The “ Brickyard “ Summer of 1957
Robert J. Malina
Driven by the need for money to buy the 1940 Ford coupe of my dreams, I checked around town for summer jobs as I would turn 16 on July 7. The word was the pay at the brickyard was by far the best locally, but the work was hard. I showed up at the brickyard yard around the middle of June when school was out for the summer. The brickyard now called Eastern Brick was located adjacent to the railroad tracks just about 1/4 mile north of the Berlin railroad station. The local name for the brickyard was “ Merwins” I guess that was its name from many years earlier, The ponds at the brickyard were our favorite swimming holes when we were children, which we called “ bare ass beach ” for our lack of the use of bathing attire. The office was a dingy, dusty and faded barn red wooden building just south of the massive tin covered sheds. I was met by Mr. MacPherson who asked me what I wanted. I responded that I wanted a job for the summer. He looked up and down and said “ How much you weigh? I lied by about 10 lbs and said, “140, Sir“. He was a ruddy faced man with bright white hair combed straight back …looked a little bit like Spencer Tracy. He shot back “ You don’t look tough enough to do this job…it’s hot under the sheds and the work is tough“. I replied that I was confident I could do it and would like a chance. He said “Ok, fill out these papers and show up tomorrow morning at 7:00“.
Day one at the brickyard was an experience. I was introduced to the gang by MacPherson and the day started. They were in the process of building a kiln out of “Green,” “sun-dried only” bricks. The arch was already built when I arrived and the kiln was about 2/3 done. The process was that a crew would remove the sun-dried bricks from the drying racks and stack them on wheelbarrows and wheel them to the side of the kiln where others took them off, 4 at a time and tossed them up 1 level at a time to the person at the top who would expertly placed them properly to build the kiln. I was placed on the scaffolding about ½ way up. I had to reach down and catch the 4 bricks coming up at me from the guy below and toss them to the guy above me. There was a steady rhythm and pace. There was a trick to catching the bricks and also tossing them I was shown how and went to work. It was quite brutal, the paces was fast, my arms were aching but I hung on and made it through the day. As a side note here, the entire crew under the shed were African-Americans…called Negroes back then. Many of them lived in company housing directly across the tracks from the brickyard. The houses were small without basements and had cinder blocks on the corners holding them up. The yards were dirt only, no grass, no landscaping.
I limped home after the first day and took a hot bath while mother made supper. I ate a huge meal and rubbed myself down with Absorbine Jr. rubbing alcohol and went to sleep immediately. 6:00a.m. came soon and I headed out to day 2.
Day 2 went better but my body ached all over….muscles that I didn’t know I had we hurting in a big way! As the day progressed the pace seemed to slow..to a more manageable rhythm. I found out 2 weeks later that I had been put through the “ initiation” by the crew to see if they could break me down. I had passed the test and they resumed normal pace. Worked started at 7:00 a.m. and we had a snack truck; the “Roach Coach” come by at about 9:30. By that time I was famished and usually devoured a large “Grinder”… called a submarine in some states. Lunch was at 12:00 and we ate again and this time I ate the lunch my mother had prepared in my brown bag. As the days progressed the kiln got larger and larger and then was finally done. The last step was to completely cover the kiln’s exterior with wet clay to seal it. This was done in a similar manner with buckets of wet clay handed up to the last stage guy who slopped it on the kiln. Once this was done the kiln was fired off. Natural gas was piped though the arches into the kiln and had discharge jets all along the length of the kiln. After a few hours, the heat under the sheds was extreme. The gas was fired for many days. During this time the crew moved to the other shed to the north, to build a kiln there, thereby alternating the work in the sheds back and forth. Note: previous to gas this process was done with wood fires…Imagine keeping these fires going for a week.
When the kiln was done firing and had cooled off, the crew would begin to dissemble the kiln. Starting at the top, the process is reversed. The mud/clay is chipped away and the bricks are pulled out and thrown down to a conveyer system that was placed on a waiting truck. The loading crew placed the bricks in the bed layer by layer, each layer separated by some straw thrown down to keep the brick from cracking during delivery. The loading job was not as difficult as building a kiln, as the bricks were now lighter since the water was baked out. I believe the wet bricks out of the mold were about 6 lbs. and sun-dried about 4 lbs. and to 2 lbs. for a finished brick. The kiln was disassembled as the orders from the construction companies came in. The orders were steady as we disassembled the kiln fairly quickly. When we reached the bricks near the arch, several experienced guys took over and very carefully disassembled the arch. The bricks closest to the gas flame were subjected to extreme heat. These are called firebricks and have various interesting colors as well as some swelling at one end. These bricks are prized for building fireplaces and other decorative work and there were standing orders for these. The last stage was cleaning up the area of all broken brick and debris to ready for the start of the next build. There was a very short but very muscular older black man named Billie, who built the arches and did other critical work on the building. I remember clearly he was about 5 foot 4 inches and had biceps like softballs. He was friendly and would share his expertise freely.
