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The Story of Our Valley, Chapter Four – A Ton of Bricks (Part VII, 1912-1935)

The concluding chapter in the story of the brick makers of the Hackensack Valley.

By Kevin Wright©2013

Would generational change bring innovation to an ancient industry? Brickmaker Isaiah M. Gardner died at his home on Hudson Street, Hackensack, on April 9, 1912, aged 79 years. He came from Haverstraw in 1879 and conducted business in Hackensack for many years before his sons succeeded him in trade, making brick under the family name until the Hackensack Brick Company was formed. Four sons and daughters survived him: Murat, who lived in Passaic, and Milburn, Lycurgus, I. Elwood and Emma, all of whom who resided in Hackensack. 

Brickmaker Charles E. Walsh died June 4, 1912, aged 65 years, at his home at 55 Hudson Street, Hackensack. Coming from Newburgh, New York, he resided in Hackensack for 27 years. Charles Walsh joined with Louis K. Brower in opening a brickyard at Little Ferry in 1881, retiring in 1909. Brothers Jerome and Hiram still resided in Newburgh at the time of Charles' death. Another old brickmaker, Samuel Cyrus Benjamin, of Hackensack, died January 29, 1913, aged 55 years. He was born in Haverstraw, New York, on September 15, 1858, the son of Garret Z. Benjamin and Mary Ann Gardner. He first worked in the brick business at Spencer, New York, continuing at Haverstraw before operating a yard at Little Ferry. He moved to Hackensack in March 1888.

Tragedy struck the home of Mr. and Mrs. I. Elwood Gardner, of Hudson Street, Hackensack, on September 14, 1913, when their daughter, Ella O. Gardner, accidentally fell into a clay pit near her home and drowned, just one month shy of her wedding day. After breakfast, she went out for a stroll with her sister Marietta’s pet bulldog. While looking into the water-filled clay pit at Gillistown, she slipped and fell, drowning in about twenty feet of water. She was 28 years old.

Benjamin L. W. Hanfeld, once well known as part owner of Schmults & Hanfeld, died at his home on West 135th Street in New York City on November 2, 1914, aged 66 years. Born in New York in April 1848, he married his wife, Evangeline Lorette, in Manhattan in 1877. The 1880 census listed them as residents of Hackensack, where he manufactured bricks. According to his obituary in the Hackensack Republican, the genial Mr. Hanfeld once stood as Republican candidate for the General Assembly, noting, “it was in the days when a member of his party had as much show of being elected as he had of reaching heaven in the flesh, but he stood so well with his neighbors that he polled a vote that surprised the opposition.” Benjamin Hanfeld later moved to Los Angeles, where the census of 1900 listed him as an “Electrical dealer.”

In the suburban building movement of the early twentieth century, brick clung steadfastly to its time-honored reputation for permanency, stability, beauty and economy. In 1919, the New York Tribune awarded a cash first prize of $250 in its suburban home contest to Frank Young, of Lookout Avenue, Hackensack, for photographs of his beautiful brick manor house, designed by architect Wesley Sherwood Bessell in the style “of the quant English homes of the sixteenth century.” Built in 1914 at a cost of $22,000, the Young residence was constructed “of many colored brick, with red predominating, running into dark blues, browns and salmon colors.”  A photograph of the prize-winning domicile showed a rear view of the kitchen wing with its “heavy slate roof and the massive brick chimney that is an outstanding feature.”

Because of continuous rumors of conspiracy and illegal price-fixing, banks discouraged loans to operators of leased brickyards along the Hudson River, causing nearly sixty such producers to close in 1915. The loss of competition favored the remaining fifty-five or so owner-operated brickyards between Yonkers and Kingston as well as those along the Hackensack River.

Alpheus Krantz, of Paterson, formerly a selling agent for the Kingsland Brick Company, purchased the Kingsland brickyards from the New Jersey Brick Company and began erecting new sheds in June 1917. He incorporated the North Jersey Wire Cut Brick Company at Kingsland with a capital stock of $100,000. The new plant was ready for operation by February 1918. The former Kingsland Brick Company had gone out of business a year earlier, when the Canadian Car & Foundry Company’s plant was blown up. In rebuilding, Mr. Krantz installed all modern equipment.

