Connect the Dots: Old Brick Houses and Glaciers

Published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen on 7/28/22

Handmade brick house built in 1815 in Shelburne

When the invitation came to visit an old brick farmhouse nearby, I jumped at the chance. The owners walked us around their home and passed along its stories. One wall section had been removed because of water damage, and the bricks had been saved in a shed out back. Looking through the old bricks, I could see they were basically the same size, shape, and heft as modern bricks, but no two bricks were exactly alike. When I found one with finger impressions baked in, I knew they were truly handmade. Once I delved into the bricks’ stories, I also found that they were deeply knit into the story of the landscape.

Handmade bricks, one showing the fingerprints of the brick maker

The bricks dated to the early 1800s and were made of local clay from a low area just down the road, now a cornfield. I visited the site, and could feel the clay’s plasticity while kneading some soil in my hands. To one side was a square-sided pit where some of the clay had been harvested. The kiln had also been nearby, and the small brick fragments scattered through the cornfield were its tangible evidence more than 150 years later.

In that era, bricks were made by hand using wooden molds. The clay was laboriously mixed and kneaded, then hand-pressed into molds and the excess scraped off with a flat, wet stick. They were then knocked out of the molds and set to dry for days. They were turned regularly to promote even drying and discourage bending. Once dry, they were built into a kiln shape and wood-fired in a carefully monitored process. When finished, the best ones were used for house exteriors, and the others in less critical areas.

The bricks in the shed were idiosyncratic. Some had small embedded pebbles, not unlike the cornfield’s soil. Some had pitted surfaces, or were curved, probably from the molding and drying process. Some had shallow, parallel grooves along the tops, probably from the wet stick scraping off the excess clay. The fingerprints were from handling it while still wet. These brick details were witnesses to the many hands and multiple steps involved in their creation.

Each brick weighed 4-5 lbs, and with the thousands needed to build a house, the total weight of bricks moved from kiln to house site was measured in tons. In these pre-railroad days, newly finished bricks traveled by horse- or oxen-drawn wagon to house sites. It’s not surprising that most were built very near the clay source.  

After this visit, I watched for old brick houses in my journeys, and read any stories I could find. Many Champlain Valley towns have 10-20 brick farmhouses from this era, and there are many mentions of using local clay from near the house site. 

After mapping them, I noticed that most of the old brick houses are at 600’ in elevation or below. We have the glaciers to thank for this. Not only did the glaciers generate huge volumes of clay (and other) particles as they scraped over rock faces, they also moved huge quantities of these particles in their meltwater.  

In the last glacial stages 13,500 years ago, Glacial Lake Vermont was formed when an ice dam plugged the Champlain Valley’s northern end. The ice dam held back the melted glacial water that normally drained north, and filled the basin to about 600’ in elevation for about 1500 years. All of Lake Vermont’s tributaries brought meltwater filled with sediments from the glacier-scraped hillsides.  

Glacial Lake Vermont (in blue) filled the Champlain Valley to about 600′ in elevation

After the ice dam failed, the lake level dropped, and was partly replaced by salt water flooding in to about 300’ in elevation. The Champlain Sea, as it was called, lasted 2000 years, and very heavy clay deposits accumulated during its time. The Champlain Valley below 600’, then, has mostly clay-rich soils dating to these two different stages of the glacier’s melting. 

The valley’s glacial history set the stage for the old brick houses, but it also brought other related landscape features. Because the clay makes very rich farming soil, farms were established early and are still very productive. With few stones in the soil, no stone walls were built around the fields. Instead, early farmers brought in non-native black locust trees to use for fencing (see my CTD column, January 2021), and many of the old brick farmhouses have black locust trees nearby. The lack of stone walls has also made it easier to consolidate farm fields from the early 5-10 acres to the much larger sizes today. These features work together to make a distinctive clay valley farming landscape, anchored by the brick houses.

Now, every handmade brick house I see reminds me of the warm hands that shaped the clay into brick, as well as the ice-cold water that deposited that clay.

Copyright 2022 Jane Dorney