The Brick Business

Part 12 of 14: Memories of Long Ago

by Hiram Ellsworth Pearsall

I write this to try and illustrate some of the difficulties encountered in trying to make a living fifty-five years ago in a new county.

If I could make life’s journey again,
There is one thing quite sure,
As I traveled along the road of life,
Many rough spots I would detour.

The spring of 1889 had come and nothing to do. I say nothing, but there was quite a lot of logging in Snohomish County. I worked in a logging camp the year before and for reasons I promised myself I never would work in a logging camp under a logging boss again (and I never have).

There was not much ranch work to be had until haying and harvest time. Then the wages would be $1 per day and board for a 10- or 12-hour day.

It didn’t look good. I had to do something. I began to think I had better pack my extra pair of overalls and start out looking for work. As I was considering what to do, my brother, Volney, came up from Seattle where he had been working after we quit the railroad in 1887.

He knew I had a little experience in making brick. He proposed the idea of going to Snohomish and burning a kiln of brick. I had to do something. The idea didn’t look too bad, so we decided to give it a trial. We went to Snohomish and had a talk with Lot Wilbur, a druggist. Mr. Wilbur said he was going to put up a brick building that summer and encouraged us very much in the idea of burning the brick. We did not ask for a contract to furnish him brick, which we found out later was a bad mistake.

We found a good brick clay a little way below town and soon had a yard leveled and ready to make brick. Volney had a little money to buy a brick machine and other necessary tools. I had no money, but I had a team of horses to run the brick machine. In my four years in the county, I had managed to keep my credit good.

The Blackman Brothers Mill Company readily furnished lumber to build the little cook house and bunk house for the men. Mr. Packard, who had a grocery store, took a chance and furnished our supplies for the cook house. We employed four men who said they would take a chance with us. We were to pay the men and the cook, who was the wife of one of the men, one dollar a day and board.

Well, we were soon turning out brick and had a kiln underway when the first misfortune came. Volney, my brother, was taken sick with pneumonia and was under a doctor’s care for over three weeks. Things looked pretty blue to me. I had no money to pay the men, but we kept on making brick and had to get another man to take Volney’s place. About the middle of May, Volney was around again but not able to do much work.

We had a hundred thousand brick in the kiln ready to burn, and as we thought Wilbur was going to use the brick, we had more green brick in the yard ready to start another kiln.

At that time, we ran up against the real thing in the way of trouble. Mr. Bart, a brick mason, was living down the river near where Everett now stands. (Everett hadn’t been started yet.)

Mr. Bart came up to Snohomish and contracted to build the Wilbur building. Nothing was said about taking our brick. Mr. Wilbur said he was sorry, but that didn’t do us any good.

Mr. Bart had three grown sons and they went on the other side of town and burned their own brick. Now, what could we do? The men needed money and the groceryman became uneasy and talked of shutting off our supplies. We had to have wood to burn the brick and we had to make more brick for another kiln to save the green brick in the yard. We were up against it plenty. I had to do something. I sold one of the horses for seventy dollars and bought wood at two dollars a cord delivered to the yard.

I had one old horse left to run the brick machine. The men, seeing the brick would be burned, all agreed to stay and help put up another small kiln. In due time, the brick was burned. Snohomish was building a new schoolhouse and we sold the contractor brick for the furnace and chimney. Then we were stuck. There were no sales for brick. We were trying to borrow money on the brick to pay our bill when, on the sixth of June, a telegram came to Snohomish that Seattle was burning. The greater part of the then little city was wooden buildings and when the fire got started there was no stopping it. It all went up in smoke.

We began to think. Seattle would soon rebuild. Why couldn’t we sell our brick there? The next morning we boarded a train for Seattle. The railroad hadn’t connected with the Canadian Pacific Railroad yet.

On arriving in Seattle, we saw the most pitiful sight. That which had been a thriving little city was now in smoldering ruins. Hundreds of men, young and old, were busy trying to salvage a little from the ruins. Many with teams were busy clearing the property and hauling away the rubbish. Many were already putting up tents which had been hurriedly shipped from Portland.