But innovation did not come easily to this ancient industry. Most brickmaking establishments along the Hackensack and Hudson Rivers were “open-yard” operations, dependent upon good weather for efficient drying and burning. Although American entry into World War I triggered unprecedented inflation in the price of building materials, due partly to profiteering, wartime demand also drove labor and fuel costs skyward, making it difficult for labor-intensive industries to continue profitable operations. Labor and coal shortages quickly exacted their toll and, by September 1917, less than half of the brickyards along the river were able to employ more than 25% of the work force they required. Only the Hackensack Brick Company managed to maintain normal output. Consequently, most Hackensack brickyards ended their season in November 1917 “with small burnings,” with the noted exception of the Hackensack Brick Company, “which has done a good business all season and has sufficient orders ahead new to absorb all the brick in its kilns.” This was largely due to general manager, George M. Brewster, who used much of the company’s output in his own general contracting business. In an editorial entitled, “Survival of the Fittest,” the Brick and Clay Record sounded a warning on December 4, 1917, noting, “Antiquated machinery and excessive labor consumption are also characteristic of these yards, and burning equipment as well as methods are a grief to the industrial engineer.”

On July 8, 1916, Isaiah M. Gardner’s widow, Emma, and sons Murat and I. Elwood Gardner conveyed their interest in the Little Ferry brickyards to Milburn B. and Lycurgus B. Gardner. In turn, Milburn and Lycurgus transferred ownership to the Hackensack Brick Company on January 25, 1918. At this time, the Hackensack Brick Company either ferried its output in “huge barges rowed by hand, or else hauled [it] a considerable distance by team” to reach the railroad on the Ridgefield Park side of the Hackensack River. They therefore became the first Hackensack brick company to acquire a fleet of motor trucks to overcome their “serious transportation problems.” Some local brick dealers quickly followed suit. Despite a decline in business, Emil Paskervitch, of Hackensack, used a five-ton truck to deliver brick to his customers, thus circumventing the wartime shortage of railroad freight cars.

The brightest hope for the brick industry during the war was a projected upsurge in housing starts in city and suburb. On August 28, 1917, the Brick and Clay Record observed the City of Hackensack had “no large mills and few apartments, but its better class houses are all occupied at rentals ranging from $5 to $10 a month more than last August, and $30 is a low figure for a seven or eight room house in a desirable location.” Likewise, Rutherford had “few apartments,” despite the fact demand consistently exceeded availability, pushing rents to $15 and up, depending upon finish and location. Only the Erie station in Paterson sold more commuter tickets on its Main Line than the Rutherford station, prompting single houses in Rutherford to rent for $30 and up, while apartment flats of four to six rooms went for $20 and up. Ridgewood only contained “two or three apartments, where rentals ranged between $15 and $25." Single houses of six to eight rooms in good locations went for $35 and up and rentals had increased about $5 a month, due to demand. Extensive residential construction was therefore anticipated. In particular, whole new communities appeared seemingly overnight, especially in the vicinity of Camp Merritt, where “an increased population approximating 25,000 has been thrust upon these communities by the war activities of the government.” Consequently, Dumont and Bergenfield expected the construction of “a great many new structures in the spring.”

Production at the Hackensack and Little Ferry brickyards continued to suffer from shortages of coal for the duration of the war. In July 1918, three brickyards along the Hackensack River had “a number of arches burning and in at least two more the drying yards are covered with brick ready to go into arches shortly.” But the Brick and Clay record added, “…none of these yards are delivering by train and no barge has gone down the river thus far this season. All deliveries are by truck to nearby cities like Paterson, Passaic and others of less size. These places are buying their brick for repairs and minor construction work. Trucks have been the salvation of these yards this year. Without them no business could have been done. With them deliveries equal to the capacity of the yards with the number of men obtainable have been possible and manufacturers have been able to do something. Prices range around $12 now and the tendency is upward despite the small demand.” The Hackensack Brick Company was only able to operate two of its three brick manufacturing plants, the most they could manage under government fuel regulations and building restrictions. The company, however, achieved a substantial reduction in its operating cost by converting from steam power to electricity in the operation of its mixers and other equipment. This change also enabled a savings in labor costs as two engineers and two firemen, formerly employed in the steam plant, were let go. 

