The Kelsey-Harvey Brickyard
Auburn, New York
Clay has long fascinated the young of mankind. In the remote past, this basic plastic material became of more importance to men for building walls and shelters than for the pleasant sensations of mud between the toes. Every professional and armchair archaeologist will admit: we know much much more about the history of our predecessors because their use of dried and fired clay has left a physical record that ranks alongside the oral and written accounts. Even the scribes made good use of mud at one time to form the tablets that still exist with inscriptions of legal documents and business transactions of their day.
Nebuchadnezzar's structures, identified by inscribed bricks, tell more about him and his people than we would otherwise know. The brickmaker was an important man in Babylonian society. Wherever bricks have been used they have left an enduring record of human activity.
The history of the economic, and much of the social life, of an urban community may be revealed from intensive study of a single industry, such as brick making, that secures its raw materials nearby and markets its product locally. Many brickyards in upstate New York during the 19th and 20th centuries were closely tied to the success and failure of their locality.
Obliging glaciers had deposited clay in a long line across this area so that brick-making materials were available. Local producers of bricks enjoyed an economic advantage over shipped in bricks when the size of their business fit the local, or regional market. Brick manufactories tended to be family concerns. The owners and operators often lived near their business and usually participated in the life of the community. The Kelsey-Harvey brickyard of Auburn, New York, was in this pattern.
Apparently, the first bricks in this part of North America were brought from Holland during the administration of Governor Van Tiller, and they continued to be imported from England and Holland until the Revolution, coming mostly as ballast in ships which expected to pick up a cargo in America. Some fumbling attempts were made rather early to produce brick domestically. Scattered allusions to brick construction, using bricks burned on the premises appear in old records.
Commercial production is associated at an early period with the Haverstraw, Rockland County area. In 1771 Jacob Van Dyke opened a yard there. He employed sixteen men and shipped brick, apparently to the New York City market, by sailing vessels holding five to ten thousand bricks each. The industry has, of course, continued in this locality. But it was not geared to the needs of upstate New York where local yards developed.
About the middle of the last century, when many a village was experiencing growing pains and some were becoming cities, the use of brick came into its own not only as a durable, fireproof, vermin-resistant material, but also because it was desired as a status symbol, a refinement of civilization in the backwoods. Initially, brickwork was used only for necessary purposes: fireplaces and flues. Chimney construction was probably the major early use of brick. Bricks came to be used for paving streets, constructing sewers, and forming cemetery vaults. Wherever substantial, built-to-last masonry construction was undertaken, bricks were used. As villages prospered, more brick was used to build churches, business blocks, public buildings, factories and homes.
There was a rising curve of usage as urban growth and prosperity continued which carried with it status connotations. To build with brick instead of wood or locally quarried stone was a sign of affluence, stabilty, and leadership in the community. The fly-by-night concern, the poor school district or the laborer did not build with brick, but used cheaper materials.
Brick construction became comparatively more costly and began to decline about the beginning of the twentieth century. Steel skeletons in large buildings reduced the use of brick to a facing material. Lumber shipped from the great forest areas increasingly replaced brick for home building. Concrete blocks and other new materials took the place of bricks for many purposes.
Bricks have been largely displaced by more efficient types of materials and their use now is mostly ornamental.
Brick construction has been a status symbol from the earliest period of settlement. The claim of overseas origin was a prestige statement in itself. This writer was told, as a bit of folklore, that a house on the south shore of Oneida Lake was built of ballast brick brought from England.
Brick buildings symbolized progress and prosperity in the development of a community, and brick producers shared some of this status. The use of brick in upstate New York communities coincided with their growth and continued prosperity. Some places not near a source of suitable clay or lacking a skilled brickmaker, never got beyond the chimney stage of house construction or corresponding village development.
In Auburn where there were favorable conditions, it is possible to trace much of the growth and development of that city from the records of the Kelsey-Harvey yard; it is notable that Auburn's rate of growth slackened at about the same time that the brickyard discontinued operation.
The Kelsey-Harvey brickyard like others of its kind began, expanded and declined almost within the memory of living persons.
© 1996, Robert V. Anderson