Finding the family bricks

Published 4:13 pm Tuesday, June 12, 2018

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Back when the nonprofit group Historic Smithfield was working with the Town of Smithfield to rejuvenate Main Street, those of us involved in the project were looking for ways to broaden public excitement for the project.

The answer was bricks. Sidewalks along either side of Main Street were to be finished in brick pavers, so why not sell bricks to individuals and families. It would raise a little money, but more important, it would give people an opportunity to participate without having to donate thousands of dollars.

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The brick project was a promotional success. Nearly 1,300 bricks were purchased and installed in the sidewalks. Financially, it was less successful. Frankly, it takes a lot of brick sales to put a dent in $1 million in street improvement.

Ben Powell, an executive at Lawrenceville Brick and former Smithfield Historic District resident, guided us through the process. A man at the brick plant hand-stamped bricks for such projects and he stamped all the Smithfield bricks, baked them and sent them here on pallets for installation.

Families naturally wanted their bricks to be grouped in close proximity so, on a cold winter day in early 1992 a handful of volunteers unpacked the pallets in a parking lot and began sorting them according to the lists we had accumulated. We then restacked them on pallets and asked the contractor to place them in groups.

When the project was finally completed, daughter Sarah Edwards and a friend, Sherry Combs, volunteered to make an inventory of the bricks and record where they were located. They meticulously wrote down each brick along both sides of the street, beginning where the Chamber of Commerce office is today (it was, back then, a service station), down that side of the street and up the other back to the Isle of Wight Museum.

The list was written in longhand (no one had portable computers back then) and has for many years, sat largely unused in my office. Many people have come to town looking for bricks, but there was no practical way to make the list available in its form — until now.

After an out-of-town lady contacted the tourism office and asked about her family’s bricks, Kathy Mountjoy called and jogged my memory. I dug out the list and for the past couple of weeks have stolen a few minutes here and there to type it.

Today, all 1,260-plus names are in a Microsoft Word document, listed by group. Accompanying them is a simple map of the street showing the approximate location of each of the 21 groups of bricks.

Tourism has the list and the map and can now help visitors who want to cast eyes on their family’s contribution to the project.

Now, there is a caveat to all this. There have been numerous disruptions in the sidewalk during the past 26 years. Bricks have been taken up for utility work of one kind or another, and then reinstalled.

While the town has made a serious effort to be sure that workers handled the named bricks with care and reinstalled them with names up, there’s no guarantee that all of those installed are now visible. And their locations in the sidewalk will have changed somewhat as well.

The list is intriguing from another standpoint. It reads like a Who’s Who of Isle of Wight and Smithfield during the 20th Century. As I typed name after name, I couldn’t help but recall the contributions large and small made by many of these people. It’s nice that they have a bit of a memorial in the street that most of them trod regularly during their lives.