By early October 1918, just enough brick was burnt to supply early spring buyers and material for small jobs. The kilns of the Hackensack Brick Company, operated by M. B. & L. B. Gardner, closed down for winter after a short season, but profited from the sale of brick to the Federal Shipbuilding Company on the east side of the Hackensack River in Jersey City. According to a report in the Brick and Clay Record, “I. E. Gardner, Hudson Street, has enjoyed a fairly good season, furnishing brick for the army department at Camp Merritt. This company has a large business in normal times, covering Hackensack, Englewood, Garfield, Lodi, as well as Newark and vicinity. The past season has also been free from an noticeable [labor and fuel] troubles, and the Government work has kept the plant active.” I. Elwood Gardner also supplied brick for the plant of the Manhattan Rubber Company in Garfield. With anticipated construction of a new gymnasium at Camp Merritt at a projected cost of $55,000, brickmakers looked forward to government contracts to offset the slack in private building activity.

Having produced about 700,000 bricks during the past season, Henry Gardner, who resided on Riverside Avenue, was one of the progressive brickmakers still thriving at Little Ferry, with facilities to manufacture over half a million bricks annually. He employed machine shovels to extract blue-leaf clay, excellent for making high-grade brick, from clay beds about 500 feet in extent. This clay was tempered in six pits capable of outputting 10,000 bricks daily. Besides electrically powered, gravity-fed brick machines, Gardner installed the first open-air pallet drying system in the Hackensack valley, allowing him to dry 43,000 bricks every eight days. His yard was equipped with a 150-horsepower boiler plant and a pumping system capable of draining 5,000 gallons per minute from the clay pits. The company built its own kilns, as required, each holding about 45,0000 bricks. His stock shed fronted the main highway, allowing two five-ton dump trucks to supply customers in Newark, Paterson, Passaic and the surrounding territory. To overcome labor shortages, he employed about 45 men at piecework in the daily production of about 39,000 bricks. Nonetheless, Henry Gardner announced his “intentions to stop all further production until after the war, owing to fuel and labor conditions, and the present building situation.”

With an Armistice ending the war in November 1918, Henry Gardner was able to take advantage of mild spring weather to start production on April 1, 1919. In his eagerness, however, he lost a run of 85,000 brick to frost damage in early May, which he had to make over and sell for seconds, but he was soon manufacturing about 44,000 bricks daily, mainly to supply material for construction of the new plant of the American Oil & Supply Company.  I. Elwood Gardner commenced operations at his Hudson Street brickyard on April 8, 1919.

Prices did not subside at war’s end. Workers in the building trades at Newark, Passaic, and Princeton went on strike in May 1919, seeking a 6-1/4¢ increase in their hourly pay. They shut down work on a number of large structures, including brick theaters and firehouses. When bargemen on the Hudson River went on strike, cutting off supplies from the brickyards on its banks, Hackensack producers were able to sell thousands of bricks to Newark, Passaic, Clifton, Paterson and Ridgewood as well as other important points in northern New Jersey. Having forsaken the railroads during wartime, Hackensack brickmakers continued to use motor trucks to make deliveries to local building projects.

Looking to profit from a steady rise in demand for building materials, Walter C. Schultz, the Hoboken building supplier, invested in a closed brickyard, adjoining Henry Gardner, in June 1919, where he installed a steam drying system. In July 1919, demand kept the plants of the Hackensack Brick Company, Isaiah Elwood Gardner and Henry Gardner humming. The Hackensack Brick Company, operating one of the largest yards in the neighborhood, produced on average about 70,000 bricks daily, using electricity to power its operations. Four 250-gallon pumps drained their clay pits and six trucks were fully employed in delivering about 300,000 bricks left over from the previous season. In September 1919, brick sold for $16 per thousand at the yard.

