Last year I was SCUBA diving in Pensacola Bay, and I found an old brick. I’m guessing it’s over 100 years old. There aren’t any markings (or they’ve been washed away). Any idea where it might have come from?
Although it’s impossible to know exactly where your brick came from, it is quite possible that it was made in Pensacola before the Civil War. Beginning around 1820, Pensacola became a key supplier of bricks to a growing nation.
Similar to the booming lumber industry, the local brick business depended on natural resources. It was discovered that clay found on the bay shores of Pensacola formed an exceptionally strong brick. It wasn’t long before Pensacola’s brick industry gained a reputation for producing quality bricks that were able to withstand harsh coastal conditions.
While many of the bricks were exported for commercial use, the greatest demand was generated by area military projects. The government’s first large purchase of brick was for the construction of Fort Morgan in 1822, followed by the lighthouse in 1824. Then there was the much larger undertaking of building Fort Pickens in 1829. Four million bricks were ordered from eight different Pensacola brickyards just to start the project. When the fort was completed in 1834, it had consumed over 21 million bricks. The brickyards were paid $9 for every thousand bricks produced.
In the 1850s, one local firm called Bacon and Abercrombie rose to the top when it was awarded a government contract to supply bricks for the construction of two forts in south Florida. The firm would stand to make a profit of $250,000 upon delivery of 65 million bricks. Fearing that the quota could not be met, the firm brought in expert brickmaker John W. Crary from New Orleans.
When Crary arrived in Pensacola in 1857, he saw that the brickmaking process needed updating. Production methods hadn’t changed much since the industry took off. The process was all done by hand, making it extremely labor intensive. First, the clay was gathered and mixed with water until manageable. It was then packed into wooden molds and left to dry naturally. Finally, the bricks were fired in large wood-burning kilns.
To improve production, Crary, an engineer and inventor, developed a brickmaking machine that streamlined the process and delivered the bricks directly into the kiln with no drying time. Crary transformed the industry with his machine that ran using leather belts and a 10-horsepower steam engine. The result was not only higher production, but also a higher-quality brick. By 1858, the Bacon and Abercrombie firm was producing 40,000 bricks per day. Crary was recognized for his achievements, and the firm became nationally known.
With the completion of the large fort projects in Pensacola and the start of the Civil War, brick production decreased in west Florida. When Confederate forces evacuated Pensacola, the order was given to destroy any materials that might aid the invading Union army. The brickyards were burned to the ground to preclude usage by the enemy. The industry was set back about 40 years, but luckily, brickmakers know how to rebuild.
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