Some might say that a brick is just a brick, but to brick collectors and local brick-making history enthusiasts like Town Supervisor Fred Costello Jr., each brick tells a story — one worth telling.
Costello hopes to highlight the brick-making past of Saugerties, which is beginning to fade as surviving employees of local brickyards pass away and local enthusiasts dwindle, with a permanent educational display at Bristol Beach, an in-process recreational hiking area that was the site of the Staples Brickyard at the turn of the century.
Rudimentary trails are being cut into the dense brush at Bristol Beach after a decade of speculation and debate over the site’s proper use. Eventually, town officials hope to clear a literal beach there; right now, most of the acreage is a veritable thicket, an event space for naught save opossums and ticks. In the small residential hamlet known as Malden, where the site’s nestled, not much remains in the way of commercial enterprise.
Currently, the river can be accessed for quiet contemplation. In the soft riverbed and on the shore, as with most stretches of Hudson River in Saugerties, lay dozens of ceramic reminders of a louder and much busier time at the riverfront. At the turn of the 20th century, the Hudson Valley was the world’s leading brick manufacturer. Convoys of barges toting hundreds of thousands of bricks apiece trawled the now-serene body. Some, like Costello, collect these bricks — even the distorted marshmallow-looking ones, called “lammies,” once discarded and currently coveted by local collectors. The bricks of the 20th century, known by those in the know as “common brick” (as opposed to “modern bricks”) are distinctly different, said Costello. They’re heavier yet less dense, more varied and more susceptible to water damage, it is easy to distinguish a brick from times past.
Also on the site are the overgrown remains of the brickyard: a boiler, whose flue has been removed in the last decade; a brickmaking building, made itself of brick and outfitted with all manner of rusted machinery; a small workshop that seems to have been a showpiece for visitors to the site during its operations; and a series of small brick buildings, some of which were occupied by brickyard employees and their families, others which could have been storage buildings.
“[Bristol Beach isn’t] just an abstract idea [anymore], it’s tangible,” boasted Costello. “By the end of this summer, people can go there and experience the property for the first time. Because it’s a brick-making site, I think it’s important to memorialize what it took to make a common brick and some of the structures that have been left behind I think are restorable. There is one building that is quite large and has some beautiful brickwork with common bricks and steel trusses. I picture it as a pavilion structure — that’s a unique opportunity that doesn’t exist yet.”
Costello said that, in total, he’s amassed about 30 bricks from the various brickyards that once roosted in Saugerties. At his restaurant, Sue’s, the prized bricks that Costello’s collected are inconspicuously mounted on the wall in their original molds. The molds, or “slugs,” were picked up by chance at a local auction; each could accommodate six bricks, and were originally from the Terry brickyard where his grandfather, Louis, worked in the 1930s.
“When I was seven years old, I would ask my mama where my papa was going,” said Fred Costello Sr., who said that his brick collection far surpasses his son’s. “I said, ‘Pa, when I get big I want to work down there [at the brickyard]. He said, ‘No you don’t, it’s hard, dirty work.’”
It was indeed “hard, dirty work.” Workers, rather than being paid by the hour, were paid daily, by the stint. Every day, clay was mined from the riverbed; as clay was harvested, a terraced digging system was established so that high walls of clay wouldn’t collapse onto workers below. In the case of the Staples brickyard, horses were kept in a barn near the current site of the Glasco Firehouse and used to cart clay from their quarries — Costello Sr. said that around 1910, a small train was installed on the site to transport the clay more quickly — to their next phase, a tempering pit. The “pitmaster” then combined the clay with sand; Costello said that the practice of adding anthracite coal to the brick recipe at this stage, which shortened their drying time considerably, by about a week, originated at the Saugerties Washburn Brickyard. Each yard had its own specialty ratio of brick to sand to coal.
“When I was a kid in Glasco at the former site of the former Washburn brickyard, that whole shoreline was loaded with bricks,” said Costello of his earliest brick hunts. “The bulkheads were all timber back then and they’d get barges and load them. Sometimes the wheelbarrows would fall over and they would fill in behind the wooden bulkheads with bricks.”
Costello holds an appreciation for the careful, time-consuming craftsmanship the 20th century, and not just in the case of brick-making; among his collection, he has a prized set of ice tongs and an ice saw, used when ice cutting was also a booming industry along the Hudson. Attempting to capture each facet of the life of a 20th century manual laborer.
Costello has boxes that were once used by workers at local brickyards to bring items home from brickyard commissaries. As another testament to his love of local and personal histories, Costello has two wine barrels and a press that he used as a child with his parents to make batches of wine each year.
“I didn’t appreciate growing up here until I started spending time in other places,” said Costello. “One of the things that were transformative was spending time in Israel. In the summer of 1992 I participated in a study mission … A normal day for them is nowhere near as relaxed as a normal day for us, and they’re much more sensitive to the idea of preserving their heritage and way of life. It was interesting to share that experience. It made me appreciate here that, while we do have our differences, we’re able to celebrate them and that doesn’t happen by mistake,” said Costello.
“We embrace each other’s differences here and we don’t decide ourselves by it. When I left Israel, I had a sense that everything that was here took hard work to get where it is — it made me more motivated to want to be involved. I had opportunities to get involved on a local level and I embraced those.”