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The Story of Our Valley, Chapter Four – A Ton of Bricks (Part VI, 1909-1911)

Despite building boom, new building materials steadily challenge Hackensack brick for market share.

By Kevin Wright©2011

Firms producing brick along the Hackensack River for the New York market at the start of 1909 comprised: Charles E. Walsh, of Hackensack, with a single machine; James W. Gillies, of Hackensack, with a single machine; Edward Schmults, of Hackensack, with two machines; M. B. & L. B. Gardner, of Hackensack, with a single machine; M. & J. E. Gardner, of Hackensack, with a single machine; I. & W. Felter, of Little Ferry, with four machines; the Mehrhof Brick Company, of Little Ferry, with five machines; Nicholas Mehrhof & Company, of Little Ferry, with three machines; and Peter Mehrhof, of Little Ferry, with five machines. A profitable season beckoned as extension of the New York subway system and construction of grammar schools in Jersey City and Englewood, and high schools in Hackensack, Bayonne, Passaic and Paterson, portended a steady demand for brick. Newark also was experiencing a building boom as large manufacturers found it cheaper to maintain large plants and workshops there rather than in New York City. 

Charles E. Walsh sold his brickyard in April 1909 to County Clerk John Rathbone Ramsey, Sheriff George W. Brewster, and experienced brickmakers, M. B. & L. B. Gardner. John R. Ramsey was elected president of the newly organized Hackensack Brick Company, a position he would hold until 1933. Cold weather, snowstorms and continuous hard rain, however, delayed the start of brick manufacturing through the month of May 1909. Nevertheless, several schooners made their way to New York City, emptying sheds of leftover stock from the previous season. Almost continuous good weather smiled throughout summer, allowing for uninterrupted production. Employing 240 men, the Mehrhof Brick Company opened new pits, working clay considered superior to the old. Next door, Peter Mehrhof likewise did a brisk business. The schooners of M. B. & L. B. Gardner busily plied the river all summer, hauling brick to New York City. Fire originating in the last brick kiln to be ignited partly destroyed Gillies & Gardner’s brickyards on the Turnpike in Little Ferry on November 10, 1909.

Peter Mehrhof, New Jersey’s oldest brickmaker, died at his home in Ridgefield Park on September 18, 1909, at 79 years of age. He came from Germany when a young man and, knowing his trade, readily found employment at a Hackensack brickyard in 1855. From that humble start, he built a successful family business.

Representatives of the Mehrhof Brick Company, the Hackensack Brick Company, Travianus & Gardner, Nicholas Mehrhof & Company, Edwin Schmults, I. E. Gardner, Philip Mehrhof, James W. Gillies, and M. B. and L. B. Gardner, organized the Brick Manufacturers’ Association in December 1908 “to inject some system into the local brick business and to obviate some of the objectionable features of miscellaneous competition.” They elected Elmore N. Mehrhof, President; William H. Travianus, Secretary and Treasurer; and William B. Mackay, Jr., as their Counsel.  The associates, who altogether reportedly “manufactured 100,000,000 brick during the past season at their yards on the Hackensack River,” held their first annual dinner at Abbenseth’s Hotel in Hackensack on December 4, 1909. In an election preceding the banquet, the current slate of offers were returned to office.  Eighty-year old Nicholas Mehrhof “told of his experience in the business and of his hopes for the association, of which he is one of the leading members.” Invited guests included G. M. Brewster, Van Vorst Wells, Warren D. Mehrhof, H. M. Post and C. F. Walsh. Frank Shafer’s one-man orchestra provided musical entertainment.

