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