June 1996

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The Kelsey-Harvey Brickyard

Auburn, New York


Robert V. Anderson

Part 1, Part 2


Auburn industry was expanding in the years 1880 to 1910, and this encouraged a population increase: the census figures being, 21,891 in 1880, 25,858 in 1890, 30,345 in 1900 and 34,668 in 1910. A general economic expansion was the natural accompaniment. This burgeoning industrial, commercial, social, and governmental activity had to be housed. Auburn entered a great building era which required large quantities of brick. The brick business boomed.

If population growth was the indicator of economic growth, it also showed the Auburn economy slowing and stagnating in later years. The census recorded 36,192 in 1920, 36,652 in 1930, 35,753 in 1940 and 36,667 in 1950. By 1940 much of the population growth was outside the city limits. This hadn't been true in 1920 and in only a limited way in 1930.

The yard seems to have made about a million bricks a year from 1893 to its termination. The absolute figures for the panic year 1893 were 1,231,700 made and 1,225,750 sold. If there was an effect of the panic on business it was delayed until 1894 when the number sold dropped to 887,005, with a further drop in 1895 to 727,497. But in 1899 sales rose to 1,806,500. Sales were down in 1902 to 1,319,050, perhaps reflecting the panic of 1901, but 1903 was the peak year recorded with nearly 2 million made and 1,872,180 sold. Thereafter there was decline. Only in 1904 and 1910 were more than a million bricks sold by the yard.

The owner made efforts to overcome the weakness of the local market when the supply of bricks outran the demand. But his attempts to reach outside the area market, as represented by a shipment to Utica, New York, did not stay the tide. Only a rise in the price of bricks from $5 a thousand to $6.50 did help business' finances.

Brickmaking is a labor intensive industry. The yard turned to machinery to lessen its high labor costs even though labor was relatively cheap. Labor had first been the owner's family. When demand increased outside help was hired, but most of it was seasonal help.

The prime raw material required was clay. The owner purchased additional land as his own pits became exhausted. But land was costly and not much was available so the yard added shale to the clay mix in an amount equal to the clay. Mr. Harvey made arrangements just before his death to bring in Cayuga shale from the lake below Ithaca to be ground for his mix.

The big item of production which had to be purchased was fuel. When wood was used it meant finding a number of individual contractors, mostly farmers, to assure a good constant supply. The price of wood varied from $4 to $6 a cord in the years of 1908 to 1911, and the yard's use fell from $404.20 recorded for fuel wood spent in 1907 to $72.50 spent in 1910. Coal was obtained from local coal yards and from the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the New York Auburn & Lansing Railroad. Coke came from the Auburn Gas Company. Even gas was tried for brick burning in 1911.

The yard never constructed permanent kilns, because more brick could be burned in temporary kilns in the relatively small working area. Technical improvement did occur with the installation of a large brickmaking machine late in the yard's history.

Marketing was an easy affair in the early days. The yard was there and anybody who wanted bricks could come, buy, and cart them away. Competitors' prices might have to be met and there would be questions of rebates for spoiled or broken bricks, but no real marketing effort was involved. The family did make social-business contacts with potential users. They traded at the places which might want to purchase brick for expansion someday. The family went to the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Harvey became a Shriner and was active in Masonic affairs, and he joined the national brick manufacturers association to find contracts to bid. And he kept an eye on local competition.

There was another local brickyard, Saunder's, and a careful ledger entry for 1899 shows that Saunders made more brick that year than the Harveys. A prime contract was secured in 1906 when bricks were sent to Baxter at Utica, New York, for a major sewer project. (Right across the river from the Weaver brickyard!)

The oldest surviving sales ledger for the yard is dated 1884. Of the 134,505 bricks sold that year, nearly half, 64,000 went to the Catholic Church. The remainder went in small lots, mostly to individuals and contractors. In 1887 36,000 went to build the Owasco School. In 1889 64,000 brick went to the schoolhouse and 147,000 to Auburn Prison. The prison was a steady customer. The state built an armory in 1895. Schools, sewers, firehouses, jails, poor houses, all were built of brick.

Other institutional buildings to house the needs of the population were also erected. Orphans got their assylum in 1891, the old ladies, their home in 1898, and the ill, a hospital in 1903. For scholars, Case Library was built with 270,000 bricks in 1899 and 1900.

The increasing population built more churches. The Protestant churches had been constructed in the 1860 to 1880 years, a time not covered by the company's ledgers. Sales were made to contractors building Catholic churches: Holy Family in 1896 and 1898, The German (St. Alphonsus?) in 1897, St. John's in 1904, St. Mary's rectory in 1912. Bricks went to the First Presbyterian also in 1912. Bricks also went to a church in 1906, probably St. Hyacinth's (Polish) or Trinity Methodist, or both, since two different contractors received bricks, "at the church."

All of this governmental and institutional building was supported by the growth of the manufacturing and commercial community. Several of the big factories became steady customers as they expanded. McIntock, Seymour and Co. bought bricks and clay for its foundry and mills every year. Other industrial buyers were Columbia Cordage, D. M. Osborne that became International Harvester in 1905, Bowen Manufacturing, Auburn Button Works, American Wringer Company, Auburn Woolen Mill and, flying in the face of automotive power, the Eagle Wagon Works in 1912. Food processing companies and community utilities, and railroad stations all required brick, along with hotels, business blocks, banks, stores, and cemeteries.

Money flowed into the yard and it moved out again for wages, supplies and machinery. Money often meant not cash but a note. If Mr. Harvey carried contractors' accounts on books and finally took a note, he had to seek the same treatment from his creditors.

No distinction was made in spending between family and business. Nor was any yearly balance struck.

The last year of full operation, 1911, was a disastrous one. Probably more than a million bricks were made or were available from previous production. Only 792,400 were recorded as sold, for $5,436.53. International Harvester bought 476,000 bricks for $3,094. Other companies made substantial purchases but the time of business expansion was over, and the remaining demand for chimneys, street paving repairs, and cemetery vaults was too small to sustain the brickyard. It was always a seasonal business. Bricks couldn't be made in the winter, nor could they be used when mortar would freeze. Mr. Harvey used his spare time during the six-month slack season to prepare clay, seek contracts, collect outstanding accounts, recondition equipment, and build boats which he used himself and sold.

The deficit for 1911 was $812.68, not much money by present-day standards, but it did reflect the declining use of brick and weak business activity in Auburn.

The farming family had expanded its brickmaking activity until it could discontinue farming. Their bricks had gone into the many fine buildings in Auburn built during its years of population growth and prosperity. Many of those structures built of brick remain today, much as they were in 1912, monuments to the accomplishments of their builders.

Part 1, Part 2
1996, Robert V. Anderson
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