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Brick making and its role in Georgia's oldest public building
2.28 brick face
This is picture of a brick with fingerprints on it, found on Jerusalem Lutheran Church at Ebenezer. Note the small fingerprints in the brick. - photo by Photo submitted

Bricks were an important material in the 1700s. Wood was plentiful and used to build everything, but it rotted, termites ate it up and most of all it could catch fire and burn. Bricks were durable but in scarce quantity.   

Bricks were made from clay and in Effingham County clay was available, but not everywhere.  Millions of years ago Effingham County was the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.  Its soil is sandy, but there are regions in the county that have red clay.  

Like farmers, brick makers worked hardest in the spring, summer and in the fall. During the winter, they might dig clay, but cold months were typically quiet. During good spring, summer and fall months, they molded bricks and fired them. Like bread bakers, brick makers mixed their main ingredient with water until it had a dough-like consistency. To strengthen the brick, straw was added. Straw was chopped into small pieces and mixed into the clay.  Then they would roll the clay in sand and pack it into wooden molds.  The mold was constructed like a box.  It was the shape of the desired brick. In most cases there was no standard or uniform size but bricks needed to fit the bricklayers’ hand.              

Brick-makers took the wet brick from the mold and put it on the ground to dry. Laborers turned them periodically to ensure uniform drying. Once they were dry to the touch, bricks were moved to a shed until it was time to fire them. These steps are not particularly a lot of fun over an extended period of time.  

Most people would call it a dull time. The molding of the bricks and placement of the brick to dry was back breaking work. Doing this task over and over, day after day, was hard labor.  Bricks were placed out in the sun to dry, each turned by hand to ensure even drying and carted and piled under covers or sheds until they could be moved to the kiln.

After the sun-dried bricks were ready to be fired in the kiln, they were stacked in a round circle with fire tunnels running through to distribute the heat.  A large fire was built in the middle of the bricks. The fires burned constantly until the bricks hardened. The person assigned to watch over the bricks controlled the heat carefully. In the age before gauges and dials, it meant noticing the release of steam from the bricks and the change in color as they baked. Too much heat could crack them. They had to be baked until the clay crystallized, forming a hard brick.    

Almost anyone could make bricks, men, women or children because it was unskilled labor. The firing of the bricks in the kiln was a job that required a person who was observant. Not firing them long enough could cause them to fall apart or overheating them could cause them to crack.  It was a job that required dedication.    

If brick making was for the untrained, then bricklaying was for the well trained. Bricklaying required physical endurance, an eye for keeping the brick wall straight and the knowledge of construction techniques.

The bricklayers did not produce bricks, but they had to prepare the mortar. This had to be mixed at the construction site. One form of mortar was the mixture of lime and sand. In coastal Georgia oyster shells were burnt to produce a lime substance. Since I cannot verify what was actually mixed to make mortar and the Atlantic Ocean is about 45 miles from Ebenezer, bricklayers mixed something to make their mortar.  

Modern mortar mix has chemicals that make it harden in both summer and winter months, but colonial mortar was finicky. It dried slowly and couldn’t be allowed to freeze in the winter or to dry too quickly in the summer. The bricklayers had to cover their work with tarps or canvas even in hot weather to allow the mortar to dry.  Despite its temperamental nature, 18th-century mortar proved durable once it hardened, a fact demonstrated by the surviving walls of Jerusalem Lutheran Church at New Ebenezer.  

The trick to successful bricklaying is keeping your work level and plumb.  The corners of the building must meet at a perfect 90-degree angle. As the bricklayer laid the brick, he had to keep checking for level and plumb. A string was used to allow him to lay bricks in a straight line. Even with frames and levels the bricklayer had to train his eyes to see what was straight without using tools.

In researching this article, I had to find out about how bricks were laid. The brick patterns of Jerusalem Lutheran Church are laid in what is called an English bond, with rows of bricks laid alternating side-by-side and end to end. The church’s walls are about 21 inches thick.

Many bricklayers did plastering, too. Interior walls in colonial buildings were covered in plaster. Its ingredients included lime, sand and a binder like animal hair. Plaster went directly on bricks or wood. The smoothest appearance required carefully applied coats. Just like mortar, plaster took a while to dry. Once it did, it could be painted or whitewashed.

It is documented that Jerusalem Lutheran Church was constructed between 1767 and 1769, but I believe that the making of bricks had been going on for many years prior to that. Stories from Salzburger descendants claim that the women and children made the bricks that were used to build the Jerusalem Lutheran Church, which I believe. The fingerprints in the bricks are very small. Rev. John Martin Boltzius recorded on Nov. 30, 1751: “We have now received several brick makers, through whom we could gradually have bricks baked in hopes greater means to build a brick church in the town. May God further this.”  

This may have been the beginning of the present day brick Jerusalem Lutheran Church.   

This article was written by Norman V. Turner of Historic Effingham Society. If you have questions, comments or photos to share contact Susan Exley who compiles the column at 754-6681 or email: