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David Nightingale: Bricks

On a sunny mid-October Saturday, reading that the Hutton brickyard 'Market' -- Smorgasburg -- was closing down for the year, I drove to Kingston. I'd never visited the Hutton brickyard, but many times when putting my little Sunfish into the river at Kingston Point, had noticed all the broken bricks labelled 'Hutton' lying north of the beach.

It was a glorious autumn afternoon. The aura of sun and river views, of green, yellow and orange foliage along the coast and over on the opposite shore, plus sensibly quiet music from just two musicians, perfected things. So often music is overly amplified, but here people could relax and talk.

Vendors, sheltered by a roof supported by tall skeletal steel posts from long ago, were set up around the edges -- hot dogs, Catskill bread-making, sodas, beer and cider, clothing, old furniture -- as well as late-in-season farm produce. People were leaning against the railings enjoying food, company and warm sun, many sitting at yard tables on the fenced off waterfront. On the northern end of the brickyard were more steel kiln sheds, and an old gantry, remnants of the industry that had prospered, since the 1860s, in Kingston anyway -- but really for over three centuries up and down the Hudson Valley.

It's an interesting thought that NYC is built from our good earth, and grew tall just from the soils of the Hudson valley. Bricks had been manufactured upriver in Coxsackie and Athens, plus down in Beacon and Haverstraw, and it was an industry that any immigrant could work at, needing neither money nor training to get started. The Hudson's banks are largely of a clay-ey type soil, with sand, but of course bricks have been made everywhere -- Massachusetts, Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania -- and the walls of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, or Jefferson's University of Virginia, are all brick. Testament to how much weight can be put on a brick might be the church in Landshut, Bavaria, begun in 1390, taking 110 years to complete, the tower of which stands at over 400 feet, with no reinforcement [ref.2]. It's worth looking at photos of that on the internet.

Mankind has known that all kinds of soils can be used for building; indeed ancient adobe bricks were simply compressed earth, with, for strength, some straw. In essence, just compress, dry out and voila! 

In Iran is the extraordinary all-adobe city of Bam, started before 500 BC. The imposing citadel is entirely adobe, as are the 20' high walls. Very sadly, after 25 centuries, a powerful earthquake in 2003 -- not warfare -- levelled much of it.

Up in Kingston, NY, it had been a Prussian emigre, John H.Cordts who went into the business with John Hutton in 1865. Although nearly all the broken bricks lying on the shore at Kingston are stamped "Hutton", this is only because Cordts backed out in 1890 to attend to his lumber yard business. Cordts did however build himself a magnificent brick mansion at the top of a hill just behind his factory, of a kind of Baroque Revival architecture with a mansard roof, still standing and listed on the NYS Registry of Historic Buildings -- apparently now a B&B, although, when I went up there, the welcome sign said "Keep Out."

Today, brickmaking has not died out in America. There's a large brick industry in Pennsylvania, and the 2nd largest brick industry is Acme, of Fort Worth, Texas, the owner being Berkshire Hathaway, with director Warren Buffett, who said, in answer to critics who thought he should invest in high tech "We have embraced the twenty-first century by entering such cutting edge industries as bricks, carpet, insulation and paint." [Ref.1, p.204].

However, what an enjoyable October afternoon that was.


1. "The Great Hudson River Brick Industry", by George V. Hutton; Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, NY 12430.  (1st edition, 2003.)

2.  St Martin's Church, Landshut, Bavaria.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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