron content.

According to Hutton, wages for the brick industry in Ulster County (1880) were between $1.50-$2.00 a day for skilled and $1.00-$1.40 per day for unskilled. A “day” consisted of between 10 and 14 hours, with most yards clocking at 12 hours. The higher wages per day most likely indicated the higher hours per day. Most yards worked six to eight months a year and employees often worked the other months harvesting ice. In fact, many owners of brick firms added to their coffers with ice harvesting and storage to feed the growing populations’ requirement for food preservation. The growing agricultural businesses inland from the Hudson also made ice a profitable commodity and much ice was harvested from lakes and ponds. Large companies had ice houses, some 300 yards long, fifty feet high with mechanical conveyors to fill them to the top. Cutting ice and getting it to shore however was another story—it was very labor intensive using men and horses.

From The Great Hudson River Brick Industry, ” At the beginning of the twentieth century, brick manufacturing was the dominant industry on the Hudson River. One hundred thirty manufacturers employed seven to eight thousand workers. It was the largest brickmaking region in the world, supplying vast amounts of this most essential building material to the fastest-growing city in the world. Spanning three and a half centuries, this industry ceased to exist in the year 2002.”

Earliest recorded brickmaking in New York dates to the early 1600s near Albany. In 1793 New York established a standard brick size at 7.75″ long, 3.25″ wide, and 2.25″ high. Closer to New York City and Albany, brick making was a robust business. But Ulster County brickmaking of significant proportions began later, around 1820.

According to Hutton, American patents for brick molding inventions allowed use of a dryer clay mixture which sped up the process. Other significant changes in processes and technology continued until manufacturing of brick along the Hudson died out beginning in the late 1950s. Many reasons are cited—labor disputes, competition, poorer quality clay, shrinking clay deposits, brick packaging requirements, shipping costs, and a host of problems nibbled away at profits for the Hudson River companies. Also, because of the rapid changes in technology, there was a constant need to invest in new machinery to match competition from out of state. The industry was not completely dead along the Hudson, as a few companies managed to hang on into the 1970s and 80s. Some firms continue in the US to this day, but most of them are foreign owned.

In addition to some lakes created by clay extraction, the large remaining hallmark of the Hudson Valley’s brickmaking operations is actually south of most of the brickmaking sites. It is a city.

The transfer of appreciable portions of the Hudson River landscape to New York City, in the form of vast amounts of manufactured construction material—bricks–is witnessed by the inescapable presence of that material in the city. That presence stands as its own monument to the endeavors of the men who did the clay bank excavation by hand, the brick machine crews, the drying yard ‘dumpers’ and ‘hackers,’ the ‘wheelers,’ the kin setting crews, as well as the entrepreneurs and the men who invented the manufacturing technology for this accomplishment.

With those words George Hutton gave voice to what many of us think and feel about that episode of America’s history—that its ingenuity, hard work, productivity and entrepreneurship should be remembered —and hopefully, emulated.

www.brickcollecting.com: a comprehensive site for Hudson Valley brick making.

From brickcollecting.com site:

The NY Times Nov 29, 1901


Money and Papers Found Intact After Twenty Years.

KINGSTON, N.Y., Nov. 28.–After being submerged for years, the safe of Terry Brothers, brick manufacturers, was recovered today. Twenty years ago a landslide occurred, carrying the house and office of Albert Terry into the Hudson River at East Kingston. The principal loss was the safe, containing money and valuable papers. This morning an unusually low tide revealed the safe to John Broadhead, watchman at the works, who secured it.

The safe was blown open and the papers and money found intact. A peculiar fact regarding the landslide was that Mrs. Terry objected to living in the house because of the sinking of the floors. The family bought a residence on Broadway, moving into the new house the day before the landslide, which occurred at 2 o’clock in the morning.