In a short time, Seattle was a city of tents. There were all kinds of stores, lodging houses, restaurants, and saloons, all operating in tents. Many were preparing to rebuild. All had the same idea; that Seattle would wake up and be the great city of the northwest.

We saw we could sell our brick if we could get them to market. We hurried back to Snohomish and hired three teams, loaded the brick on cars and shipped them to Seattle. The only one left that worked with me that summer lives in Monroe now. Almon Buck was the owner of one of those teams. He was young then but he sure knew how to handle that span of gray ponies. The other two teams were much heavier than Al’s ponies. When they would put on 1,000 brick and sometimes get stuck, Al would put on 1,100 brick and never get stuck. We had shipped all the brick we had burned and were setting the third kiln. Volney had gone down to Seattle to see about the sale of more brick. On his return he was feeling pretty blue again. On account of the real demand for brick, yards had started up all around Seattle. The price of brick had dropped, and with the high freight rate, we could not meet their prices.

The old Washington Hotel was being built then. Their plans called for a tower on each corner fronting the street. One of those towers was round and the other octagonal. Volney had the patterns to make the molds. One was for brick that would lay a perfect circle; the other to lay the corner of the octagon. the price for the special-made brick was much better than for common brick. We could make them and burn them in the kiln of common brick. The special brick was what they called sand-rolled. The tempered clay was placed on a table made for the purpose. Enough of the clay to make brick was rolled in sand, then placed in the mold, then out on the yard there to go through the same process as the common brick.

It was getting along toward fall. The special-made brick, with a kiln of about 100,000, was burned and ready to ship. Blackman Brothers Mill company had a large lumber scow which would carry nearly all of the kiln. It was getting toward fall when we started to load the scow. When the scow was about half loaded, the fall rains came.

The river was rising fast. The river was full of drift. Great trees had been uprooted by the flood, and thousands of logs from the logging camps up the river were hurrying on their way to the sea. One of those great logs got afoul of the scow, swung it around and with the pressure of the flood, it snapped the scow’s moorings and it went with the flood on its way to the sea with John Gore, who was doing the loading, hollering for help. Two of us ran down to Blackmans mill, jumped in a canoe, and paddled for dear life after the scow, which was then out of sight around the bend. We could hear John hollering for help.

That was a time to feel blue. Would the scow go out to sea with $600 worth of brick or could we catch up with it? I didn’t know, but we kept paddling with all our might, and, catching up with the scow, managed to work it into Jobe Field’s eddy, about two miles below Snohomish. We made it fast to a little tree on the river bank and kept watch day and night to keep the logs from tearing it loose again. In three days, the flood was down and the scow was towed back to Snohomish with the tide, which runs up the river several miles.

We soon finished loading the brick and the scow was towed to Seattle. That was the brick that went into the towers of the old Washington Hotel 55 years ago.

We had made and sold 300,000 bricks during the season. I decided it was time to quit the brick business. We could pay all our bills, and have a little money left and still have a good credit, which I believed was very essential to life.

That was the time to quit, but Volney wouldn’t quit. He had already been making arrangements on a larger scale. He bought a large steam-run brick machine and an engine to run it and put up a large shed to dry the brick so he could run all winter. Most of this would have to be done on credit. That is where I quit. I promised that when he got to making brick again, I would come down and help put up and burn the first kiln. That, like the logging business the year before, was the last of my brick business. Volney stayed with the business until spring and then was closed out. He lost a year’s work. The money he put in the business, and his credit were gone forever.

Now, as my memory turns back those 55 years, I can think of those many long days we put in from early morning until far into the night to keep things going. I can only think we tried to something with nothing to do it with. Many years after, Volney said he was glad I quit when I did as I still had a good credit. But I always knew he had tried and if he could have held on another year until Everett started to build, he would have been ready with a modern brick plant. But such is life. He didn’t know.

If at present you have the blues, think of the past and prepare for the future.

–transcribed from the 1944 Monroe Monitors by Nellie Robertson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *