Welcome to the Dick Clarke story
At a Plant Party
Claybank Brick Plant Site
DICK CLARKE STORY
as told by Ron Clarke
The year: 1958. I was twelve. I remembered hearing about the brick plant for six of those twelve years. Dad started working there in 1952, the year I started school. I only understood that the plant made bricks. Although I knew what a brick was, there were very few on the clapboard prairies around Avonlea, at least in the small circles I travelled in those early years. I knew it was over there, below the big hill of the hills". A person could ride a horse that far in a day, but then only men worked the clay pits, the dry pan, and the kilns. It was no place for a boy.
I saw what it did to men. The dirt and the grime. Red eyes, sore backs, soles worn thin on black leather-soled boots. Even the boots at the back door - laces askance, tongues protruding - looked tired. Leather was the norm; rubber soles were too hot. Although leather quickly abraded in cinders and firebrick dust, two or three pairs of leather boots a year were just a cost of doing business. Boot grease and polish wasn't needed, the kilns made it a waste of time.
What I remember most about dad coming home from the plant were his hands. They were like vise grips covered in shiny skin. A two-brick grasp tempered by repetitive tons every day, years on end. I have never held the hand of any stronger. Sinewy, no evidence of fingerprints, like slick leather soles that somehow remained resilient enough to hug a boy goodnight or span the frets on his mandolin.
In 1958 I went to work with dad for a whole day. Mom packed my lunch in a metal lunch pail, like dad's. As we left the farm that morning, rolled by Hearne towards the big hill and Claybank that sat at its base, my excitement grew. I can remember, as if it was only yesterday, that finally I was going to see how men made blue clay into brick. Seeing all the others who worked there, people that I almost knew from suppertime talk, were suddenly to become real. I was going to experience first hand the blending of cinders, wet clay, diesel and sweat, a smell I did not find at all offensive, just different from oat sheaves and horses.
And so this story is not so much a story about dad and how he started at the plant in 1952 at .85 cents an hour, or a 38 year tenure at a small factory where men hand made bricks that found there way around the world. Rather, it's a short story about the place they call the brick plant and the impressions it left on a boy because his dad worked there.
Understanding the process of making fire brick was secondary to exploring the cluster of squat, circular kilns and the expanse of sheds and shops nestled below an outcrop of clay deposits that towered in the background. "Be careful and don't get in anybody's way," were my only instructions from dad.
The kilns; some being fired, others in the process of cooling down, a few being emptied and those remaining like the one Ev (Everett) Lee and dad were re-charging with brick were a source of wonderment. I wondered about the craftsmen who built the domed roofs and the miniature railway for moving small cars of brick. I wandered in and around the masonry caverns, like an archaeologist exploring tombs in a newly discovered world.
Everywhere I went the ground and all around radiated heat. Heat waves shimmered between and above the kilns. The place reverberated, seemingly touched by a huge inferno hidden somewhere below. For the fist time, I became aware that heat was an integral part of making brick and that between the cycles of firing kilns and letting them cool, the place was a veritable sauna where men worked and sweat.
"Would you like to see what's going on in this one," a voice asked from around the bend of a kiln wall. It was John Wostrodowski, plant superintendent. He could tell my imagination was in high gear as I stood facing the sealed kiln door.
"Oh yes sir. My dad works here," trying to quickly justify why a kid would be standing looking at a sealed kiln. He stood me on an old coke box and pulled a foot long plug from a hole in the door. The only thing separating me from the wall of nearly white heat and where I stood was the fire brick door. Within the two inch window and against the background of fire that penetrated tons of brick, all precisely spaced within the kiln, sat a small loaf of firebrick supporting three porcelain fingers. The finger closest to the door was sagging, like birthday candles on a cake, the others stood erect, small glistening pyramids that someday would also melt signalling no more coal was needed in the dozen pits around the kiln. "When all three melt, this batch is done," John said. "Here's one you can take home." He handed me a used cone. It sat on my dresser for years.
My next stop was the Shop. Two craftsmen toiled: the one with callipers watched ribbons of steel spiral to the floor from a steel shaft on a huge lathe; the other, only an outline bent over two steel plates in the glow of an arc weld. I peaked through the door. In the background echoed the rumble and subdued clicking of a large diesel engine.
"Come in sonny," the one with the callipers beckoned. His ruddy complexion, slightly dusted with metal filings and the twinkling eyes was an invitation a shy farm boy couldn't resist.
I had just met Albert Reed. In a few minutes I met Mike Scott as he appeared from under the welding hood. For two hours I watched these two men work. Both were craftsmen, I believed, when I left, there was probably nothing these two couldn't fix. The greatest thrill came when Mike asked me if I would like to weld. My crude and awkward attempt at sticking two scrap pieces of metal together was a source of great pride.
Albert, I would find out in later years, had a sense of humour and a bag of tricks few could ever match. I will never forget Albert showing a naive farm boy how he could eat cigarette butts, shards of glass, or drink fresh blood when dad butchered pigs. He had an endless array of card tricks and a laugh that was infectious. One of the funniest memories I hold about the boarding house was Albert's pet turkey. I think his name was Tommy and he would share Albert's evening cup of spirit which, in a boarding house atmosphere, was fairly regular. When the few brain cells turkeys possess became desensitised, gravity took its toll. When standing erect became impossible, Tommy was propped in a corner to sleep it off. I never did find out what happened to Tommy and if he ever graced the bunkhouse table. All I know; from the average barnyard turkey's perspective, chances of befriending a man like Albert would have exceeded the odds of winning a Irish Sweepstakes.
Of all the areas of the brick plant that made it unique was the hand-mold shop. Here, under conditions of heat and humidity that at times must have tested human endurance, men took wet clay and individually made shaped bricks. From the inventory of different shapes, arranged like soldiers in formation across the drying room floor, came the protective linings for fireboxes in coal-powered steam locomotives and the boilers of ships that sailed the world. Here, "hand-made" took on new meaning. From the drying room, molded bricks were hand loaded onto cars and moved to kilns where they were stacked, by hand, in precise patterns for firing. Once cooled, the bricks were again loaded by hand and moved to railcars where they were packed in straw for shipment.
Lunchtime at the plant was a custom, one of the few times during the day Ev and dad would stop to rest. While they ate their sandwiches, drank soup and coffee amidst the grit and grime they worked in all day, it was still a reprieve. Lunch was a time for a few jokes or a game of cribbage for two bits. Dealing dusty cards with fingers sanded smooth from brick always took longer. Decks were changed when the spots started to wear off.
I sat that day in appreciation of the men who worked so hard for a small company at the base of the big hill. The brick plant provided a living and, for many, a life-long career. Those who worked there were a proud lot. As I left that night I carried dad's lunch pail. The same one he used for 38 years.