By the turn of the century, the Hudson Valley had become the center of the brick industry, with Mechanicville one of the leading production sites. Within a decade, six new companies (the Cory, Halfmoon, Stuyvesant, Hudson Valley, and Duffney firms) opened kilns, taking advantage of the demand for building and paving bricks in New York, Boston, and other population centers easily accessible because of Mechanicville's rail and canal connections.
Wizard of Oz fans remember the story of Dorothy and her friends as they traveled down the yellow brick road. Residents of Park Avenue may wonder if our city fathers were using some special symbolism 100 years ago when paving their street with yellow bricks. That's not likely, but yellow bricks (and just about every other color you can think of) were made right here in Mechanicville, once one of the largest centers of the trade in the northeastern United States. However, apart from a few place names and a small vestige of a once- thriving company in Hemstreet Park, there are no reminders left of an industry which functioned as one of the main cogs in the local economy. How it started and flourished here is an interesting story.
When Holyoke investors sought New York State's permission to build a large power dam and paper mill here in 1882, one thing they knew they would need was tons of bricks. Brickmaking was among the oldest trades in America, almost as widely distributed as town-building. But certain places blessed with superior clays, inexpensive fuel supplies, and shipping facilities to nearby markets became centers for the industry. Mechanicville was one such area where all of these factors came into play. When Horace Medbury opened the first kiln here in 1883, he intended the facility to serve only temporarily as a source of supply for the nine pulp mills, boiler houses, and store houses of the Hudson River Water Power and Paper Co., which would be centered around the company's newly built power dam. Medbury oversaw forty men who turned out 40,000 bricks a day before operations were discontinued. However, the firing of the first kilns made obvious the abundance of clay and lime here and, combined with canal and rail connections to large market areas, it wasn't long before other, more permanent yards began to tap the potential demonstrated by Medbury.
In 1886, the Mechanicville Brick Co. won the contract to supply the building of the New York City Aqueduct with 12 million bricks. To say that this was an early example of venture capitalism would be an understatement: the company was not even incorporated until Much 2, 1887, almost a year after its first contract was awarded. The trustees included Massachusetts investors as well as Oscar Warner and A.J. Harvey, Mechanicville lawyer and banker, respectively. In 1890, the firm opened a second yard when it won the contract to supply the new Edison Co. of Schenectady with 5 million bricks. A third yard would be created by the firm in 1895.
Other local investors, thinking they knew a good thing when they saw it, formed the Best Brick Co. in 1894, and like its predecessor, it expanded its capacity within a few years. By the turn of the century, the Hudson Valley had become the center of the brick industry, with Mechanicville one of the leading production sites. Within a decade, six new companies (the Cory, Halfmoon, Stuyvesant, Hudson Valley, and Duffney firms) opened kilns, taking advantage of the demand for building and paving bricks in New York, Boston, and other population centers easily accessible because of Mechanicville's rail and canal connections. Capitalization of these ventures ranged widely from $10 to $100 thousand, revealing the speculative nature of some of the firms, which had the same appeal to investors as some of today's "dot-coms." Raw materials were inexpensive, and the availability of cheap immigrant labor made start-up costs attractive. However, as often happens in a rapidly expanding industry, competition invites consolidation, and by 1900, the so-called "New England Brick Trust" swooped in and bought out all local concerns, save the Champlain yard. The New England Co., headquartered in Boston, controlled thirty-four yards throughout the northeast, but it bit off more than it could chew and went into receivership in 1904. Mechanicville Mercury editor, Farrington Mead, ever sensitive to local control issues, blamed the bankruptcy on the loss of hometown supervision of the yards as employment at area kilns declined from 500 to less than 100 men by 1905.
The industry was subject to the ups and downs of building booms and busts throughout the Northeast, and the demand for common red building and yellow paving bricks fluctuated wildly at times. When things were booming, profits could be huge for investors; workers' annual wages averaged only $251 per year, a low figure even for the standards of the day. But, "value added," that is, the ratio of profits to costs, was five to one, much higher than that of most industries. In the expansive era prior to World War I, Mead estimated that 900 to 1100 workers were employed making bricks here, a number equal to nearly 10% of the industry's entire statewide labor force according to census reports.
What gave the industry a unique character was its workforce, almost all of whom were Italian immigrants. Because of our long winters, brickyards were open at most ten months a year, sometimes as few as six. The area around Naples Italy, was economically devastated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, causing potential workers to look far afield for employment, even while they were reluctant to leave their homeland permanently. Many of these men migrated for part of each year to places like Mechanicville, returning home each winter as "birds of passage." The wives they left behind were often referred to as "white widows," women whose husbands were absent for most, but not all of the year. Locally, this phenomenon was so regularized that round-trip passages between Mechanicville and Naples could be purchased every day from local banker A.J. Harvey, or from immigrant banker Joseph della Vigna. Each of these men was heavily involved in the brick industry. Harvey had helped found the first local yard in 1886, while delta Vigna (a.k.a. Joseph Vett) attempted to keep the lagging industry going in the 1920s by organizing the Mohawk Brick Co. with fellow immigrant investors. However, the availability of cheap fuels for firing brick, new clay deposits, and inexpensive transportation in the West encouraged the migration of the industry away from the Northeast after the end of The Great War in 1918. Vett's attempt to revive the industry here in 1922 wound up toppling not only the Mohawk firm, but also the immigrant bank which financed the company. The brickyard declared bankruptcy in 1924, while the assets of the Banco delta Vigna were attached by the state and finally liquidated by the Banking Commissioner in 1928. By that time, even though 300 local workmen still listed their employment as "brickmaker," this was less than one-third the number so employed at the industry's peak in 1910-11. The onset of the Depression in the 1930s marked the end of the industry for all practical purposes.
Today, there are few vestiges of this once flourishing industry other than one of the original yards of the Champlain Brick Co. opened in 1897, and a water pipe connecting the city water mains with the old Ferris-Duffney yards dating back to the beginning of this century. These water lines have been the subject of legal dispute for some time regarding their ownership, and they may prove more valuable in the long run than all of the bricks which were once produced there.
Having surveyed the history of three inter-related industries (trolleys, brick making, and electric power), we have seen that each of them emerged in the 1880s, prospered for the next forty years, and then all but disappeared before the Great Depression. However, while at their height, few would have predicted that each of these activities would cease to exist. Despite this, one of the few constants we see at work in history is change, for better or for worse. A review of even more significant local activities like railroading and papermaking in later articles will bear this out.