When Lebanon Made Bricks
Editor Chris Heidelberg, left, and director Stefan van Norden will show and discuss the movie "Hand of Brick: Densmore Brick Company -- A Look Back" at the AVA Art Gallery in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 18, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
A Densmore Brick Company worker in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph)
Densmore Brick Company workers in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph)
The Densmore Brick Company facility in an aerial photograph taken after the Hanover Street School was constructed in 1952. (Courtesy photograph)
Remains of the Densmore Brick Company's product line at Stefan van Norden's home in Lyme. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
After Coogan Boutin was discharged from the service at the end of World War II, he came home to Lebanon and got a job working at the Densmore Brick Co. The work was grueling but the pay was decent. And he was in good company. His older brother Adrian “Boots” Boutin was the foreman, and four other brothers also worked there, including one who put his part-time wages toward tuition at Dartmouth College.
Coogan Boutin worked at the yard from 1946 until sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when he took another job that paid better and wasn’t as hard on the body. The routine was this: he wheeled about 7,000 bricks per day to the kiln, along with two other men. All the bricks were hand-molded, and carefully arranged in the kiln by an experienced brick layer.
Between them 21,000 bricks were set in the kiln daily, and by week’s end, it was filled with between 90,000 and 95,000 bricks that were ready for firing. “We got 50 cents a 1,000, and the last 1,000 was time and a half. That was the best pay,” Boutin said in a phone interview.
The Densmore Brick Co. stopped manufacturing bricks in 1974, but the beehive kilns, marvels of engineering built in the 1940s, are still there, on a lot near Lebanon High School. The pond that provided the clay for the bricks is nearby. The property, comprising 133 acres, is currently for sale at $6.9 million, said real estate agent James Ward.
Boutin and other men who worked at Densmore are interviewed in a documentary about the history of the brick yard, Hand of Brick: Densmore Brick Company — A Look Back , which will be screened Saturday evening at 7 p.m. at the AVA Art Gallery in Lebanon. Director Stefan van Norden and editor Chris Heidelberg will be there to talk about the making of the film.
When van Norden, a Hanover native who has lived in the Upper Valley most of his life, explored the old brickyard in the 1980s, the kilns were still in good shape. But 30 years later, when he went back to look at them again, nature had reasserted itself. Trees were growing out of the kilns and the site was scruffy.
Even so, said van Norden, “there’s something about those structures that made me think they deserve not to be forgotten.”
So he decided to make a short video documentary about the place. One connection led to another connection, and what was envisioned as a five-minute film turned into a hour-long documentary about the brickyard and the men who worked there.
“It started taking on a life of its own,” van Norden said in an interview at his home in Hanover. “I thought that there was something that needed to be recorded.”
He’d never made a documentary before, so he eventually enlisted Heidelberg’s help as an editor and as someone who could bring a different perspective to the material. The two became friends when Heidelberg designed van Norden’s website.
By trade, van Norden is a gardener. Under the name Noorden Gardening he tends to people’s gardens in the Upper Valley, weeding, pruning, planting and landscaping. “Gardening has been a passion for 30 years,” he said. But bricks are right up there in the running.
Densmore bricks were building blocks of both the local architecture and the economy. Baker Library at Dartmouth College was made from Densmore bricks, as were the Hopkins Center and Memorial Field. Colby-Sawyer College in New London was built from Densmore bricks. Ditto Lebanon City Hall, the Woodstock Inn and the Soldier’s Memorial Building in Lebanon.
Local lore has it that there’s “more brick in Baker Library than all the other brick buildings around the (Dartmouth) green combined,” van Norden said.
The brickyard turned out some 13 million bricks annually, which were distributed throughout New England, van Norden said. The company, which was founded in 1800 and became the Densmore Brick Co. around the time of the Civil War when it was bought by the Densmore family, was one of the major brick manufacturers in northern New England, along with Drury Bricks in Essex Junction, Vt.
The pond that supplied the clay had enough material in it to last for years after the company closed, said Jason Densmore, whose father and grandfather ran the brickyard. Different seams of clay produce different colored bricks. The brickyard produced both water-struck and sand-struck bricks, which were renowned for being among the hardest available nationwide, said van Norden.
The film takes its title from the term for holding four bricks at one time in one’s hand, and throwing them as a unit to a co-worker, a process that would be repeated over and over during a work day. Despite the heavy lifting that working in the brickyard called for, van Norden was struck by the fact that all of the men (and one woman, who worked in the office) he interviewed “looked back on it with fond memories.”
“And they articulated it so well,” said Heidelberg.
“They took pride in their work,” said van Norden.
The company closed down for a number of reasons, said Densmore. Southern brickyards had the advantage of being able to work year-round, while Northern brickyards shut down during the winter months. The yard switched from coal to oil as a source of power, and oil was prohibitively expensive, as was the cost of labor. Now brick-making is automated, and while that has its advantages it also means that the unique character that came with each hand-molded brick, because they never quite turned out the same way, has been lost.
Van Norden isn’t done with the subject of bricks, or the Densmore brickyard, by a long shot. He’s contemplating doing a film on the history of bricks worldwide. And if anyone has recollections of the Densmore brickyard he’d like to hear about it. “I look at it as nothing is ever done,” he said.
“Hand of Brick: Densmore Brick Company — A Look Back” will be shown free-of-charge Saturday evening at the AVA Gallery from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, call 603-448-3117 or go to avagallery.org/content. There will be a question-and-answer period after the film.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
PHOTOGRAPH CAPTION CORRECTION
The aerial photograph of the Densmore Brick Company in Lebanon was taken after the Hanover Street School was constructed in 1952. An earlier version of the photo caption gave the wrong date.