In February 1910, Hiram H. Walsh, of Newburgh, New York, Joseph Kinzley, Jr., and Carrol G. Von Hess, organized the North Hudson Brick Company of Union Township to manufacture bricks, tile and building materials. With $500,000 in capital and Hiram Walsh as president and general manager, the new corporation planned to build a plant to manufacture 15 million bricks annually on a large tract of land it owned at Granton, New Jersey. Navigation of the Hackensack River commenced March 10, 1910—two weeks earlier than the previous year—and L. B. Gardner was the first to send a brick schooner to the city. Pile drivers and other heavy construction equipment, engaged in building a new bridge for the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad, made it difficult to pass the Little Ferry drawbridge. The Mehrhof Brick Company, of Little Ferry, employed 140 men in June 1910, selling its output to large builders in the city. A new clay deposit, opened in the autumn of 1909, expanded the company’s annual capacity to 20,000,000 bricks. With excellent river frontage, this yard enjoyed cheap water transportation. Nicholas Mehrhof, now the oldest brick maker on the Hackensack River, employed 70 men, selling to a variety of clients in the metropolitan area. Philip Mehrhof produced a good grade of common brick at his Hackensack yard, employing 35 men in manufacturing for the New York trade. Operating one of the smaller yards along the river, Charles E. Walsh employed 40 men in producing common brick.

The first of an estimated 35 million bricks required for the new Bergen County Court House and Jail began to arrive at the construction site in Hackensack in June 1910. Henry Gardner alone boasted orders for over a million bricks, which pushed his Little Ferry plant to maximum capacity. By season’s end, he shipped 4,500,000 bricks, largely to customers in Paterson, Passaic, Hackensack and Rutherford. Modernizing his operations, Gardner installed a conveyor system, connecting his brick machines to the drying racks. He also purchased a new Thew power shovel to excavate clay. Walter C. Shultz, of Hoboken, operating a brick plant near Hackensack, joined with T. P. Mooney and H. Weinberg to form the Shultz Brick Corporation of New York. They installed a new steam-drying department, 50 by 200 feet, with a capacity of 50,000 bricks, featuring a conveyor system that ran the length of the building. Another “endless conveyor” also carried clay to the pugging machines and then fed it automatically to the brick machine. Operating on a twelve-month basis, Shultz arranged his plant so motor trucks could load directly from his kilns.

According to his last will and testament, probated in July 1910, Phillip Mehrhof bequeathed his clay industries and property, located in Ridgefield Park and Hackensack, to his wife, Alice, and their seven children. On January 1, 1911, Nicholas Mehrhof and his wife, Hester Ann, transferred title to certain tracts of land at Little Ferry, fronting the Hackensack River and the Losen Slote, to the Mehrhof Brick Company for $1 and other valuable considerations. The Mehrhof Brick Company was re-organized on December 20, 1911, with Herbert C. Mehrhof as its principal agent.

As a stimulus to local production, the Hackensack Water Company began construction of a new engine room of brick construction, measuring 60 by 100 feet, at New Milford in March 1911. By the commencement of manufacture in May 1911, African-Americans from the South formed a majority of workmen employed at brick making in Little Ferry.

In October 1911, an Assembly committee investigating graft in the construction of the new Bergen County Courthouse and Jail heard testimony from George M. Brewster, a former Freeholder, former County Sheriff and a member of the Courthouse Committee, who revealed he invested in the Gardner brothers’ purchase of the Walsh brickyards. He informed the investigating committee, “One day I saw brick delivered on the ground, and noticed the Hackensack Brick Company mark on it, so I went to Mr. Dorden, one of the contractors, and told him I was a member of the brick company, supplying the material. The contractor told me that as the company was a proper corporation that it was all right and I let it go at that.” When asked if he knew this was “a violation of the Crimes act for a member of any committee, serving as you were, to be interested in a contract,” he responded, “I am not a lawyer.” 

In the dawning age of skyscrapers and suburban sprawl, competition with other building materials steadily challenged brick for market share. In 1911, Joseph Middleton, of the United States Geological Survey, reported, “The decrease in the common-brick output may be partly accounted for by the increased use of hollow block or tile for the construction of large buildings and even of dwelling houses. This form of construction offers many advantages, among which are economy in construction, the ease and rapidity with which it can be put in the wall, and its non-conductivity.” Stucco, brick or other materials were now commonly used to veneer structures made of hollow tile. Brick manufacture noticeably declined between 1911 and 1912, the value placed upon the output of ten brickyards falling from $340,097 to $307,913. Consequently, Bergen County dropped in rank from third to fifth among New Jersey counties producing brick and tile products.

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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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