Henry Gardner, the Mehrhof Brick Company, the Hackensack Brick Company and I. E. Gardner resumed seasonal operations in March 1920. Looking to modernize, I. E. Gardner converted to electricity for a daily savings of $5 over the cost of steam operations. He acquired two company trucks for deliveries. Brick sold for about $17 per thousand during the season.

The census for 1920 lists the following brickmakers: William Miller, of Washington Avenue, Hackensack, 35 years of age; Polish immigrant John Wisniewski, of Washington Avenue (listed as a “Foreman”); Italian immigrant Philip Sebastian, of Washington Avenue; Joseph Jieliezienski, of Washington Avenue; Joseph Gambrito, of Vreeland Avenue, also an immigrant from Italy. Edwin Schmults, brick manufacturer, and his wife Rosie, resided on Hudson Street. John Van Wetering, of Dock Street, was a brickyard “Foreman.” Other brickmakers were Polish immigrant, Joseph Koval, of Schmults Place; Tony Chitanski, of Gardner Place; George Matchok, of Henry Street; and Edward Kosowski, of Gardner Place. German immigrant Charles Schopp, of Hudson Street, was listed as a brickyard machinist. Edwin Schmults, who operated the brickyard established by his father, John W. Schmults, died at his home in Hackensack in September 1921.

Only I. E. Gardener got off to an early start in the spring of 1921. Brick was selling for $18 to $19 per thousand at the kiln, with about a dollar added for short-haul delivery. Yet, despite a record year for construction, overproduction threatened prices. Consequently, Hackensack brickmakers reduced daily wages to between 85¢ and $1, triggering a strike in May 1921. In that same month, 400 residents of the Borough of Little Ferry presented a petition to their Mayor and Council, demanding removal of Henry Gardner’s brickyard from the corner of Lodi and Riverside Avenues as they deemed it an eyesore at the principal entrance to the town. Since the brickyard stood at that location for forty years, the petition was “referred to the Borough attorney for his opinion as to whether the Borough Council has the authority to order the removal of the sheds and fill in the big holes in the ground from which the clay has been dug.”

With the price for common brick hovering between $14.50 and $15 per thousand, despite a building boom breaking all records in New York City, only two brick barges off-loaded at city piers on November 5, 1921. According to the United States Chamber of Commerce, home construction accounted for 57.9% of building activity in 1921, up from 36.1% in 1920. Writing for The Clay-Worker in January 1922, Allen E. Beals, wondered if the “economic saturation point in speculative housing as an investment proposition is not within sight.” Despite the continuance of traditional methods of manufacture in many yards, modern machinery and kilns now permitted year round production. By this time, only those Hackensack brickmakers who had modernized their operations were still able to compete, but most remained seasonal.

Common brick sold wholesale at the dock for $16 to $16.50 a thousand in April 1922. Despite increasing demand and a coal strike that raised the cost for fuel and coal dust, the Hackensack brickyards were sold out, drawing supplies from other sources. Paterson builders used Hackensack brick as fast as its producers could truck it. Production of common brick in New Jersey rose from 289,406,000 in 1922 to 322,491,000 in 1923, but declined to 305,187,000 in 1924. The value placed upon common brick manufactured in New Jersey reached its peak in 1923 at $5,231,979. Output increased slightly in 1925 to 309,101,000, but its value declined from $4,542,788 to $4,356,375.

There was a large increase in the production of common brick to 335,673,000 in 1926, valued at $4,750,628, largely attributable to a building boom. Six companies still producing common brick in Bergen County in 1926 were: the Bergen Brick Company, of Hackensack; I. E. Gardner, of Hackensack; Charles S. Schultz & Son, Inc., of Hudson Street, Hackensack; Henry Gardner, of Little Ferry; the Hackensack Brick Company, near the Bergen Turnpike in Little Ferry, and N. Mehrhof & Company, of Little Ferry. While output for the whole state increased to 356,860,000 in 1927 (the record high for the decade), the value appreciably declined (11.7%) to $4,125,754. Competitors from as far away as Ohio began dumping their surplus production of common and face brick in the New York market at rates that scarcely covered their manufacturing and transportation costs. Struggling for survival, statewide production appreciably declined from 340,154,000 in 1928---an output valued at $3,681,065---to 247,730,000 in 1929, valued at $2,847,564. Shrinking production temporarily caused the average price for common brick to rise from $10.80 per thousand in 1928 to $11.25 in 1929, but by now most brick companies were only marginally profitable and a growing number closed their doors.

