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The Story of Our Valley, Chapter Four – A Ton of Bricks (Part IV, 1891- 1901)

Does your town prize a school, factory, firehouse or store made of Hackensack mud? Ten brickyards operated along the Hackensack River in the last decade of the 19th century.

By Kevin Wright©2011

With the Hackensack River unseasonably free of ice in the first week of February 1891, the first shipment of bricks left the docks for New York City. In the heat of summer on July 18, 1891, an incendiary burned the engine house at Hiram Walsh’s brickyard to the ground, causing an uninsured loss of $800. One of his barns burned a month later. The Schooner King arrived at Mehrhofs’ brickyard from Perth Amboy, carrying a load of coal dust, signaling its use in Hackensack River brickyards to temper clay. The Mehrhof brickyards experimented with using coal for burning brick in December 1891. Felter Brothers temporarily closed in August, due to slack demand, and many African-American employees returned home to Virginia and Maryland. In September 1891, Isaiah M. Gardener sold his brick schooner, named the Magic, to parties in South Jersey. On December 5th, the brick schooner Philip Mehrhof, with Captain John Orth in command, collided with a three-masted schooner in the Kill van Kull while en route to Hoboken, heavily damaging both boats. The schooner Peck successfully delivered 65,000 bricks to build a school in Edgewater. 

Felter Brothers started pumping water out of its clay pits in Little Ferry in April 1892. The Union Terra Cotta Lumber Company did the same, but soon closed its works, owing to a shortage of clay. In fierce thunder and lightning, strong winds forced Bloomer Brothers’ schooner Corsair, heavily laden with bricks, onto the meadow banks at Hackensack on July 18, 1892. On August 6th, the recently stranded Corsair discharged its cargo of brick at the River Edge dock. Little Ferry brick manufacturers Garret Benjamin, James W. Gillies and Isaiah Gardner closed for the season in September 1892, while Felter Brothers continued into October. Only the onset of cold weather ended operations at Mehrhof Brothers’ yard. On August 1, 1893, the rising tide caught a schooner loaded with brick, consigned to Bloomer Brothers, of River Edge, which sank while tied to the dock. Laborers unloaded the craft so it could be hoisted from the river bottom and returned to service. Brickyards along the Bergen Turnpike closed during the third week of September 1893. 

In March 1894, brickyard owners placed their machinery in readiness to commence operations within the next thirty days. Owing to a depletion of stock, the Mehrhof Manufacturing Company found it necessary to make bricks earlier in the season than was their wont—construction of the Susquehanna Tunnel alone demanded a million and a half bricks. Edwin Schmults closed his brickyard for the season on August 11, 1894, followed about a week later by J. W. Gillies. While producing millions of bricks, cash flow problems consequent to a general business depression forced the Mehrhof Brick Manufacturing Company of Little Ferry to sell their product at less than the cost of manufacture. Having expanded operations over the past two or three years by investing in new machinery and acquiring additional clay lands, they fell into receivership on September 10, 1894. James P. Northrop, of Jersey City, was appointed Receiver. Captain Joseph Kinzley, commanding the brick schooner Peter Mehrhof, regularly plied between Little Ferry and New London, Connecticut. Felter Brothers closed for the season in the first week of October 1894. On December 6, 1894, Isaiah M. Gardner and his wife Emma conveyed all title and interest to lands situated on the east side of the Bergen Turnpike to Milburn B. and Lycurgus B. Gardner for $1.

Business revived the following spring as the Rogers Paper Company started construction of a one-story brick paper mill at Bogota in January 1895 on a site below Hiram Walsh’s brickyard, between the Susquehanna Railroad tracks and the river. Mehrhof brickyards shipped 600,000 bricks to Secaucus for construction of the new trolley powerhouse. On March 28, 1895, Henry S. Little, acting as agent for a syndicate composed of David A. Pell, William M. Johnson and John J. Phelps, purchased the Mehrhof brickyards at Sheriff’s Sale for $91,200. By the time Edwin Schmults commenced brick manufacture on April 22, 1895, Gillies’ brickyards were already in operation. Leonard Cooper & Samuel C. Benjamin began production two days later.  Little Ferry brickyards produced nearly 100 million bricks by the time they ceased operations at the end of September 1895. In November 1895, Cooper & Benjamin incorporated the Hackensack Brick & Terra Cotta Works.

