Sections

8.20.20

What Remains to Be Seen

Thanks to generations of generosity by the Harris family, the Brickyard in Chilmark is the Trustees’ newest Island gem.

Aquinnah, at the southwestern end of Martha’s Vineyard, is deservedly famous for its red and white clay, the raw material that paints the Gay Head Cliffs in such spectacular colors that they’re a must see for most visitors to the Island. Long gone are the days when beachgoers routinely climbed the cliffs for fun and fossils or cavorted in clay baths dug from the walls. The beach is now well posted in an effort to slow the inevitable erosion of the cliffs with signs that warn walkers to stay off the clay. It’s hard to imagine that just down the coast from the famous cliffs, Vineyard clay was once mined in industrial quantities.

Today’s Vineyard beachcombers, on the shore of Vineyard Sound especially, may come upon a sea-smoothed piece of red brick, pleasant to the touch, perhaps a nearly whole brick, perhaps just a small fragment. Or if they are traveling up the North Shore by boat, they might notice a pitted brick chimney stack standing just back from the shore, poking incongruously from a field of scrub vegetation near where Roaring Brook empties into the Sound. The water-worn bricks and frail chimney are evocative clues to a niche manufactory that flourished more than a century ago on an Island most often noted for fishing, whaling, and agriculture, not industrial manufacturing.

That chimney is the centerpiece of the newest Island reservation of the Trustees (née The Trustees of Reservations), which quietly opened to the public this past spring. “The Brickyard,” as it is called on the Trustees’ website, abuts the nonprofit’s much larger and better known Menemsha Hills Reservation, from which it can be accessed by trail. Both reservations came to the Trustees through the generosity of the Harris family, who had owned the property since the middle of the nineteenth century: the 200 acres of Menemsha Hills were given in 1966 by siblings Nathaniel P. and Catherine Harris; the eighteen acres that includes the ruins came in 2014, via the bequest 
of Flora Harris Epstein.

The September-October 2020 cover story about the history of the iconic Brickyard property in Chilmark.
Lexi Van Valkenburgh

“When we open The Brickyard reservation as the Trustees’ 119th public reservation in Massachusetts this spring, it will have special significance to me personally,” Trustees Islands director Sam Hart said in the months before the official opening. “Being a native of Chilmark, I spent many days as a boy playing alongside the shoreline and in the woods that abut the site and wondering about the iconic chimney rising out of the dense overgrowth and the history 
it contains.”

In 1850 Chilmark, farming was the dominant livelihood, with ninety-six farms producing butter, cheese, and wool. But brick making had long been something of a cottage industry for Vineyard farmers, a sideline using makeshift molds to create rough-hewn bricks for their own use in chimneys and occasionally barns. The first serious brick-making plant on the Island was established circa 1851 by Charles Smith and John Barrows on what’s now interpreted as the “Lower Yard” on the Trustees’ site, nearest the Sound. This was a professional operation employing a dozen workers, netting $2,400 annually, and using a waterwheel.

Though the Smith and Barrows Brick Works, reconstituted as Barrows & Chandler in 1854, functioned from 1846 to 1859, at least one history suggests that its product was inferior, presumably why the venture shut down. Next to operate on the site was the Mudgett and Andrews Brick Works, which took over from Smith and Barrows, reportedly producing 700,000 to 800,000 bricks a season. Their August 1859 advertisement in the Vineyard Gazette headed “BRICKS” read, “The subscribers have on hand, and will keep constantly for sale, a good assortment of Bricks, which they will dispose of on favorable terms.” They shut down in 1864 and were followed by the James Edmond and Vineyard Mining and Manufacturing, which lasted until 1866.

That year, Boston banker Nathaniel Harris bought the yard and associated clay deposits, which encompassed roughly two miles of the Island’s North Shore, for $55,000 and reorganized the company as the Vineyard Brick & Tile Works. All the brick operations at the site were seasonal, since winter weather made open-air brick making impossible. In February 1867 the Vineyard Gazette reported that preparations “for the manufacture of brick at the yard, in Chilmark, are now nearly completed. It is the intention to commence operations early in the spring. A machine carried by steam will be used, capable of turning out 100 bricks per minute.” Later items put the output at sixty bricks, which were shipped to the New Bedford Water Works for construction of a conduit. In the 1869 season, some 2,700,000 bricks were produced, according to the Gazette.

