The Kelsey-Harvey Brickyard
Auburn, New York
The Kelseys began the yard sometime before 1859. It seems to have been combined with farming until demand became great enough to sustain it as a full-time occupation. The Kelseys had moved from Long Island up the Hudson to Milton and Marleborough and then, in 1829, to Auburn. There they gave their name to Kelsey Street adjacent to Wright Avenue where the yard operated. When they lived near Milton and Marleborough they were close enough to the Haverstraw brick center that some member of the family may have picked up a knowledge of the brick trade there.
The business grew slowly, perhaps they did not make bricks every year. The Kelsey yard was not important enough to be mentioned in an 1879 history of Cayuga County. It was noted when New York State counted its brickyards in 1895. The business grew while William Kelsey and his son-in-law John Harvey ran it. John came from England and may have learned the trade there. When his son, Fred Harvey took over the management in 1889 the business expanded greatly.
Brick making as practiced in this brickyard was probably fairly representative of small yards around the country. The first step in making brick was to plow clay. As this implies, an ordinary plow was used to break lumps loose from the clay bed. The clay was shovelled into carts, hauled to pits in the earth where it was mixed with coal dust, and left to cure. This was done some time in advance of the anticipated time to begin molding bricks. It could be done in the spring as soon as frost was out of the ground, but it was more prudent to plow in the fall and avoid delays in the spring. Fall plowing had the advantage of allowing winter freezing to help crumble the clay for mixing with the coal dust.
The skill of a brickmaker was revealed by his management of the curing process. There was no set time period; the brick maker watched the weather and considered the temperature and amount of precipitation. He felt of the mix and perhaps even tasted it to determine if it were ready to be shoveled from the pits for molding into bricks.
In the early years of the yard, bricks were formed by the primitive method of pressing the clay mixture by hand into molds. Later, machines extruded a brick-shaped strip of clay from which individual bricks were sliced with a wire.
The newly-formed wet brick were laid out in long rows to air dry. Several rows stacked together were called a hack. When half dry, again a matter of judgment of the brickmaker, they were scintled, that is, separated to allow more air circulation. The weather was very important. Freezing would crumble the bricks, and rain would soften the bricks. The process was always delayed until all danger of frost was passed, and wood covers, called saddles, were used to keep rain off the bricks.
The dried brick were built up into kilns for burning. This was the special skill of the brick setter. He laid them up in a form known as arches, using from twenty to thirty thousand bricks per arch, and so arranging the pattern to allow fires to be tended in bottom openings and smoke to emerge from top openings. The finished kiln would be a great cube about sixteen feet high. The outside was formed of already burned bricks and plastered over by hand with mud, a process known as scoving.
Incidentally, all this handling of the brick provided the definition of a day's work for a workman. Called a stint, a day's work as a unit of payment meant handling three and one half rows of brick, each row two hundred feet long and six feet wide.
The burning of the bricks followed the completion of the kiln. The initial step was called the water smoke. Low fires were kept for several days in the kiln to steam out the moisture. Then the fires were built up for final burning. It lasted about a week. During most of the history of the Kelsey-Harvey yard, wood was used for fuel. In later years coal and coke were the main fuels.
When the brickmaker judged the brick to be done, the fires were allowed to burn out. His chief method of determining the progress of the firing was to watch the bricks change color and become red. During the firing process the red color gradually advanced up the kiln, and when the top bricks reached the right shade the bricks were done. After the fires were out and the kiln had cooled, the protecting shell was dismantled and the bricks were taken down and sorted. Those from the layers above the arches were sorted for hardness and to remove imperfect bricks. The bricks that formed the arches were used as seconds or discarded. Normally, the kiln would be allowed to cool for about a week before removing the bricks, but on, at least, one occasion such hot brick were handled to fill a rush order that the wagon in which they were being hauled caught fire from the straw packing used to protect the bricks from chipping by colliding with each other.
Most of these bricks were made to a standard called Horseheads Brick, which some architects specified. Fancy bricks, departures in size or shape, were made on special order. Into some bricks in every kiln the trademark of the yard was impressed, the initials of the owner. But in all cases the essential production process was the same.
This is the Rockland County method of production which includes the use of coal dust, and is a more primitive process than the English method described in the contemporary Encyclopaedia Britannica.
© 1996, Robert V. Anderson