In March 1896, James W. Gillies, of Hackensack, was listed as a Director of the recently incorporated Consolidated Brick Company of New York. On March 23, 1896, Edwin Schmults began pumping water from his clay pits, a task requiring three or four weeks to complete. When the Hiram H. Walsh Brickyards in Bogota were sold at auction on March 26, 1896, William E. Taylor purchased the real estate for $4,000 and over a million bricks went at prices ranging from $1.90 to $2.50 per thousand. Schooner Captain John Christie removed the brick machinery from Bogota to Haverstraw, New York. 

The Mehrhofs commenced shipping bricks in the second week of March 1897. Gardner and Gillies opened their brickyards in the middle of May. Philip Shafer, the original brick manufacturer in Hackensack, celebrated his eighty-second birthday on January 2, 1898. On January 16th, two large barges of brick, freed from river ice, finally headed for New York. On April 1, 1898, Charles E. Walsh purchased the Benjamin brickyard. With brick selling for $6 per thousand in New York City, there was every prospect for the brick industry along the Hackensack River to boom in early spring. William Benjamin, of Haverstraw, assumed control of Gillies' brickyard in early April. On May 2, 1898, strikers seeking a pay increase closed all the brickyards along the Bergen Turnpike during their busiest season, except for Edwin Schmults and Charles Walsh. James W. Gillies, on whose yard the strike began, ordered strikers to vacate his tenant houses within 48 hours. When they refused to do so on short notice, the leading brickmakers threatened to hire new hands and to summon the County Sheriff. Even though brick sold at $7 per thousand, manufacturers met with heavy losses on account of rain, paying $1 per thousand to shovel wet clay back into molding machines after every rainstorm, a process repeated week after week. 

Representing a combined capital investment of $265,000, ten brickyards operating along the Hackensack River employed traditional methods of production. With the exception of the Mehrhof Brick Company, all used wood fuel to bake raw bricks in scove-kilns. “Soft-mud” brick machines produced over 60 million units of common building brick, a 90% increase over the previous year. Using ball clay from Perth Amboy and imported English China clay, the Maywood Art Tile Company specialized in making plain and glazed hand-enameled border tiles and vitrified floor tiles. Under supervision of Gustaf S. Jaeger, President, and Ernest Bilhuber, Secretary and Manager, their main office and plant operated along the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad in Maywood. Seven hand presses produced 2,400 to 3,000 pieces of tile daily, which were fired in five up-draft kilns of 7,000-square-foot capacity each, using anthracite for fuel. They employed 46 to 50 skilled laborers, selling their output in large Eastern cities.

Philip H. Shafer died October 27, 1899, aged 87 years. His obituary in the Hackensack Republican noted, “Deceased was one of the early settlers in the old ‘Plank road’ section of Hackensack, now the First Ward, who became one of the first to engage in brick making, now a leading industry in the vicinity. He was the surviving charter member of the Bruderliebe Society and was highly respected in his neighborhood. Mr. Shafer was noted for a particularly fine head of black hair, which retained its color almost to the time of death, having but few streaks of silver in it.” John H. Holst, John Zinn, Philip Shafer, Henry Snyder and Joseph Backman organized the Bruderliebe [Brotherly Love] Association of Hackensack in March 1870 “for mental and physical improvement.”

Upon his death, Philip Henry Shafer bequeathed six lots on the old Martin J. Vreeland Farm to his son George. He gave son Nicholas a strip of land with its improvements, lying between Washington Avenue and the Bergen Turnpike, bounded south by land given to his son Henry. To his daughter Mary, Philip Shafer bequeathed his household furniture and all the remainder of his land with improvements, lying south of the tract given to Nicholas, extending from the Bergen Turnpike to Washington Avenue, and also the remaining part of his land, lying south of the property devised to his son George, extending between Washington Avenue and Jackson Avenue. Mary resided with her brother Nicholas at 407 Hudson Street for the remainder of her life. Nicholas Shafer operated a general store in the neighborhood. 

Charles E. Walsh converted to burning coal at his yard in August 1899. In March 1900, brick manufacturers expected subway construction in New York City to bring booming business. That May they formed a trust with Holley & Smith as their agents. The Hackensack and Little Ferry brickyards produced 15,610,000 bricks in 1901.

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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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