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2022 Williamsburg Brickyard

Williamsburg Brick

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2022 Williamsburg Brickyard
Brickmakers ply their trade in Colonial Williamsburg. (GoodSeed Farm photo)

Building With Brick in Colonial Williamsburg

On our recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg, we saw lots of brick. Bricks were the paver of choice throughout the historic area, not to mention the surrounding neighborhoods and the Visitor’s Center. At least half of the buildings in the historic area are brick, including the multi-story Governor’s Palace and the Capitol. The clapboard homes and outbuildings all have brick fireplaces with massive chimneys. All the basement walls were brick, too. There is brick everywhere.

Being a hardscape designer-installer by trade, I was naturally very interested in all this brick. I studied the paver patterns: running bond or herringbone, mostly. The brick walls of the fancier buildings were Flemish bond; a pattern in which every other brick is a half-brick in a contrasting color (usually gray or black). All the other brick we saw was red.

In our line of work we handle lots of pavers, brick and otherwise. Typically, pavers are strapped together on wooden pallets, called “cubes” in the trade, typically about one-hundred square feet to a cube. Each cube weighs more than a ton, so it’s typically handled with forklifts and shipped on heavy trucks. To build a structure like the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg would take hundreds of cubes of brick. One would think that this would present a huge logistical challenge in colonial times, when horse-drawn wagons were the state of the art.

Imagine my delight when we happened upon a working “brickyard” in the historic district. This is where I found the answer to a question I’d never thought to ask: how did all that brick get to all those building sites without any forklifts or trucks to move it there from the brickyards? The answer was that brickmakers went to the building sites and made the bricks right there.

It seems that in that section of Virginia there is clay everywhere, just inches below the surface. For instance, a basement excavation would consist of nearly all clay; clay perfect for making bricks. The tools of the brickmaker’s trade included shovels to dig the clay, wooden molds to form it into bricks, tents to stack the bricks in while they dried, and firewood. Lots of firewood.

Once the bricks were dry enough, the brickmakers rearranged the stacks so that they formed long tunnels, much like really deep fireplaces. Stacks of seasoned firewood were then placed inside the tunnels, and burned continuously for up to a week. The brickmakers kept stoking the fires with dry logs, until eventually all the bricks in the stack were thoroughly “fired”. Once they cooled off enough to handle, they were already on the job site ready for bricklayers to build all those walls, chimneys and walks.

We watched the stacking process. Long rows of uncured bricks were laid on the ground, with wide spaces between each row, and small spaces between each brick. Additional layers of brick were added until the stacked rows were more than a foot high. After that, additional layers were added, each layer wider than the last, until the tops of the rows were touching each other, forming an arched tunnel. From there, the brickmakers added still more layers, forming a “roof” over the arches.

What they were building was a kiln, made of the bricks to be fired in it. Once the firing was over, the kiln would be dismantled and the bricks, now finished and hardened, used to build with. No need for firebrick in the fireplaces; all the bricks were already tempered with fire.

Am I the only person who didn’t know about this? Of everything we saw and heard in Williamsburg, this tidbit of knowledge delighted me the most. But there was another hardscape discovery, this time in the Williamsburg Museum. It seems that stonecutters, the men who cut and shaped stone into building blocks or pavers, each carved a distinctive trademark into every stone he dressed. These designs allowed overseers to keep track of how many stones each man produced, so that they could be paid by the piece for their work. One such stone was on display in the museum.

Was this interesting to you? Stay tuned; we have lots more to tell about the many beautiful places we visited. Details to follow.

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.

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