Feat of clay: Looking back at the once-mighty Hudson Valley brick industry

Cutting clay at the Shultz bank in Kingston, circa 1900. A high wall of clay could easily collapse or slump suddenly, injuring workers below, so for reasons of safety, clay banks were mined in benches or terraces seven to nine feet tall.

[Editor’s note: This is a reprint of an article we published in June of 1989. Many of the brickmakers interviewed within the piece have long since passed away, but we thought readers would enjoy their words and this glimpse into our industrial past.]

At the turn of the 20th century, the Hudson Valley was the brickmaking capital of the world, producing more than a billion bricks a year and employing nearly 10,000 people in more than 120 brickyards. By the late 1970s, the once-mighty molded-brick industry was no more. One by one, the great yards had closed their gates, leaving behind a small-but-colorful legacy of people who remember the industry in its prime.

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“I worked in the brickyards all of my life,” 89-year-old Jimmy Polacco said, sitting up in his bed at Benedictine Hospital, where he’d had heart surgery just two days before. “I worked like a damn horse, when there was no union or nothing.”

Sitting nearby, Polacco’s youngest daughter, Joan, explained: “You see, brickmaking is a generational occupation in my family. My father, my grandfather, my two brothers and brother-in-law all worked on the brickyard.”

Seventy-six-year-old Malden resident Terry Staples, the final owner of the Hutton plant in Kingston, dedicated his life to molding brick from the shores of the Hudson. He earned his degree at Dartmouth, but the lure of brickmaking proved irresistible to him. “My father wasn’t excited about me working on the yard. He would rather have seen me be a lawyer,” Staples said. “But I liked being outside, and I don’t think anything could have made me happier than working on a brick plant.”

Right place, right time

Men like Staples and Polacco helped make the brickyards a success, but they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without their neighbor to the south. Several areas had enough clay to produce bricks, but Hudson Valley brickmakers had two aces up their sleeves: New York City, the world’s major market for building materials, and the Hudson River, the most cost- and time-efficient shipping route of its day. In the era of primitive roads and expensive freight fees, the riverfront brickyards dominated the marketplace.

New York City’s demand for brick skyrocketed after a night watchman noticed smoke coming out of a dry-goods store in the City’s business district on December 16, 1835. Although 56 engines and 1,000 firemen fought the blaze for 16 hours, the Great Fire of 1835 burned more than 52 acres, destroying 674 buildings and driving 14 of the City’s 25 fire insurance companies into insolvency. It was the largest, most costly fire America had ever seen.

Lawmakers unwilling to risk another such tragedy passed a series of building codes requiring fireproofing. Although marble, brownstone, cut stone and brick all played major roles in New York construction after wood dwellings were outlawed, brick was the least expensive. It became the most frequent choice of architects and builders. As the City’s population increased, the demand for brick also rose. Hudson Valley brickmakers rushed to heed the contractors’ calls, and the local brickyards prospered.

Taking bricks from kiln at Hutton Brick Works, Kingston, 1939. (Gottscho-Schleisner Collection | Library of Congress)

Hard work

There was no such thing as an hourly wage on the brickyard. Laborers were paid by the stint, and each task commanded a different rate of pay. “No matter how long you worked, you’d always get the same amount of pay,” Polacco said. “We had so much to do that we went down early and did it, and that was that. It was all piecework.”

The digging of the clay was the first step of the brickmaking process. Every day the bank behind the kiln shed was mined by hand. Layers of clay were generally quite thick, ranging from 50 to more than 100 feet deep. As the bank was exploited further, the exposed vertical wall grew taller. A high wall of clay could easily collapse or slump suddenly, injuring workers below, so for reasons of safety, clay banks were mined in benches or terraces seven to nine feet tall. The top step was mined furthest in, and the lowest digging level was purposely established high to make the hauling easier.

Freshly dug clay was loaded onto one-horse carts or narrow-gauge railroads and transported to the tempering pit. The pitmaster, a highly skilled worker, combined the clay with anthracite coal and sand. These ingredients were added in various proportions. Each brickyard developed its own unique recipe.

“It wasn’t just like baking a cake,” explained Johnny Polacco, Jimmy’s son, who also worked at the Hutton plant until it closed. “It was all trial-and-error. If the brick shrank too much, you added sand. If it burst, the clay was too strong, so once again you added sand. If it was wet, you added lime to absorb the water. This became second nature to the old-timers.”

Brickyard owners often discussed whether minor changes in the brick recipe made a difference. “There was a brickmaker down the river named Hammond,” Staples recalled. “He insisted that a brick was a brick was a brick. He wouldn’t recognize that one fellow’s brick was any better than the next one’s. But then again, there were other brickmakers who thought that anything with their brand on it was the best.”

