Bricks — yes, bricks — spotlighted at Blackberry River Walk
NORTH CANAAN — People actually collect bricks? That was pretty much the first collective thought by those attending last Saturday’s annual Blackberry River Walk.The morning’s talk and walk celebrated and explored East Canaan’s industrial past, particularly the ironworks that once dominated the Lower Road area along the river. Three blast furnaces harnessed river power to melt iron from locally mined ore. The most obvious, and easily overlooked, aspect of it all were the bricks that lined furnace hearths and smoke stacks.The walk was sponsored by the Friends of Beckley Furnace, the group that spearheaded the preservation of the Beckley Blast Furnace, the state’s only official industrial monument. Members convinced the state, which owns the property, to buy the adjacent former ironworks paymaster’s building, which they have turned into a learning center. The most recent work was completed this summer: the preservation of the dam and turbine that supplied power for the blast furnace. Thanks to the Friends, it was fortified and repaired to maintain its historical height. A wrought iron fence surrounds an overlook above the new spillway.But back to those bricks. Guest speaker John Pawlowski, a retired teacher and mineralogist, began by admitting, “You have to be a few bricks shy of a load to be a brick collector.”But he soon had his audience thinking it’s not such a crazy hobby after all.A small, bland-looking display of reddish bricks proved to be full of secrets, surprises and clues to the past. Pawlowski has been a collector for 12 years now, working toward a collection of Connecticut bricks. There were as many as 200 brickyards here at one time.Bricks have been around since the Roman Empire. It was one of the first industries in the Jamestown settlement. Bricks were needed for fireplaces and the blacksmith shop, and eventually for paving roads and building homes.Bricks are the original recycled product. At the Connecticut Antique Machinery Museum in Kent, they have a special place at the Connecticut Museum of Mining and Mineral Science set up by Pawlowski.When the 1847 Beckley Furnace was preserved, all the original bricks were cleaned and reused. In the process, 19 different bricks were found, dating back to 1777 and the old state house in Hartford.Paperwork from the Barnum & Richardson Co. from 1880 revealed an order to a major brickmaker for every brick they had, according to Friends member Ed Kirby.Dick Paddock noted that there was a brickyard in the Clayton area of North Canaan. Its precise location is not known. But a significant clay deposit in this area is rare.The upshot of Pawlowski’s talk was that almost every brick is marked, whether intentionally or not. Some were stamped with a company name, often within the centered indentation, called a frog.“I really like it when they have a date on them,” Pawlowski said. “But you have to do some research because sometimes dates are just when the company started. The brick may have been made much later.”His collection includes bricks engraved with designs to add decoration to buildings, bricks marked with “Comanche I.T.,” for Indian Territory, and others made for commemoratives and fundraising. A brick stamped “OSP” indicates it was made by inmates in the Ohio State Prison system. Another, a paver neatly stamped with “Don’t Spit On Sidewalk” was aimed at stopping the spread of tuberculosis.More interesting were the unusual and one-of-a-kind. Before bricks were extruded and traveled on an assembly line into a kiln, they were handmade and literally tossed into a yard to dry. Pawlowski demonstrated how one can tell if the “tosser” was right- or left-handed, by the slight finger indentations left in the wet bricks.He showed one with a dog paw print and another with cat paw prints.“I’m going to have to build a diorama at the museum of a dog chasing a cat through a brickyard,” he said.Bricks have been found with marks from frost crystals, worm tracks and pockmarked from rain. Company names appear in reverse when the mold-maker forgot to write backwards, or with an “i” not dotted. Some have numbers inscribed. Pawlowski said numbers may have represented the size of a run. Another has a tally of numbers that may have indicated an entire day’s run.Curiously vague marks may have been made by freelance brickmakers as a way to keep track of what they were owed.A favorite of the crowd was a brick handmade in the 1850s that carries with it to this day the essence of someone’s sense of humor and/or boredom. Perhaps it was made by a teenager. Scratched into it is, “Hi, I am a Brick!”Tours of the Beckley Furnace are offered Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., through September. For more information go to www.beckleyfurnace.org.