LOGAN – Under your feet and over your head; red, brown, branded and stamped – bricks serve as the foundation of cities, homes and infrastructure across the country. Especially in southeast Ohio.
Brick collecting is a hobby pursued worldwide; the United States-based International Brick Collectors Association (IBCA) has nearly 700 members in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and France, according to its website.
A Facebook group “Crazy About Bricks — A Group For Brick Collectors” has over 3,300 members; another, run by Mark Howell, a Chillicothe man, entitled “Buckeye State-made bricks,” has over 560.
But Hocking County and the surrounding Little Cities of Black Diamonds are of special interest to brick collectors in the state.
Mike Corn, of Hamilton, Ohio, has been collecting bricks for about the past 15 years. Bricks first piqued Corn’s interest after he saw a friend’s skids of bricks that were collected from an alley paving project.
“I love landscaping and rocks and borders and things like that,” Corn said. “And I saw these bricks and said, ‘What are these?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, these are street paving bricks.’ And I was really interested in them, and he said, ‘I’ll give them to you.’”
From there Corn began to notice bricks everywhere. He obtained another 50 and built a walkway. He began to research bricks on the internet and found a local IBCA swap. Now Corn said that he may have one of the largest collections of Ohio street paving bricks in the state.
“I just started keeping the best of each,” he said. “My motto is once I have one, I don’t need two.”
Howell, of Chillicothe, told The Logan Daily News that when collecting bricks, he looks for rare ones, local ones and bricks that are aesthetically pleasing.
“If it’s a pleasant design, nice font or lettering, (or) an interesting picture on them,” Howell said. “Some bricks will have ducks or birds and different things.”
Howell attended Hocking College in Nelsonville in the 1990s. A friend gave him a “star brick” as a gift. He started collecting from there, he said, though not actively until the last five years.
“Some people collect from all other countries; one with each letter of the alphabet, or one from each state, but I focus on Ohio, but especially southeast Ohio, because that’s where I’ve lived and grown up,” Howell said.
Howell’s collection has grown “immensely” to an estimated 6,000 bricks, which he has used to build sidewalks, patios and even a monument. He lays the brick himself, he said.
According to Howell, the golden age of brick-making in Hocking County was from 1890–1925.
“And every place you got a coal bed, you got fire clay underneath,” Howell said. “That’s why southeast Ohio – it’s been rich in coal and rich in clay, and brickworks afterward. A lot of the coal came in the late 1800s and a lot of clay came in the 1900s.”
Greendale, Haydenville, Logan and Union Furnace were Hocking County hotspots for brick production, Howell said, adding that some factories produced more than 10 million bricks each year.
Howell said the bricks that are usually found in Logan are “Logan” and “Hocking Valley” blocks. “There’s also a good-looking brick from Logan called the ‘pyro’ brick,” he added.
The aforementioned bricks are “pavers,” Howell explained. There are essentially three types of bricks: building, fire and paver.
Building bricks are used for purposes such as housing, Howell said, and are a softer brick; fire bricks are made to withstand intense heat; and pavers, which are used in roadways or sidewalks, are the most desired type of brick for collectors.
Pavers usually include a name and/or design, Howell said. Collectors sometimes call unmarked bricks “vanilla,” both Corn and Howell said.
Most bricks are about 9 inches long, 4 inches wide and 3 inches thick, Howell said. Pavers are laid on a side for an extra inch of wear, Howell explained. Each paver weighs about 10 pounds, he said.
“Most brick hunters like pavers,” Howell said. “The pavers are pretty much impervious to weather; they can be set outside as part of landscaping. They’ll last longer than we will.”
The use of brick for roadways died down in the 1930s, with the rise of concrete and asphalt, Howell explained – in part due to vehicle evolution. “People used to drive slower; there was a lot more wagon and horse traffic, and when people did drive, they drove 20 mph.”
However, brick comes with advantages that concrete and asphalt do not, Howell explained. Bricks are perhaps a more environmentally-friendly alternative because they lack petrochemicals, Howell said.
