Paving the Way

by Terry Hogan

Some inventions, some foundations of our society are so fundamental, so common, so ''underfoot'' that we often fail to understand their significance. Such is the case of the under-appreciated paving brick. Without the unsung paving bricks, some of our ancestors risked perishing in the mud and muck that were streets. Paving brick brought the end of mud, the end of dust, and the start of mobility, culture, and civilization to many small prairie towns. Paving bricks, well, ''paved the way'' for automobiles.

Long dresses, clean shoes, and better sanitation were all made more practical by the humble paving brick. Paving bricks were hauled from near and far to provide usable streets. Galesburg was lucky. It had a local source.

The Purington Brickyard has a long history associated with the Galesburg area. One can hardly walk very long without coming across ''Purington'' bricks in streets or sidewalks. Recently, I came across them with the tear down of the former Lucky Boy Bread Bakery site on East Main Street in Galesburg. I also found a few examples along the shore of Lake Bracken, used as riprap. Beyond the local uses, the story goes that Purington bricks can be found in the brick streets of Paris, France and in the streets of Panama -- shipped down during the construction of the Panama Canal. More locally, Chicago was also a big consumer of paving bricks produced by Purington.

I did a quick search on the Internet. I was surprised to learn that people collect antique bricks. There is also at least one firm that buys and sells used paving bricks, including Puringtons, for use in historic restoration projects. It seems that it is difficult to recreate these old bricks for color and texture. These ''antique bricks'' can be purchased individually for $10 plus shipping costs ( Just think, for a mere ten bucks and shipping, you can have your own ''pet Purington paver.'' Be the first in your neighborhood!

But, of course, every story has a beginning, and this isn't it. I suppose this story must begin chronologically with the origins of the operation, but it could just about as easily begin with a young Galesburg Swedish lad, busted by the police for swimming at the ponds created by an abandoned brickyard near Galesburg. Carl and his ''dirty dozen,'' a mixing pot of Galesburg youth, were hauled off to jail for skinny-dipping.

The Purington Brickyards had its birth in 1890. The company was incorporated on May 15, 1890 by Mr. A. A. Matteson, Mr. D. V. Purington, and Mr. W. N. Phillips. The Brickyards were to be located near Highland Park, east of the Knoxville diagonal road. The CB&Q railroad provided access to the world, by building a switch track extension to the yards. The railroad would have been critical for the success of this business. Only by rail or by river could these heavy bricks be transported any great distance efficiently. And most readers will probably have noted that Galesburg isn't blessed with truly commercially navigable rivers.

Midwestern streets were waiting for a solution to the spring and fall mud that brought transportation and pedestrians to a near standstill. Purington bricks provided the solution. It is recorded that by 1895 it had become the world's largest manufacturer of paving and building bricks. It made over 75 million bricks a year from the fine Knox County blue clay shale. Production reached 140,000 bricks per day and employment reached 800.

It is reported that Galesburg had over 60 miles of brick streets laid between 1890 and 1930. Paving bricks ''paved the way,'' so to speak, for the automobile. Paving bricks eliminated the mud in wet weather and the dust in the dry weather. Cities, towns, and homes became cleaner and healthier places as a direct result of paved streets.

However, brick production was hard work. It was manual work, accounting for the large number of employees. The shale had to be dug from the ground and then processed to obtain the right degree of moisture and shape before being placed in the kiln. The original clay brick shrunk during its kiln drying.

Paving bricks start out life fundamentally different than your average building brick. Paving bricks require a mixture of clay, shale, sand, and ''flux'' (described without edification as ''Ša mixture of substances that promotes fusion at high temperatures.''). Paving bricks, like those made by Purington, gained their strength and durability through kiln firing. Firing caused the brick's content to react chemically (via vertrification) to create a strong, impervious brick.

The single largest order for Purington was, of course, in support of World War II. The E. I. Dupont deNemours Co. ordered 22 million building bricks for a munitions plant to be constructed in southern Indiana. It took a mere 146 days for the order to be met. Train cars, filled at the rate of seven or eight per day, were shipped to southern Indiana, with the bricks still cooling.

I would like to tell you that Purington paving bricks constitute the origins of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but I cannot. According to the Brickyard historian, no Purington pavers are buried under the asphalt of the world's most famous racetrack. Nearly all of the 3.2 million bricks were Culver block, with some other minor amounts coming from other brick manufacturers. But, alas, there are no records of Purington pavers. I must admit that I was a little hesitant to pose this question to the Speedway historian. I expected a ''You wanna know what?'' But his response was very quick. ''I probably know more about the paving bricks than you ever want to know.'' He was right but he was also very helpful.

The paving brick business became limited, so Purington converted over to facing bricks used in buildings. Around 1952, the kiln process was updated, with natural gas replacing coal. The conversion to natural gas reduced the amount of smoke, particulates, and sulfur dioxide emitted to the atmosphere. It also increased plant efficiency.

While in grade school, I recall going to see bricks made as part of a Cub Scout outing, probably around 1956. I recall each of us was given one ''green brick'' and one finished brick. The green brick was larger and had not been through the kiln firing process yet. For decades, these two bricks were stored in the basement of my parents' home. However, I believe they must have met their end during a cleaning. Probably they are part of the riprap slowing Lake Bracken's gnawing away of the shoreline.

After nearly a century of manufacturing bricks, the operations were officially closed in 1974. But the literate traveler can still spot Purington paving bricks as he walks his way through metropolitan centers around the world. And if he is from Knox County, he knows that these bricks are a bit of home, shipped 50 or more years ago. Gay, scenic Paris might have been a little less so, without the Midwestern know how and the right kind of clay.

Some of the old brick works can still be seen, adjacent to Interstate 74, near mile marker 51. Asphalt and concrete have replaced paving bricks. Purington pavers have outlived their point of origin. Purington pavers are now collectibles and are in demand for historic restoration efforts. The Purington Brickyard may be gone but it is not forgotten. It paved the way.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 27, 2000

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