Haverstraw's place in history assured by machine

THE JOURNAL NEWS (Original publication: March 28, 2003)
(used with permission from the publisher)

At the height of its prosperity, Haverstraw village was part of a bustling region regarded worldwide as a premier brickmaking area. Ten thousand people in the area depended upon the bay-area industry for their livelihood. Outsiders flocked to the village, which was a thriving metropolis for more than 100 years. Though Haverstraw dates back to 1712, it gained prominence when its brickyards began operating in the late 1700s Brickmakers were confounded by the problems they encountered in the oftentimes irregular shape of the building blocks, which at that time were made almost entirely by hand.

A few rudimentary tools had been introduced to help streamline production, but it wasn't until 1852, when Richard VerValen developed his brickmaking machine, that the industry exploded. "It had a tremendous impact because prior to that everything was done by hand," said Haverstraw Village Mayor Francis "Bud" Wassmer. "This really increased productivity substantially." VerValen, who knew the industry and had "an inventive mind," pondered the dilemma for a time, according to the late historian, author and area resident, Daniel deNoyelles, in his book, "Within These Gates." A Closter, N.J., native, VerValen had lived in Rockland as a child, then left for upstate New York before returning to Haverstraw in 1848, where he worked manufacturing stoves and plows in his foundry, the book said. According to legend, deNoyelles wrote, it was in the middle of a Sunday church sermon that VerValen had a breakthrough. VerValen patented his machine in 1852 and, deNoyelles said, its principles were "so workable and so novel to brickmaking" that they were used until a more advanced machine, incorporating some of his original ideas, was developed in the 1920s. So successful was his machine that patent holders of other models sued VerValen, who was awarded the right to call himself the machine's originator after carefully explaining his principles. The cases against him were dropped, deNoyelles wrote.

"That machine allowed them to increase the production, oh, I don't know, 10-fold, 20-fold," said Tom Sullivan, a local history buff. Demand had been on the upswing since a terrible fire in 1835 in New York City's financial district destroyed 13 acres of buildings.The tremendous need for materials to rebuild and to accommodate the city's growing immigrant population gave impetus to the growth of the north Rockland brickmaking industry. The VerValen machine revolutionized the way bricks were made. Rather than have workers pour the clay into molds by hand, the machine automated the molding process, allowing a stiffer clay mixture to be used. The result was a more uniformly shaped brick. VerValen's invention so improved the brickmaking process that he quickly got 150 orders from operators in the area. Wassmer said the machine changed the face of the industry, and of the area. It set Haverstraw on a path of prosperity that would last for 75 years. "Haverstraw made brick before that, but what the machine did was give the brick companies the ability to make millions of brick instead of tens of thousands," he said. Business flourished, and at one point 42 yards operated in the area, turning out 148 brands and supporting about 2,500 employees and their families. Those bricks were used to build a variety of structures, including most of the New York City tenements.

The bay areas of Haverstraw, Grassy Point, Garnerville, Stony Point, Tomkins Cove and Jones Point, as well as Tappan and Thiells, all had their own brickyards. But about one-third of production in the area came from Haverstraw, Sullivan said. Haverstraw's location at the widest point on the river, with prime raw material in the rich, blue clay, and the talent in the industry combined to make the area the brickmaking capital of the world, as it had been called.

But things gradually changed and the industry declined. Careless excavation of Haverstraw's clay deposits so weakened the soil that it gave way on Jan. 8, 1906, killing 19 as it buried five streets and 21 buildings. Some charged greedy brickmakers with undermining the land and ignoring signs of its instability.

Then, shortly after the turn of the 20th century, things began to change. Cheaper European bricks flooded the market, and the focus shifted to lighter building materials such as aluminum and steel. The Great Depression sounded the industry's death knell, and World War II delivered the final blow.

When the last yard, Rockland Brick Co., dismantled its only remaining kiln shed in 1941, part of the shed was delivered to a World War II munitions plant for scrap. But Wassmer said the village's rich heritage would play a part in its economic rebirth. Pointing to the fact that heritage tourism is on the rise in New York state, he said Haverstraw's legacy would attract visitors who, interested in its past, would contribute to its renaissance.

Joan Talamini, who recently visited the Haverstraw Brick Museum in the village, said it was important to preserve aspects of the past before they were completely lost. She noted that historic homes in the area had been razed to make way for newer residential and commercial developments, but said progress must not come at the price of losing touch with one's heritage. "We have lost all those things, and now people would like to have it back," she said. "We lost a great deal of history." For her, the museum remains a tangible link to the past, which she visits again and again.

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