A view from the bricks

Brickyard chimney
The red brick chimney is the most noticeable remnant of the once thriving brickyard. Photos by Susan Safford

By Susan Safford - February 1, 2007

The Trustees of the Reservations (TTOR) annual hike to the site of the old brickyard in Chilmark really is a walk back in time. Sarah Trudel, education and interpretation coordinator at TTOR, organized this year's walk. It had been planned for the previous weekend but the extreme cold and high winds that were blowing right off the sound onto the north shore, the site of our destination, made a postponement necessary. Although it was still chilly this past Saturday, there was not much wind and all 13 of us were sufficiently bundled up for the walk.

We met at the Harris property, at the Great Rock Bight turnoff on North Road. Much of the land in the area is or was once owned by the Harris family. Menemsha Hills Reservation was donated to TTOR by Nathaniel L. Harris and Catherine P. Harris in 1966, and Flora Harris Epstein has placed her property, almost 70 acres that includes the site of the old brickworks, under a conservation restriction, and she has willed it to the Trustees upon her death.

Sarah Trudel
Walk leader Sarah Trudel from The Trustees of the Reservations shows the site layout of the old brickyard on a hand-drawn map.

This year we were fortunate to have Preston G. Harris as our guide. His great grandfather, Nathaniel Harris, a banker from Boston, foreclosed on the old Smith and Barrows Brickyard and rebuilt what was to become the Vineyard Brick and Tile works back in 1868. He owned 600 acres between Menemsha and Spring Point, and had an additional thousand-plus acres in mineral rights. The brickyard produced 800,000 bricks a year and had 70 employees. Mr. Harris said this whole part of Chilmark was bustling with industry at the time. There were other brickyards, and a paint mill, and clay works. Wharves along the North Shore served trading schooners that picked up the product to ship to points along the east coast.

Our first stop along the hike was to visit a house on Mr. Harris's property that was moved here from Nomans Land in 1815 after a hurricane destroyed all other dwellings on the island. It is reported to be the only house in New England to have a thatched roof. The house has been added to over the years, and the roof is now shingled. The house is where Mr. Harris's father and aunt were born. Inside, old photos were displayed showing the brickworks in operation, the clay pits, and the long wharf stretching out into the Sound. He showed us a four-poster bed in one of the bedrooms, a bed once owned by James Cagney, a neighbor in the 1950s, that he used as a guest bed and where such notables as Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey and Ronald Reagan had slept - not at the same time, he pointed out.

Sarah Trudel
Sarah Trudel didn't mind getting her feet wet as she helped hikers cross Roaring Brook at the base of the brickyard.

After we left the warmth of the house, we followed a trail, sometimes thick with scrub oak and brambles. towards the shore. We could hear the water tumbling down Roaring Brook as we approached the cliffs overlooking Vineyard Sound and saw the 100-foot red brick chimney rising out of a tangle of underbrush, the sole reminder of what once was.

The most difficult part of the hike was navigating the narrow trail down to the brook, then making the difficult crossing over slippery, ice coated rocks to the other side, the site of the brickyard. Ms. Trudel was most helpful assisting the hikers across the rushing brook. She had on waterproof boots and didn't mind standing in the icy waters as she helped each of us to keep our balance when we crossed. We found occasional wave-worn brick among the rocks and got to feel the soft, white clay of the cliffs.

Some foundation remnants of the old brickyard could also still be found - a retaining wall, the remains of a water wheel used for propelling a series of pulleys used to move equipment around the yard. Mr. Harris showed us where the foreman's house had been, and pointed toward the foundation of the French House, so-called because the French Canadians who worked the mill during the summer were lodged there. The most fascinating ruin, though, is the chimney itself. From its base it seems to stretch up forever. It is square built, with an inner and outer chimney. This can be seen along the south side where many of the bricks have become dislodged. Oddly enough the north side, facing the sea, has weathered the years more successfully.

Preston G. (P.G.) Harris
Preston G. (P.G.) Harris, great grandson of brickyard founder Nathaniel Harris, had many colorful stories to tell about the area.

To really go back in time, though, one has to imagine this whole area without trees. The brambles and underbrush and scrub oak have all grown since the brickyards closed, after there was no more fuel - that is - trees, to fire the kilns. The last trees used for fuel were chestnut trees from the Island's great plains, according to Mr. Harris. So in 1900, the Chilmark Brick and Tile Works had to close.

Now that our destination had been reached and fully explored, we headed back to the starting point. The hike may have lasted only two hours, but we had traveled over 150 years back in time.