The Brickyard at Roaring Brook on the North Shore of Chilmark as it appeared circa 1880.
Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Harris died in 1880, but his family carried on the operation for eight more years, and most of the ruins on the site today stem from that operation. After Vineyard Brick & Tile Works shut down in 1888, the Boston Fire Brick Company, looking to expand, contemplated “the erection of fire brick works on the Vineyard, where they have secured control of large deposits of fire clay of superior quality. The new works will probably be located at Roaring Brook in the town of Chilmark, where there is good water privilege, and where the company has just completed a wharf. With clay deposits within three feet of top of growing and only half a mile from the works,” a Gazette news item continued, “it is expected that good fire brick can be made and delivered by the company’s barges at New Bedford, Fall River and Providence at lower prices than ever known before.”

These optimistic plans never came to fruition, however, and brick making was over forever at Roaring Brook. However, trying to make something of their inheritance, in 1895 Harris’s sons, Sydney and Charles, formed the Chilmark China Clay Corporation on family property near the old Brickyard. The area was paved and covered with tanks and screens, and the flume extended to there. The clay was washed, dried, pulverized, and sifted, then carefully packed in paper-lined sacks or barrels and shipped to candy manufacturers who used it to make molds for chocolates and bonbons.

After that corporation dissolved in 1915, members of the Harris family continued to camp on the land for a few years, but all industrial activity on the Harris lands and environs had ended. 
In little more than a decade, ice, wind, and the sea had wiped out all vestiges of the Chilmark China Clay Corporation operation.

The Brickyard site was chosen initially, and sequential operators worked there, because it offered the three essentials for brick making. Most important, 
of course, there was good, plentiful clay in the shoreline cliffs that was relatively 
easy to harvest. Also vital, the proximity 
to Vineyard Sound meant schooners could transport the bulky end product to mainland markets, though it was a vulnerable spot. The piers had to be long to reach workably deep water, and it is a stretch of coast unprotected from any wind with north in it. In the summer of 1868 Timothy Luce Jr., a crewman on the schooner Argo, sustained a fatal head injury when waves pushed his vessel against the Brickyard pier.

Thousands of defective bricks were thrown out every year, resulting in many of the weathered bricks found on Vineyard beaches today.
Lexi Van Valkenburgh

Last, there was the waterpower from Roaring Brook to turn the wheel that powered the conveyer that moved bricks in and out of the drying sheds and also served other brick-making needs. Before Roaring Brook powered brickyards, it powered grist mills as early as the eighteenth century. From 1850 to 1906 Manter’s Mill, just upstream from the Brickyard, was operated by William and Rebecca Manter, who were widely known in Chilmark as Uncle Billy and Aunt Rebecca. Theirs was the last old-fashioned grist mill to operate on the Island. They also had a small store on the first floor and lived on the second.

The mill was important to the Brickyard, as its millpond provided the water via flume to turn the wheel. It was also important to the mill workers, and not only for the slim stock of groceries purveyed there. “I spent many pleasant hours with Mrs. Rebecca Manter at the mill,” Irvin E. Strickland wrote many years later to Catherine P. Harris, Nathaniel Harris’s granddaughter. “She was like a mother to me, my own mother being able to spend but one season [at 
the Brickyard].”

Strickland first went to work at the Brickyard in the 1880s as a fourteen-year-old, and in the 1950s he wrote of his experiences for the Gazette. He lived in a long-vanished brick boarding house with his father, who was involved in the operation of the brickworks, and, for one summer, his mother. Also near the yard was the “French house,” a barracks named for the hundred or so French Canadians, mostly lumberjacks in winter, who were employed seasonally by the works at their peak to stock up on the immense requirements for firewood that the kilns required.

Brick making at the site evolved in scale over time, but the basic process remained largely the same, beginning with mining the clay from shoreline cliffs or pits. Initially this was backbreaking, sometimes dangerous hand work, but later steam shovels were brought into play. Then the clay was ground in so-called pug mills. As with other steps, this was originally done by hand but later was horse driven or water powered. The preparation continued with filtering and soaking in water, then commingling with other materials in mixers that were first water- and later steam powered. The goal of this step was to get the clay into the proper consistency for molding.

