What can 53 tons of bricks teach you about your town, your neighbors, and yourself?

Fifty three tons of paving bricks.  That’s about 166,600 pounds or about 13,000 pavers.  That’s a lot of bricks.  We pulled each up by hand.   Oh yeah… that’s a lot of bricks.

The pavers, which comprised the driveway at Hearthstone, were originally part of the Appleton trolley system - the first commercially successful electric trolley system in the U.S.  Service ran from 1890 to 1930 with the bricks lining the tracks and paving the streets on either side.  Most of the bricks were laid down before 1900 with the vast majority of them coming from the Purington Brick Company of East Galesburg, IL.  Purington was once the largest manufacturer of pavers in the world (its bricks still line parts of the Panama Canal).  But eventually Appleton’s trolleys, like so many others, couldn’t compete with buses.  The bricks couldn’t compete with cement.  Trolleys ceased running.  Purington closed.  The streets, along with the tracks and bricks throughout Appleton, were paved over. 

In the early 1960s, the city removed over a million of the bricks as part of a street construction project.  Many were simply dumped in the Fox River.   But the Mares family, owners of Hearthstone at the time, had their four sons reclaim the bricks that were dumped down the bluff behind the house.  The boys pulled up, cleaned off, and installed the pavers to create the driveway.  Four sons, over five summers, almost endless effort.

Fast forward to this summer…  Hearthstone needed safe, ample parking.  So to make way for a new lot, the brick driveway had to be removed.  We could have opted to have a salvage company pay us a modest sum and peel the bricks off with a front loader, possibly destroying a large portion of them in the process.  That would be easy and quick. But the bricks would be gone, sold off in Milwaukee or Madison as just another commodity, and their historical significance would be lost.

This was unacceptable to us.  So we found a better way.

We partnered with another non-profit that wanted to redesign and reinvigorate an area in Appleton called Soldier’s Square.  The area features a fourteen foot bronze statue of Union soldiers which was donated to the city by the second owner of Hearthstone, Albert Priest. Mr. Priest had the statue placed in memory of his brother who died during the Civil War.  We decided to to add another connection to Hearthstone and dedicate the vast majority our bricks to the reinvigoration project.  The bricks would be returned to a public use, near where they were originally laid down.

So far so good, but we want to do more.

Our next step is simple:  We are setting up an on-line system so that anyone can “buy” a brick to honor a veteran.  Each brick will be engraved with the veteran’s name, branch of service, and conflict.  The pavers will then be incorporated into the new design at Soldier’s Square so that everyone in our community will feel what Mr. Priest felt - that there is a memorial dedicated to the sacrifices of all our loved ones.   We’re calling the project simply… “Every Soldier’s Square.” 

To make it happen, we picked up, palletized, and ported off for safe keeping the fifty three tons of bricks.  Our volunteers helped.  Kids from the local county youth services program helped (and then helped again).  Even the local adult Special Olympics team helped.  Each nine pound brick was removed, one at a time, over the course of the hottest summer in recent memory.  All because it was a worthwhile thing to do and someone had to do it.

As I look out on our newly installed parking lot where the bricks once sat, the question has been answered:  What can fifty three tons of bricks teach you? 

That there is often history right beneath your feet. 

That your neighbors are always there to help. 

That, when you don’t take the easy route, worthwhile things happen. 

Oh, and something else…  lift with your legs.

Just a note from the back porch.

- George, Executive Director at Hearthstone

An Enriching Experience... Just Not The One We Expected

This past weekend Hearthstone hosted the 21st Annual Appleton Antique Show at a local venue. The show, our largest annual fundraiser, typically draws over 40 exhibitors - presenting beautiful pieces of almost every conceivable style and era - and well over a thousand attendees.  As the show is held about this time every April, our organizers usually worry that the weather will be too nice and that the first buds of Spring (and the chance to get outside after a long Wisconsin Winter) will be too much for potential attendees to pass up and they will skip the show.

Well...  This year didn't go quite as planned.

There was no warm Wisconsin sunshine.  Instead, Appleton was slammed by its worst winter storm in over 140 years.  Almost two feet of snow fell on top of a thick coating of freezing rain. Wind gusts topped 40 mile per hour.  Roads were impassable - assuming you could find your car under avalanche-size drifts.  Businesses were closed.  City services were non-existent.  The weather turned the simplest of tasks into hours of labor.

And yet through it all, our phenomenal volunteers found ways to cope with the blizzard, show up, and help out.  Our exhibitors, who have seen it all, shrugged, laughed, and spoke of better days to come.  Everyone was simply amazing in the face of adversity.

Our fundraiser didn't enrich the coffers at Hearthstone.  Far from it.  Yet we came away from this weekend rich beyond measure. The understanding and compassion of our volunteers and our exhibitors warmed us in a way no Spring sunshine could ever match.

Just a note from the back porch (hastily typed with freezing fingers)

- George, Executive Director at Hearthstone

I've been asked...

why should someone contribute to a museum when there are so many other problems in this world... hungry children, battered spouses, homelessness.  It's a good question.  I understand that there is a primacy of needs.  We all deserve and, in fact, should demand, that we are clothed, and fed, and secure in our relationships.  These things are non-negotiable. These things are basic to the human condition.

But when you walk into a place like Hearthstone you get something.  You get a sense of context: You become grounded in where we have come from and maybe where we are going.  You get a sense of texture: You can see how the fabric of our lives has changed and evolved.  You get a sense of enrichment: You simply feel better by being exposed to something new.

When you walk through Hearthstone you smile, and wonder, and learn... and those things are basic to the human condition too.

Just a note from the back porch.

- George, Executive Director at Hearthstone