Based on the issuance of building permits in 168 American cities, the F. W. Dodge Foundation estimated a 21% decline in the value of building construction between 1929 and 1930. The decline for the New York metropolitan area was put at 24.4%, or slightly above the national average. Correspondingly, New Jersey brick manufacturers suffered an estimated 19.6% decline in sales. An estimated 26% of New Jersey brickyards ceased operations between 1929 and 1930, causing the price of common brick to rise from $11.50 per thousand to $12.80.

Elmore Nicholas Mehrhof and his brother Oswald C. Mehrhof, who was twice Mayor of Little Ferry, managed Nicholas Mehrhof & Company’s brickyard in 1930, but the industry was clearly on its dying legs. A continued decline in industrial output crippled demand for common brick in 1931, which suffered a staggering 41% drop in sales from 169,714,000 in 1930 to 134,784,000 in 1931. For every busy kiln, ten lay idle. The number of brick and tile plants in New Jersey dropped from 116 in 1931 to 97 in 1932, while the total value of their output fell nearly 40% in the same period. On December 1, 1932, Murat Gardner and his wife Nellie, of Hamburg, New York, Marietta (nee Gardner) and Duncan Strawbridge, her husband, Milburn B. Gardner, Emma B. Gardner, and Mary Gardner, widow of Lycurgus B. Gardner, conveyed title in lands at Little Ferry to the Hackensack Brick Company for $1. 

The slide continued as brickmakers produced 21% less brick in 1933 than in 1932, whereas manufacturers of refractory brick, block and tile saw a 52% increase in their sales. Numerous brickyards closed or changed hands. Congressman John Rathbone Ramsey was president of the Hackensack Brick Company from 1909 until his death in 1933. According to statistics compiled for Bulletin 43, Geologic Series, The Mineral Industry of New Jersey For 1934, “Manufacturers of common brick increased their sales from the low figure of 45,691,000 bricks in 1933 to 52,671,000 in 1934, but this amount is still only a small fraction of former production.” One company after another failed, shutting down their pumps and kilns. In 1941, the Works Projects Administration’s Bergen County Panorama, American Guide Series, noted Little Ferry’s “Numerous old clay pits, now filled with water, are relics of a defunct industry, which at its peak produced 100,000,000 bricks annually.” 

Concrete, steel and plywood steadily replaced brick as preferred building materials, especially on large projects, but also in suburban tract housing as the American economy revived during World War II. After a fire destroyed much of their plant in 1956, Edward and Elmore Gardner sold the Hackensack Brick Company’s 56-acre yard along the Hackensack River in Little Ferry to the E. & H. Realty Company of Englewood for construction of an industrial park. The last six buildings, including the kiln shed, were razed that September. When they finally closed their books, officials of the Hackensack Brick Company estimated their firm had manufactured 500 million bricks over 78 years of operation. 

And so the last of the brickmakers of the Hackensack Valley passed into history.

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Ask yourself—Just how valuable are the lessons of history? If you enjoyed this article, then please consider joining the Bergen County Historical Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, founded in 1902. We are dedicated to preserving important evidence of the past and promoting historical literacy through interesting programs and publications.

We don't receive public operating support or grants the way other groups do, but rely entirely upon private donations, membership dues and volunteer contributions of time and talent. We are presently trying to raise $350,000 to construct a first-rate historical museum building and library for Bergen County on the Society’s property at Historic New Bridge Landing, 1201 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661. For further information or membership application, visit: http://www.bergencountyhistory.org

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