A 2021 Carnegie Mellon University study also showed that brick streets can assist stormwater management by slowing water runoff that can overwhelm combined sewer systems and reduce urban heat island effects.
Good places to find bricks are landfills, Howell said, especially following road repairs or building demolishment. But also creeks and rivers, as they too are dump sites where bricks can be legally obtained. “Plus, they tend to be well washed if they’ve been in a creek or river for years,” he said.
Some brick collectors have established relationships with local law enforcement officials regarding brick dump sites, Corn, of Hamilton, said.
“Because in Portsmouth, even today, when they dig up streets to lay pipes, almost every street is street pavers, so they dig them or fill up a dump truck and they take them to dump sites. The guys that I go bricking with, we have contacted all the authorities down there – we have names and phone numbers,” Corn said. “And they tell us, ‘hey, we have a big project on Main Street’ ... And they let us know. Then, we just go down there and we pick through the bricks. And that’s the beauty of being so well connected with guys in Ohio – it’s like we have a representative in every county, almost.”
It’s frowned upon for brick collectors to steal bricks, Howell said.
As an Ohio University alumnus, Howell spent years trekking over Athens’ brick streets. He didn’t think much about them then, he said.
Nowadays, it is an ethically questionable, but burgeoning tradition for graduating OU students to leave Athens with an “Athens block,” OU student publication Backdrop magazine reported in 2018.
It isn’t clear when this trend started, because when Howell was a student 40-some years ago, his peers didn’t think much of the bricks, either: “Really can’t speak for everybody, we thought they were cool and we didn’t have them back in Chillicothe... We kind of considered (them) quaint. But I didn’t know of anybody who tried to take one home.”
Most brick collectors are “conscientious” about not taking bricks from existing sidewalks, Howell explained. “It’s usually just vandals; it’s not considered legit to take them and not leave a replacement that fits well.”
But both Corn and Howell have obtained large portions of their collections through brick swaps, arguably a staple of the brick-collecting subculture.
Brick swaps are a gathering of brick collectors, Howell explained, where they can trade bricks and meet other collectors, all free of charge.
“You just bring bricks to give away,” Howell said. “Maybe 20 cars or trucks parked in a circle will set bricks out behind each vehicle. Let’s say the swap begins at 10 a.m., (you’d) set bricks out at 9 a.m., walk around, chat with people and see all the different bricks. Then, at 10, someone will blow a horn and you walk around and take as many bricks as you want, for free.”
Howell explained individuals come to a swap with a certain amount of bricks and typically leave with the same quantity. No money is exchanged at a swap, he stressed. The joy of brick swaps, for Howell, is that different people from different places have different bricks.
“If you bring 10, you’re allowed to take around that,” Howell said. Swaps begin early and wrap up quickly, “that way you’re home by lunch and you got all new bricks,” he said. “They’re old bricks, but new to you.”
According to a 2019 report by The Daily Sentinel, a Pomeroy newspaper, brick swaps are also held in Columbus, Fairfield and Pataskala. Brick collectors came from as far away as Virginia to Middleport’s 2019 brick swap, the newspaper reported.
There are two nearby brick swaps held each year, both in September, Howell added: one in Middleport (Meigs County) and one at Ralph’s Brickyard in Nelsonville.
Though some bricks have monetary value, most brick collectors don’t sell bricks, and rather seek to trade. “One brick is worth another brick,” Howell said. “Some bricks are rarer, like, ‘I wouldn’t trade this brick for that one.’ At the same time, you try to find ones that are unusual.”
And when people do try to sell bricks, they may have a hard time finding buyers, Howell said. IBCA members are not to sell to collectors, he added. The only time brick collectors may buy a brick might be when in bulk, he explained, and some brick collectors brag and say that they’ve never bought a brick.
Corn thinks that brick collectors’ shared sense of generosity is based on the fact that “there are millions of bricks out there.”
