Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
Small Operation Brick Making in Pioneer Days
Every village of any size in Van Buren County had a brick-making facility, and several were large opertions for awhile. Some settlers made their own brick on the farm, such as the Duffield family. Their home on Linwood Farm overlooking the Des Moines River north of Pittsburg, was built using brick fired in their own kiln.
According to Gerry Whitmore of Bonaparte, brick making on the farm in the 1800s was very primitive. Methods used had changed very little in the previous 2,000 years.
Gerry Whitmore made brick with his father in the family business for about ten years. Although the family burned brick in Bonaparte, Farmington, and Keosauqua, their operation remained very primitive in comparison with large kiln operations. Some of these built small railways and used cables and inclines, or small steam locomotives to pull side-dumping carts along the tracks, called “Dinkies.” Large kilns employed crews that stacked the “green” bricks on large pallets in a special way, which were pulled and pushed in and out of the firing areas and drying kilns.
But Whitmore recalled preparing the mixture for moulding in a way similar to making bread dough. Although mixing on a small scale can be done with the hands, for hundreds of years it was tempered or mixed by digging a low place about one foot deep, placing the right soil in it and soaking it with water, then riding a horse, pony, mule or ox round and round over it until it was thoroughly mixed by the creature’s feet. Later, this method was replaced by using a “mud gum” or “mud mill.” Poles or tree branches became levers that led the horse or animal around and around the center.
For the small operator, moulding was the most important part of the operation. The moulder stood at a table 12 to 14 hours each day and could make 3500 or more bricks per day. He would take a clot of clay from the mixture delivered to him, roll it in sand, and slap it into the mould, scraping off the excess with a flat stick, which would go back into the clotting material. Moulds were carefully removed from the bricks and the bricks carried to the drying area on a large pallet. Moulds were then returned to the table for wetting and sanding for use again.
Whitmore said they made a pit large enough to hold about 5,000 bricks, and the mud and water mix was prepared using animals, and sometimes the mix stood overnight. Three bricks, standing end to end, was the capacity of one of their moulds. Wet moulds and rolls of mud were dipped in dry sand to prevent the green brick from sticking to its mould.
When a mould was full of bricks, it was carefully tipped over and gingerly lifted off the bricks, so as not to disfigure them, then the bricks were tipped on edge to dry and set. Later, they were placed in the kiln with spaces between so that the heat could pass evenly around them drying them and fusing them. After the firing was completed, they were allowed to cool, and at this point they were ready for use in building.
Most brick was made of clay, but in case shale was used, a brick would be as hard as granite.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick