Built Like A Brick Yard

by Terry Hogan

As some of you may know, I am visited from time to time by the VAR. The VAR, a gnome-like creature, keeps me up on the dealings of the electric utilities. I have almost gotten used to having the VAR show up, unannounced, vibrating at 60 cycles a second. But you can imagine my surprise when a MegaPixel showed up at my computer. She was friendly enough, and more tolerant of my ignorance than the VAR. She stood about three inches high but at times would enlarge herself. If she went to an extreme size, I could make out little squares that appeared to distort her image. But she said that I could call her Pixie or Meg. She preferred not to be called Dotty.

Her reason for appearing was that she was delivering some digital photos to me. They were taken near Galesburg and Pixie was asked to deliver them. She did offer, however, that they were of the old relics of the nearly forgotten Purington Brick Works. She declined to name the photographer.

The photos appeared to be recent and taken in the winter as the leaves were off the trees. A towering brick chimney was visible, as was an elevated fire box opening, now lacking the building and floor to match the elevated location. Other photos showed partial brick walls, beautiful brick arches, attesting to the strength of the arch, learned by man so long ago. Many of the bricks used in these structures had Purington markings, raising the "chicken and egg" issue. Were these structures made after the first firing of the bricks, or were other Purington bricks brought from another location, shipped in to build the initial structures?

There were remains of old brick kilns with round, arching, igloo-like design. There were also very small, nearly buried versions that appear to have been smaller kilns, nearly hidden by the leaf litter and vegetation grown up over the years. Trees were competing for skyline triumph over the brick smokestack that appeared to insist on remaining to mark the birth and death of such an important part of Galesburg's history.

In among the leaf litter, briars, and other vegetation, were remains of used brick from structures that had fallen over the years. Mortar still clings to these Purington bricks. But careful study also showed bricks stacked neatly in rows, with rows resting on rows. Probably sitting there for decades, through freeze and thaw cycles, and ignoring the attempted in-roads of roots and vines to break the brick back down to earth. Some of these were relatively thin bricks, about 1/3 the thickness of a paver. There were "Purington Pavers" laying around. These have the "Purington" name raised on the surface of the brick and the "Purington" name is in an arch, whereas the word "Paver" is in a straight line, below the Purington name. There were "Purington Blocks" also present. These were much like the Pavers, except the name "Block" replaced "Paver".

There were other Purington brick types to be seen. There were more standard looking bricks that had the word "Purington" imprinted on the end of the brick in small print. Finally, there were bricks similarly marked on one end with the other end notched so that they would interlock with other bricks to ensure a stable fit.

I asked where these beautiful old relics were located. Pixie said they were near the railroad track in East Galesburg. She said that some of the structures are visible in the winter time from the little pull off area along the road. She added with a little Puckish smile, "It's the pull off with all the no trespassing signs, you just have to follow the paths."

I asked if the photographer had to trespass to get the photos. She increased in size until the little squares became visible, and was about to say something. But she didn't say a word, and returned to her charming Pixie-size of about three inches. I decided not to look the Christmas gift pixie in the mouth, deciding ignorance was probably the better option.

Of course, trespass associated with brick yards isn't something new around Galesburg. At least one of Galesburg's more famous residents was caught in the process. As a boy, none other than Carl Sandburg and some of his young associates were arrested while taking a swim in the "Old Brick" at the edge of town. This old swimming hole was the product of a small abandoned brick yard and apparently near Day Street. The police patrol wagon showed up and carted them off toward jail. They were taken to jail and held most of the day, before being released and told to report to the judge the next day. They appeared, were lectured, and were released. Sandburg, after the passage of decades, still seemed to feel the injustice of being arrested for swimming in a pond that lacked any signs indicating they couldn't (Sandburg, 1953, Always the Young Strangers).

I also have it from a reliable source that young couples used to swim at the lakes associated with the Purington operation back in the 30's. Apparently they were known as Lakes 1 & 2. Couples would slip out to the lakes and take a cool swim in the evening.

Of course, the Purington bricks are famous for traveling far, and not so far. Galesburg was a much finer town once the bricks put the end to getting mired down in mud and muck. The beautiful old town of Galena, Illinois sports Purington Pavers- I can personally attest to that. I have read of Purington bricks making their contribution to the Panama Canal effort, but I cannot personally attest to their presence.

If you take the time and look around Galesburg, you will see Puringtons still serving their role beyond paving. I spied a brick antique store on East Main Street, near the railroad tracks. Looking carefully at the ends of some exposed bricks in the wall, along the off-street parking, I spied the small, indented, end-printed "Purington" name. At three dollars a brick, the antique store is probably worth more than the contents.

But at this point, my puckish little Pixie appears to be imitating the VAR. She interrupts my thought and insists that I type her comments. She says that I should not focus on the bricks. She says that I can't see the brickyard for the bricks. She says that it is the brickyard where all these millions of bricks were made. It is a part of Galesburg’s history, slowly tumbling down from neglect and the occasional half-hearted attempt at mindless vandalism. Cities and their people protect and preserve what is important to them, if they have the leadership and foresight. If not, history is lost and that which made the town unique and special is replaced by that which will make it indistinguishable from all other short-sighted towns.

"Saving a Purington brick, or two, or even a few hundred isn't too strange of a hobby, or too great of an effort" said Pixie. "But saving a brick works...that takes imagination, skill, and foresight, and that is why I brought you these photos" she said. In obvious frustration, she exclaimed, "You really are as dim of a bulb as the VAR said; I thought he was just kidding."

Save a Brick or Save a Brickyard.