After various portions of the ingredients went into the tempering pit, the mixture was topped off with water and left to soak until the following morning. The next day the tempered mixture was shoveled into wheelbarrows or onto conveyor belts and transported to the molding machine. Most yards had several molding machines, each of which could crank out 25,000 bricks or one pit’s worth a day. The machines injected the mixture into one mold at a time. Each mold shaped six individual bricks.

To dry the molded bricks in the day’s hot sun, yardworkers started preparing the open yard at dawn. After the bricks were molded and partially dried, they were placed in the open yard – a flat, sand-covered stretch of land. Two laborers, called a long and a short dumper, then carefully emptied the freshly molded brick onto the open yard.

Each worker started at an opposite end. The long dumper worked on the far end of the open yard, furthest from the molding machine and closest to the kiln shed. Other workers brought the molds to the long dumper. With this assistance, the long dumper placed more brick on the yard than the short dumper. The short dumper, who was often an older boy, would fetch his own molds.

To keep the wet bricks from warping, the yard was planed or luted. Its smooth, flat surface was covered with a fine layer of sand, which kept the bricks from sticking to the ground.

Jimmy Polacco remembered starting at the brickyards in 1909. “My first job was tending the yard,” he said. “There were six of us in my family, and my brothers and I would go to the brickyard to help out. The first time I went there, I went to help my brother. He had so much work. It took two of us to take the place of one worker. So I would help him every day so that he could get paid. I wouldn’t get one cent.”

Kids could only work on the yard if they managed to escape the eyes of the local truant officer. Jimmy Polacco fell through the cracks of the school system. “I hardly ever went to school,” he said. “Basically, I had no education. I’m lucky I can write my own name… But I do know a lot from experience; that’s no lie.”

Polacco recalled collaborating with one Kingston truant officer. “They had some truant officer looking for kids who didn’t go to school,” Polacco said. “He knew we needed the money, so he said that he couldn’t find us. He was a very good man.”

After the bricks were dried in the open yard for several hours, they were moved over to the side and stacked on edge with space in between for three or four more days. Then the still-green brick was transported to the kiln shed by workmen with wheelbarrows. Three “wheelers,” as they were called, passed the bricks to two “setters” inside the shed. The setters faced the difficult task of building a new kiln every time a batch of bricks was fired.

An average kiln was about 40 feet wide, 45 to 54 feet high and contained roughly 20 arches. About one million bricks could be fired in a kiln. By watching the color fluctuations of the bricks immediately situated above the flame, the burners were able to determine the condition of the entire kiln.

After years of labor on the yard, Jimmy Polacco rose to the kiln foreman position. “I did every job on the yard until finally I ended up burning brick,” he said proudly. “I learned to burn brick under my father,” Johnny Polacco added. “If the oil wasn’t working or the air wasn’t just right, he’d cry to someone like me who was an engineer. It was Dad’s responsibility to make sure that everything was done properly.”

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After the bricks were in the kiln for one week, the fires were extinguished. The bricks cooled for another seven days under the kiln foreman’s supervision. During this final phase of production, it was important for the bricks to cool gradually – otherwise cracks would develop. “The foreman would close off all the kiln doors at that point, keeping the drafts out,” Staples explained. “We felt that if a brick cooled off slowly, that brick would be better.”

When the bricks were cooled, the kiln was disassembled and the completed bricks were wheeled onto a waiting barge, which held between 300,000 to 350,000 bricks. A tugboat coming from the north would get a bargeload from one yard and head down to the next one. The tug crew joined between ten and 20 barges together during a trip to New York City, the caravan lengthening as it went south.

During the brick industry’s heyday, tug captains would pick up a load a day from the larger yards. “Going back in time, the foreman at the Kingston plant, who used to live down at Ponckhockie, said he could sit on his porch in the evening and see five different tugs go by on the Hudson River,” Staples said. “There would be different tugs for cement, hay, ice and brick. But after a while, business slumped and trucks came in, so there wasn’t enough business for the tug companies. After that, they had tugs only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Then it got so they’d only come when you called them.”

Brickworkers at the Staples brick plant in 1953. (courtesy of Terry Staples)

Most workers were immigrants

Hudson Valley brickmakers depended for their labor supply on the stream of European immigrants and Southern black workers. Bricks were only manufactured in warm-weather months. As well as being seasonal, yardwork was arduous, with long hours and low pay. At the turn of the 20th century, brickwork was avoided by anyone who could find any other employment, but many of the immigrants had no choice. Areas surrounding the yards became ethnic enclaves, the inhabitants bound by their heritage and craft.

