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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Brickyard Workers Make Film Debut At White River Indie Festival

This weekend, film buffs will put in some serious screen time at the 1oth annual White River Indie Festival. The theme is “Crossing Borders,” and the roster includes documentaries about black photographers, the Mexican border, foster care and South Africa, as well as a fictional chronicle set in a remote African village.

Local film-makers will also get a chance to show their work. One of those films, by Stefan Van Norden, is about a defunct brickyard in Lebanon, N.H.

Van Norden is the first to admit it. He’s a gardener, not a film-maker. But the Hanover resident has always been fascinated by a cluster of beehive-shaped kilns behind Lebanon High School. They used to fire up millions of bricks hand-struck at Densmore Brick Company  from the 1800s to 1974. That’s when fuel costs and competition from mass production facilities in southern states put Densmore out of business, and the kilns started to deteriorate. Van Norden was sorry to see that.

“It was sad because there was trees growing out of the top of them, completely neglected, and when I saw ‘em I just felt that somehow that these had to be recorded, if not themselves, then in some form," he says.

So Van Norden started videotaping the kilns with his little camera. Then he started searching out former employees, to record their memories. What he thought would be a five-minute hobby video turned into an hour-long documentary called “Hand of Brick” — a term for holding four bricks in one hand and throwing them to a co-worker.

“Making bricks hasn’t changed much since the early 1800s,” he explains  in the film. “There was the simple machine that would take the clay that was loaded into the hopper and press it into molds. The release agent in the mold would determine the type of brick. The molds would then be released to the dumper who would empty the molds. The wet bricks would then be placed on racks to air dry.”

Then “wheelers” would take the bricks in wheelbarrows to “setters,” who would stack the bricks in kilns to be fired. One of those heavy lifters was a man named Coogan Boutin. He’s the oldest of the men interviewed in the film, and, to hear him tell it, one of the hardest workers. He always wanted to wheel more bricks, faster, than anyone else.

“Because there was a clock that was there, up this high,” Boutin recalls in the film. “And every time you’d come in with a hundred brick, you stopped, punched the clock, ‘cause they had to keep track of us because they didn’t want us to cheat. Then you’d unload and then you’d come back out and keep right on going.”

"All the molds had to be dumped by hand. When they come out of the machine, a person has to physically pick the mold off the green brick and throw it to one side where it can be re-cycled and go back in the machine, and if you don't think that's hard work, try it." - Jeff Densmore

Densmore workers would wheel 21,000 bricks each day. You can still see the fruits of their back-breaking labors all over the Upper Valley, including the Baker Library at Dartmouth, Lebanon City Hall, the Woodstock Inn, and Colby-Sawyer College.

Teresa Aldrich was the bookkeeper.

“I can remember watching them pick up the wheel barrow that was full of brick that they were going to put in the kiln, and I couldn’t get over—you could tell, it was really straining them--and they did that day after day after day,” Aldrich recalls.

Film-maker Van Norden tracked down over a dozen former Densmore brick employees. They tell funny stories about men pulling tricks on each other with live snakes, and more tragic ones about the truck driver who was nearly buried alive in the spring-fed pond where the clay was mined.

In the film, Jeff Densmore, the owner’s grandson, pays tribute to the former employees.

“All the molds had to be dumped by hand. When they come out of the machine, a person has to physically pick the mold off the green brick and throw it to one side where it can be re-cycled and go back in the machine, and if you don’t think that’s hard work, try it,” he says.

Van Norden thinks the work ethic at the brickyard would be hard to find these days.

“We have a lot of technology, he says. “We have a lot going on these days, but you don’t necessarily have something that, if you work hard at it, you see the results of it in your community.”

He hopes his film will preserve not just those brick-and-mortar results, but the sacrifices hard workers made, one brick at a time.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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