After 2-3 weeks I was asked to help out in the drying area, moving the bricks from there to the kiln building crews. The same “ initiation” thing happened here. The guy showing me the ropes here was named “ Fox”. He was 6 feet tall and 210 lbs. of solid muscle. He showed me how to take the bricks off the drying pallets and load the flat wheelbarrows. I remember him saying that a full load was well over 500 lbs. The drying racks rows had 6 inch metal strips as a roadway and you had to stay on the rail or you went on the dirt to a certain “tip over“. The intersections were particularly dangerous where the metal bands crossed. You had to hit the turn perfectly or disaster! Fox loaded one up and took off and easily crisscrossed the metal roadways and delivered the load perfectly. I loaded up a wheelbarrow with the full load and could not even lift it off the floor…it was clear I could not do this! I took off one lot of bricks and managed to get it to the destination…embarrassed by my small load. I tried adding more each load but could not seem to control the wheelbarrow if heavily loaded. “Ole Billie” saw my plight and came to the rescue. He showed my how to lift the wheelbarrow to the balance point where the weight was nullified. Billie showed me a how a full load was brought up to the balance point and he pushed it with ONE HAND …even around the corners. He laughed and said it took years to do that. He also instructed me to keep up the speed and the balance would do the work. The hints helped and I managed to do well but not with a full load…but an “acceptable” load. I dumped several loads but that’s the price of learning! My duties in the drying shed included a stint putting the pallets, containing six newly formed wet bricks, into the rack after removing them from a conveyer belt. This amounted to a very specific shoulder exercise and the guys here looked like they had shoulder pads on. You had to keep up with the conveyer or they would fall off the end. There were specific guys that did this and I only did this for 2-3 days as a “fill-in“. Once the bricks were on the pallets and on the drying racks, the children of the workers would turn the bricks ¼ turn every day to dry them evenly. The short children would do the bottom racks and taller children would do the upper racks. The kids were very fast, turning them as they proceeded down the aisles. I am sure the parents got paid for this. I can’t imagine getting away with this now….child labor laws!
There were non-specific bosses under the sheds…. the older guys seem to be in charge (informally). Mr. MacPherson would drive around in his ‘52 Chevrolet hardtop and stop here and there, to issue some orders. The word around was, that he had a bottle of whiskey in the car, and occasionally would be seen taking a nip. His face was always red and glowing as was his nose.
As the weeks went by I adapted to the rigorous work and by now was going out a night with the boys and doing typical teenage things. My weight was increasing every week and by end of season I was 165 lbs….. a gain of 35 lbs. I cannot remember the names of many of my co-workers but I remember their faces well. In the brick making building, the workers were mostly immigrant Italians. They mixed the sand and clay in exact proportions and ran the process of pressing the clay mixture into bricks and loading them into the conveyers for shipment to the drying racks. Two names stand out “Ricco” and “Bambula”. Ricco was in his late 50’s and had a permanent stoop from his shoveling duties. Bambula was a fair skinned Italian who did various duties and smiled a lot.
The brickyards left a permanent mark on the Berlin city landscape. After the clay was extracted, the clay pits filled with water and provided great swimming and fishing ponds. The drop-off and straight to about 30-40 feet deep so swimming suits were necessary. Occasionally someone would drown and out parents would forbid us to swim there, which lasted about one week. There are remnants of an electric steam shovel mast located at a pond and easily seen from route 72 bypass. We called it “Steam Shovel Pond” and used the mast as a diving platform. One of our playmates did a poor dive off the platform and ended up paralyzed from a neck injury. On the opposite side of the road were the Merwin clay pit ponds and today from the road, you can clearly see the place where we used to swim. Bathing suits would be required now!
My brickyard experience taught me several things:
- Do not be afraid to try something challenging and do not be intimated by
- Most people want to get along....give them a chance and it will work out.
- Working hard physical labor for a living may be good exercise for a young man, but I wouldn’t want to do it for a career. I ended up in the computer field after this wake-up call.
The approximate size of a kiln was 50 feet wide, 30 feet tall and 70 feet deep with arches placed every 10 ft.
The first Friday at work I noticed all the black workers wore tightly fitted nylon stockings tied to their heads. I could not figure out what this was about until noting after the showers at work’s end, they all had slicked-down hairdo’s like Nat King Cole! Ready for Friday night party time! The shower area was provided to remove the layer of clay dust one acquired every day. The shower was an outside, crude homemade gravity fed affair but worked well and was effective.
My final “initiation rite” was sealed after I got my driver’s license and occasionally drove a fellow worker (during lunch) to the local liquor store about ¾ of a mile away. This fellow apparently needed a little nip to get through the day and used a hollowed out place in the kiln to hide the pint of “ red-eye wine (19% alcohol and had quite a kick). After this I was “ in” and “one of the boys”!
The wedding: Sometime in August there was a dual wedding of two brothers to two sisters. I believe it was Geraldine and Betty marrying Junior and Sonny. It was a big deal at the brickyard and a subject of work chatter for some time. Hmmm…I wonder why I was not invited?
I sure would like to talk to Jerry Rice ( ex San Francisco 49er’s wide receiver) and hear about his experiences working at a brickyard in Mississippi.
MacPherson seemed to run a small pay day loan system, as occasionally, you would see a worker approach the boss’s car and come away with some folding money. MacPherson would note it in his book for collection later. This a was a forerunner to the now common “ Payday Loan“ businesses that are common in some parts of town.
Note: Some of the names are changed to protect the innocent.
A Merwin Brick from Berlin, Connecticut
June 10, 2008