Water from Roaring Brook once turned the wheel, the remains of which are in the image below, that powered the brick-making operations.
Lexi Van Valkenburgh

In the early years, the clay mixture was pressed by hand into single molds, either wooden or ironclad, and lubricated with sand or water so the clay wouldn’t adhere to the molds. Later, machines were connected to the pug mills to temper the clay and press it into hardwood molds, typically oak, walnut, or teak. Two primitive brick machines were at the heart of the operation.

“Inside the machine was an upright shaft,” Strickland wrote in a scrapbook he kept, “with knives or blades. As this shaft revolved, the knives ground the clay, which was pressed into moulds at the bottom...which came out of the machine filled with soft clay (six bricks to a mould), and these moulds were carried out to the open yard to be ‘dumped,’ leaving the bricks to be sun baked. It was my duty,” he concluded, “to keep a sanded mould in the machine under the press each time it came down to fill the mould with clay.”

The molded “green” bricks would be set out to dry for up to three weeks in a flat “yard” where a covering of straw or even a hinged roof would protect them from rain or excessive sun. Finally, the bricks would be placed in a wood-fired kiln for a delicate and time-consuming process, first under low heat to complete the drying while avoiding cracking. Then the heat would be increased and the bricks would be fired around the clock. Strickland often worked the midnight to 7 a.m. shift in the kiln shed tending the fire. “When the sun-dried bricks were in the process of burning,” he recalled, “wood fires were kept going in the arches night and day for about a week.”

The fired bricks were then allowed to cool for another week.

Lexi Van Valkenburgh

“The work of the brickyard for the day was over,” Strickland recalled of the quiet that settled on the yard in evening. “The overshot water wheel that furnished power to run the brick machines had ceased to turn. On the yard were long rows of sun-dried bricks. They had been covered by boards made into battens, to protect them from possible rain during the night.”

Today when you emerge from the woods and enter the dirt road that leads to the Brickyard site, the first 
thing you see is the iconic chimney 
stack, fifty-five feet tall, looming against the sky. It’s a survivor, pockmarked by missing bricks, eroded by time and wind. Newly blazed trails through the preserve paved with wood chips lead in on loops around the site, circling the Lower and Upper Yards and touching the beach, where granite blocks and rubble are reminders of the wharf that once made the export of bricks to the mainland possible.

In the Lower Yard are granite blocks of the waterwheel pit and the remains of the wheel itself, which was installed in 1884, replacing an idled earlier version. Twenty-five feet in diameter and five feet wide, it could power two brick machines. Leading from it are the remains of the power line shaft, rusty but intact, on rotting wooden uprights, and the iron pulleys and gearing. And there’s the chimney stack itself, its gaping firebox long empty.

On an elevated terrace east of the Upper Yard are the remains of the granite and brick foundation of the manager’s office, but much else has vanished without a trace: barn, boarding houses, more. Indeed, the Brickyard site is accurately described by the Trustees as a “ruins,” which it is, and one far more ephemeral than the heroic structures that survive from ancient Greece or Rome, built many centuries earlier. Unlike those, the Brickyard was not meant to last beyond its immediate utility, and traces have continued to vanish.

Nathaniel and Catherine Harris with their dog Wendy in the vicinity of the Brickyard in 1908. The Harris family camped on the land for many years, and later generations donated both Menemsha Hills and the Brickyard to the Trustees.
Courtesy Harris Family

In a May 1966 piece for the Gazette, historian Joseph Chase Allen summarized what might have happened. At that time, those who chose to bushwhack through the undergrowth could have seen the remains of the engine house, the paving in the Lower Yard, and the rotting paddles of the waterwheel – now all gone, and deterioration continued.

“It is a foregone conclusion,” Allen wrote, “that [the] kiln will someday disappear entirely. The stones will be sought for building purposes, perhaps, or the site may be leveled for a house. Already a few curious souls who venture into the Island wilderness have come upon it and asked what it may have been. Given another half-century to stand among the briars and ivy,” he concluded, “perhaps there will be no one to answer such a question.”

Happily, thanks to the generosity of generations of Harrises, as well as other supporters of the Trustees, the plan now is to attempt to freeze the decay and interpret for the curious this once-fading remnant of the Island before tourism.

“It was unfathomable for me as a boy to comprehend the scale of the operations there or that Roaring Brook alone could fuel one of the largest centers for industrial activity on the Vineyard in the nineteenth century right here in Chilmark,” said the Trustees’ Hart. “Working alongside the Trustees local and statewide team and the town of Chilmark to preserve this site and keep its history alive for future generations 
is a dream come true.”