There is an old saying that downtown Boston was built of Bangor lumber and Brewer bricks. Having never heard about Brewer bricks, I did some additional research and found out that, if anything, it is an understatement. Besides Boston, you can add a host of other cities in the United States and abroad to the list of places where Brewer bricks (and a few from Bangor and other towns along the Penobscot) added beauty and durability to the architectural landscape for much of the 19th century.
Maine once had hundreds of brickyards. The state exported bricks to many urban centers. But the undisputed center of Maine brick exports was Brewer, according to Paul E. Rivard, a former director of the Maine State Museum in Augusta. “At the height of its business in the 1850s, Brewer boasted no fewer than 20 brickyards, producing over 15 million bricks per year. The vast majority of these were shipped down the Penobscot, along with loads of lumber, to be sold at auction in the Boston market. Brewer brick was famous and became, for a time, a standard of manufacture cited in government contracts: bricks everywhere were to be ‘constructed of Brewer brick or equal’,” Rivard wrote in “Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present.”
In that same book, historian Lawrence C. Allin describes how this commerce worked in conjunction with the lumber trade: Each winter, Brewer brick makers collected scrap wood from the sawmills for their kilns. When spring came they dug their clay. The city of Brewer is built around these pits today. These brick makers had a ready supply of labor in the spring and summer after many loggers returned from the woods. When the work was completed, the brickyards furnished bricks to sea captains carrying lumber who wanted to load their holds with weight to make their vessels perform well at sea.
Brewer’s peak years were the four decades between the 1850s and the 1880s when bricks were needed by rapidly growing cities. “Most of these brick manufacturers continued to operate independently until the mid-1880s when either the clay was exhausted or the demand slacked off or competition made a small concern unprofitable,” wrote Jim Vickery in his pictorial history of Brewer.
A century ago, when this column is set, the Bangor newspapers were still keeping track of the local brick industry even though it was but a shadow of its former self. In 1904, brickyards in Brewer, Bangor, Orland and Penobscot produced 9.2 million bricks. Brewer remained top manufacturer with 3.8 million bricks produced at three yards, while Bangor was fourth on the list with only one yard producing 1.3 million, according to the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 21.
By 1907 things had picked up. The Bangor Brick Co., (the successor to W.S. Hellier & Co.) on Warren Street had produced 5 million bricks for an all-time record for the Queen City. Forty-five men and 16 horses were employed every day during the summer, and $7,500 worth of wood was burned. About 2 million bricks had been used for construction in Bangor, while another million had been shipped out of the city, many to Aroostook County.
During the previous spring, the Bangor Board of Trade had listened to an impassioned speech by Patrick H. Dunn, a real estate broker, urging local developers to stop importing bricks and redevelop the area’s brick industry, providing jobs in the process. Dunn had been a brick baker in his youth, presumably in one or more of the brickyards run by various Dunns in Brewer and Bangor. Both Bangor newspapers published his comments on April 30.
After the earthquake in Charleston, S.C., in 1886, many of the buildings left standing were made of bricks from the Penobscot Valley, and were known and valued by Charleston contractors as “Bangor brick,” said Dunn. Penobscot River brick makers who found their way to Charleston to superintend brickyards during reconstruction heard high praise for bricks shipped from Bangor.
“How many men are there in the city of Bangor who are aware of the fact that the commercial portion of the city of Boston is largely composed of brick manufactured in the vicinity of Bangor,” Dunn continued. The list of places that had benefited from large consignments of area bricks also included St. John, New Brunswick (after its fire “some 30 years ago,”) and St. Johns, Newfoundland, New York City and Baltimore, even London, England and unspecified cities along the Mediterranean and in South Africa.
Maine no longer produced enough bricks for its own needs, let alone the world’s, he said. He cited examples of buildings made of imported bricks, such as the Bangor Opera House and the new train station, that were no better off and, in some cases worse off, than the many local buildings, like city hall and the county courthouse, made of the local product.
By 1908, the area’s brick production had declined because of the depression the year before. The Bangor Brick Co.’s production had declined to 3 million. The four brick manufacturers in Brewer — Brooks Brick, McDonald Brick, Getchell Bros. and O’Brien Brick — had produced a total of 5.5 million.
Brooks Brick Co. was the last brick manufacturer in Brewer. It stopped making bricks in 1956. Today it imports bricks from the headquarters of its parent company in Auburn and from brick manufacturers in other states including Nebraska, Colorado and North Carolina, Manager Ernie Heins told me.
Brewer historian Mildred Thayer’s personal memories in her 1962 history of the city provide a fitting epitaph here: “We remember the active days of the Brooks Brick Company when a red glow in the sky would strike terror to the heart, to be relieved almost immediately when we realized that it was only the ‘burning of the kiln,’….the brick making machinery is now silent, the brick cart stands empty and disconsolate, and the sky no longer glows with the flames from the burning kilns.” Surely a few other Brewer residents must still remember those days as well.