Jimmy Polacco’s father was one such immigrant. He worked on the Kingston brickyards for years before he could afford to send for his wife and kids in Italy. The Polaccos arrived in New York City the day before their father was scheduled to meet them. Mrs. Polacco didn’t have the brickyard’s address, nor did she know that Kingston was more than 100 miles up the river. They were lucky to meet an Italian-American stranger who, because of the strong immigrant network, knew where the father worked. He took the family to Kingston by train and directly to the house, where their father was hanging shades in anticipation of their arrival.

Almost every immigrant group of the late 19th and early 20th century made brick. Irish neighborhoods developed around the Fishkill yards, and as Southern blacks became more established at the yards, they formed communities in the Beacon area.

Jimmy Polacco found that growing up in a closely knit community had its advantages. “In those days, the parents made the match,” he said. “The old people got together and said, ‘You’ve got a son; I’ve got a daughter.’ I was very lucky. My wife’s father was a pit shoveler at Shultz’s. Everyone used to go around to each other’s houses and tell stories of the old country. Our parents got together, and that’s how I got my wife. She was a good woman – smarter than I am, went to school a lot longer than I did.”

Many of the brickyards built company houses and stores. “We used to live in a company house,” Polacco said. “But when I grew up, I built my own. There was no water in the company houses – just a couple of rooms to live in and a stove to keep you warm. They had a bathroom 25 feet away from the house. Have you ever seen Little House on the Prairie? That’s it, right there.”

The company stores came in handy when workers were laid off from the yards in the winter months. “All winter, when the brickworkers weren’t working, they’d buy their things at the company store,” Polacco said. “When they were back on the yard working, the owner would get his money.”

Brickworkers took a variety of jobs during the off-season. Some of the owners ran natural icehouses after they closed their yards. The Terrys were also in the ice business, Staples said, so they could use their laborers to harvest ice in the winter.

Polacco helped with the ice harvest. “I dragged the ice blocks from the river to the house in the winter,” he said. “They’d cut them in pieces two feet long, 18 inches wide and something like 12 inches thick, depending on how cold it was.” When Polacco couldn’t get a job in the icehouse, he’d go over to the cigar factories in Kingston and find work: “You had no choice. You had to make a living.”

“The workers knew that they’d have to save up for the cold months,” said Staples. “There were chances for them to get other jobs in the area. In those days, people provided for themselves, without assistance like Social Security. Times weren’t like they are now, I’ll tell you that.”

Photo of abandoned Hutton Brickyard by Beth Blis.

New materials, new standards 

The good times for Hudson Valley brickmakers came to an end around the advent of World War I. New construction material such as steel and concrete began to cut into the brick market. The market price of brick hovered slightly higher than the cost of production. To combat the slump, the brickmakers modernized their plants, cutting down on their labor needs. Only technologically progressive plants with new marketing strategies survived. By the end of World War II, only ten brick plants were left in the Hudson Valley.

Steam dryers replaced the open yards. No longer dependent on the sun, the remaining laborers could finally find year-round employment at the brickyards. Advanced molding machines were introduced that could produce 100,000 bricks per day. Overhead cranes replaced the necessity for moving the hand-fired bricks by wheelbarrow. Johnny Polacco, who operated one of those cranes, marveled at the difference. “My father used to carry 16 bricks at a time in his hands,” he said. “But with the crane, I could lift 1,504 bricks at once – just by moving a little lever.”

The mechanized brick plant bore only a faint resemblance to the turn-of-the-20th-century brickyard. As the job changed, so did the workers. “My father keeps calling it the brickyard,” the younger Polacco said. “I didn’t consider it a brickyard. When I worked there, everything was done with modern machinery. We considered it a brick plant. That’s the difference between my father and I: He was forced to work there, but we chose to.”

Attempts by the industry to hold on ultimately failed. By the 1940s, new transportation options meant that New Yorkers could live in the suburbs and still work in the City. The suburban single-family dwellings they built weren’t subject to the City’s stringent fire codes, and brick was no longer required.

The Hudson Valley brick industry lost its transportation edge, too, and designers and architects became more precise when ordering building materials. The high compression standards handed down from the American Society for Testing Materials – unnecessarily high, local brickmakers insisted – were generally beyond the reach of Hudson Valley molded brick. That was the final blow.

The last molded brick in the Valley was fired in 1979. Terry Staples, descended from two of the Valley’s two oldest brickmaking families, was there in the end. When the gates closed on his East Kingston brick plant, so did his family’s century-old tradition of molding brick on the Hudson.

The once-abandoned Hutton Brickyard, now being marketed as an experiential venue, hosted Smorgasburg Upstate, two Bob Dylan concerts and Field + Supply last year.

 

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