“It’s not like we’re collecting a group of maybe 200 Picassos or Rembrandts,” Corn said. “Unless we’re talking about the really rare bricks, it seems like if you’re willing to go dig or go to somebody else’s house, you can probably come up with 90% of known bricks. So there’s no need to hoard them. There are more out there.”
Brick swaps serve as a great way to meet other brick collectors, too. Corn described the established relationships collectors have with each other across the country. Once, he even inherited a collection and homemade cabinet from an elderly brick collector from Ashland, Kentucky.
Southeast Ohio’s bricks are not only known by brick collectors from around the country, but the region’s bricks built parts of it, too, Howell said.
Bricks in the Holland Tunnel in New York City came from Greendale; Trimble (Athens County) supplied bricks for the building of Charleston, West Virginia; and numerous streets in Cairo, Illinois, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo are made of bricks from Nelsonville and Logan, Howell said.
“Up at Mackinac Island, Michigan, the bricks on the ferry landing there are Nelsonville bricks,” Howell added.
Jean Bear, of Washington, Pennsylvania, said in a message that she’s been collecting bricks in southeast Pennsylvania since 1988.
She began collecting by “just scrounging discarded bricks and slowly building a sidewalk with them.” To begin with, she had 27 varieties, as well as many plain sidewalk bricks. But it wasn’t until years later that she heard of other brick collectors.
“I learned that there were other brick collectors in 1991 when two friends simultaneously gave me copies of an article in the Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh Post Gazette), about an IBCA (International Brick Collectors Association) brick swap held at St. Marys, Pennsylvania,” Bear said in a message. She was “excited” by the fact that brick swaps were essentially free, she said.
After reading the story, Bear reached out to the IBCA contact listed in the article, who required a brick from her town to join. Before long, she said, they arranged a trade via UPS. Now, she’s served as IBCA eastern regional coordinator for more than 20 years.
Bear estimates that she’s accumulated 4,000 bricks that she’s obtained through other collectors, swaps and “searching in the dumps.”
Like Corn and Howell, Bear’s put her bricks to use; “I now have several sidewalks, a patio, a paved parking area, and over 1,000 bricks on shelves in a mini-museum that my husband and I built for bricks too delicate to live in the ground.”
She also gives talks at historical societies and other groups. Howell said in a message that Bear has been formative in his brick collecting experience and described her as a “mentor.”
While Bear collects bricks from everywhere, she has numerous southeast Ohio bricks in her collection. Bear thinks her story is “typical” of a brick collector.
Bear, Corn and Howell all agree that “southeast Ohio is one of the best ‘brick’ areas in the U.S.A., I believe, and I have had many brick-hunting trips to the area in the past,” Bear said in a message.
State Route 93, which runs through Logan, was once called the “brick highway,” Corn said, because of the cities it passes through and their brick output. State Route 93, a north-south highway, begins in Ironton and ends in Akron.
“Everything to the east or southeast of that line (93) is where the bricks were made. So these bricks were not made all over Ohio,” Corn said. “They were made in the unglaciated areas where you can find coal and clay.”
Corn described the sensation of brick hunting, or bricking, as “digging through the Egyptian pyramids.”
“When I find these bricks (it’s like) I’m pulling these treasures out,” Corn said.
Pyramids, indeed – when asked how long bricks last, Howell responded with a question: “The Great Pyramids are still standing, aren’t they?”
For Howell, brick collecting is a palpable way to preserve history.
“I think it’s kind of like, (a) very tangible piece of history – it’s something you can hold and it’s something you can preserve. You might not be able to preserve a whole road or a whole building, but you can have a little piece of it,” Howell said, adding that even non-collectors will sometimes keep plain bricks to recall a place or thing and add a note to remember their meanings.
Corn and Howell agree that each of their bricks has a story.
“I know some bricks I have, I was there when the school (was) demolished and I’ll walk on my patio or sidewalk, I’ll remember when I got that, where (from), who I was with, if I had to carry it through a mile of mud, or if I (just) tossed it in the car from 10 feet away,” Howell said. “I think some of us are just frustrated archeologists... But we preserve a little bit of the past right here, in our hometown or in southern Ohio.”
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