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Bricklaying

September 21, 2014

An emergency room nurse told me about a patient who came to the hospital in the middle of the night with an apparent kidney stone.  After some preliminary tests, she handed the man a small plastic cup and said, “I need a specimen.”

She left the room for a few minutes.  Upon her return the man was sitting with the empty cup in his hand.  He did not understand her request.

She tried to clarify.  “Can you make water?” she asked.

“No, Ma’am,” he said. “I lay brick.”

Laying brick is not as easy as it may seem.

In the High Hills of the Santee stands the historic Church of the Holy Cross, also known as the Holy Cross Episcopal Church. General Thomas Sumter, a Revolutionary War hero known as the Gamecock, donated the land on which the church was built. The remarkable structure is a notable example of Gothic Revival design, featuring a cruciform floor plan, corner towers, and pointed arches. The walls were constructed of pisé de terre or rammed earth.

When Clare and I visited the church, I commented on the unusual building material. Why they didn’t use brick instead of packing earth to build the old church? The answer is that there was no red clay in those sandy hills.

Browsing the Internet, I discovered that some people collect brick of various sorts. Where in the world do they keep such a collection?

I also learned more than I wanted to know about the history of brickmaking from a British Web site, http://www.brickdirectory.com.

Bricks are one of the oldest known building materials dating back to the ancient city of Jericho. The first bricks were made of sun-dried mud. Eventually, fired bricks were discovered to be more resistant to weather and, therefore, more permanent. Fired bricks also absorbed heat making the structure cooler in the day and warmer at night.

Archaeological discoveries reveal that the ancient Egyptians also used sun-dried mud bricks as building materials. Paintings on the tomb walls of Thebes depict slaves making bricks. The Biblical book of Exodus records brickmaking by the enslaved Israelites prior to their release from bondage.

The Greeks discovered that kiln-fired brick was less susceptible to erosion than even traditional marble walls. The Romans perfected the craft of kiln-firing red and white clay brick for the construction of public and private buildings throughout the empire.

During the twelfth century brick were introduced to northern Europe from Italy. The brick gothic period, as it is known, saw red clay fired brick used by masons instead of cut stone. The uniform shape of the brick made them easier to fit allowing the work to be more efficient. Brick Gothic style buildings are still in use throughout Europe.

Spartanburg County features several unusual examples of early American brickwork.  The Thomas Price house near Switzer was built in 1795 along the Old Stagecoach Road.  The steep gambrel roof and two inside end chimneys are distinctive.  The brick used in the home were made on the premises and laid in a Flemish Bond style.  The restored home is one of our historic treasures.

In the mid-1770s, an itinerant Dutch brick mason traveled through our county.  His specialty was building chimneys with a Dutch tapestry design using handmade brick of differing shades.  The light and dark-colored brick created a complex pattern of diamonds in a chain. The design runs the entire height of the chimney.  Smith’s Tavern, also a restored home originally built in 1795, showcases one of the few remaining examples of the Dutchman’s craft.  The private home is located near the intersection of Ott Shoals Road and Blackstock Road south of Stone Station.

Foster’s Tavern, located along the Old Georgia Road was constructed in 1807.  The imposing home was built of hand thrown brick made from a nearby clay pit.  This public house was an elegant inn noted for its fine hospitality during the antebellum period.  John C. Calhoun was a regular guest at Foster’s Tavern as were a number of other notable travelers.  More recently known as the Ruff House, the landmark stands at the corner of South Carolina Highway 56 and Highway 295 near Cedar Springs.

By the way, the aforementioned clay pit was the place where my grandfather built his home in 1937.  It is the home in which our family still lives.

Even the big bad wolf learned from his encounter with te three little pigs that a building constricted with brick is durable.

At a cookout several years ago, I admired an outdoor grill made entirely of brick.  The owner explained that he had built the grill out of brick that were left over from the construction of a retaining wall along his driveway.  He hired professional bricklayers to build the wall.  He watched the masons mix mortar and wield trowels as they crafted the long curved wall.  Feeling somewhat confident that he had learned the art of bricklaying by merely watching the skilled laborers, he decided to try building the brick grill on his own.

After two or three frustrating attempts, he questioned his ability to complete the job.  “I finally asked one of the men who built the wall to help me with the grill,” he confessed. “It was not as easy as it looked.”

Over the years I have seen masons working at their craft. The art of bricklaying requires skills that must be learned. A seasoned mason uses a trowel in the same way as an artist use brushes. Furthermore, the precision of the work requires masonry twine, levels, and plumb lines.

I have tried my hand at bricklaying on a few simple projects. I can attest that it is not as easy as it looks.

Masonry work requires, not only a skilled hand and a sharp eye, but also a keen mind.  Years ago, a college math professor came to the lumberyard to buy brick.

“I need five thousand, eight hundred, and ninety-seven bricks,” he announced.

My grandfather said, “We usually sell brick by the thousand, but I’ll sell you that exact amount for the same price as six thousand.”

The professor blinked for a moment before my grandfather added, “That’s a lot of brick.  What are you building?”

The professor explained that he was closing in his carport to make a family room and planned to construct a fireplace with a chimney on one end of the new addition.

My grandfather commented that it must be a mighty big chimney.  Then he asked, “Tell me how you figured your brick.”

The professor explained that he had measured several bricks, and he had measured mortar joints.  Multiplying the dimensions of the fireplace and chimney, he had calculated exactly how many bricks he needed.

He insisted again, “I need exactly five thousand, eight hundred, and ninety-seven bricks.”

My grandfather took a puff on his cigar and said, “Fellow, you’re not from around here, are you?”

“No,” he said. “We moved here from the Midwest last year.”

With another puff of his stogie, my grandfather said, “I don’t know how folks build chimneys where you come from, Professor, but in this part of the world, we usually leave a hole up through the middle of the chimney so the smoke can get out.”

“Oh, no!” exclaimed the professor. “I calculated a solid chimney!”

Laying brick is just not as easy as it seems.

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