I admit I’m spending far too much time this week glued to my television and/or computer watching the latest updates on Hurricane Irma. Something I do when I’m watching too much TV is to sort through stacks of papers that I’ve built up over the last however many months and try to be productive, and while doing that this time, I came across a copy I had printed of a short, fascinating book published by J.W. Crary, Sr. in 1890 titled, Sixty Years a Brickmaker: A Practical Treatise on Brickmaking and Burning. . . .
On the suggestion of an experienced brick mason, I had found this book on the Internet Archive, where I downloaded it to read through. After reading it, you’ll be on your way, like I am, to being able to make brick from scratch with no sweat, but what caught my eye after I started it and the reason I’m creating a post about it here, are Crary’s accounts of his work in the South, and specifically Mississippi in the antebellum era. This is what the Introduction (“Biographical Sketch of the Author of this Book”) says about his career:
Mr. Crary [a native of Ohio] worked with his father until the late autumn of 1834, when he went South, and was, up to the close of our war of the States, a constant jobber, contractor, manufacturer, and superintendent as brickmaker, and part of the time as brick layer, just the same as his father had been from Mr. Crary’s earliest boyhood.
. . . .
As Mr. Crary’s writings show, some of his prominent work was making the brick by contract for the U.S. Arsenal at Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1840 and 1841; making and laying the brick for the State University of Mississippi, in 1845, and 1846; superintending the making of all the No. 1 brick for the U.S. Custom House, in New Orleans, in 1852, ’53, and ’54 . . .
This line drawing of Crary is pretty great–doesn’t he look like a crusty old brick mason who wrote a book called “Sixty Years a Brickmaker”?
Anyway, in case you missed it in the quote above, Crary is credited with “making and laying the brick for the State University of Mississippi, in 1845, and 1846.” The “State University” of course, is not “Mississippi State University,” but that other one, the “University of Mississippi” in Oxford. William Nichols was the architect who laid out the initial plan with the Circle as its organizing core, and he designed a number of buildings for the new campus, mostly completed by 1848. Presumably, Crary was engaged in one of the earliest tasks on any construction project, a task that had to start up to a year or more before building could start–the process of taking clay out of the ground and turning it into brick. The quote above also credits him as the brick layer for Ole Miss. Since construction took several years, not just 1845 and 1846, it’s not clear whether he did all the brick laying, but he probably did all of the brick making for the original buildings. The most famous original building is the Lyceum, but the Croft Institute is also an early building that Crary may have had a role in building, although it may date to the early 1850s.
As an added aside, later in the book, Crary recalls the New Orleans Custom House project, one of the largest building projects in the U.S. up to its time:
At one place I had charge of a dry press machine that made twenty thousand brick per day, also of tempered clay, molding by hand twenty thousand. I set and burned both kinds of brick in the same kiln, about half of each. I found that the dry pressed brick “dried off” slower than the mud brick, and the fire was slower in getting out at the top, but after “fires were up” the dry pressed brick burned out faster than the mud brick, and were ready to be “closed up” sooner, though, “fired” the same way, but slower the first thirty-six hours. Those brick were made for the large United States Custom House in New Orleans, in 1850 and ’51. The officer in charge came to our yard to inspect the first kiln, which was very thoroughly burned, and though prejudiced against dry pressed brick, after a fair and full test, pronounced the dry prssed brick superior to the mud brick.
This brick yard was on Biloxi Bay, in the State of Mississippi.
According to the General Services Administration, “the majority of the [U.S. Custom House] is constructed of brick sheathed in gray granite from Quincy, Massachusetts.” So unlike the Lyceum, where you can view Mr. Crary’s handiwork at close range, at the Custom House, you’ll have to search to find some exposed brick to pay homage. Nevertheless, it’s good to know that there’s a big piece of Biloxi Bay sitting right on Canal Street in New Orleans. All thanks to a crusty old brickmaker, Mr. J.W. Crary, Sr.
Categories: Historic Preservation