Friday, March 27, 2020

The J.B. Theriault Brick Yard - Chippewa Falls Wisconsin.

It was one of those weeks where, even in retirement, there were a lot of things going on. I had to squeeze in a quick run to the leaf dump.  But after I unloaded and started to drive away I saw that the pile of dirt and construction rubble adjacent to the leaf dump was covered with bits of red brick.  Well, nothing for it.  I parked, clambered up the side and grabbed a few specimens that were more or less intact.  There were several of the later style Stanley bricks, and then there was this.

I'd been looking for this one for a while.

It is you see a local brick, the only one from Chippewa Falls that I know to bear a maker's mark, that of J.B. Theriault.

Jean Baptiste Theriault - he usually went by John - came to the area fairly early.  I find mention of him working in the lumber camps and sawmills which would fit the pioneer days of Chippewa Falls.  He was probably, like many such early settlers, of French Canadian origins.

He had a varied career, at different times being a partner in a dining hall/saloon with a interesting local character named Charles Billideau.  He seems to have done well enough to have built his own "Theriault Block" building in the 1880's, and to have started a brickyard in 1890.

Here's a photo of the Theriault brick yard which was then outside Chippewa Falls, now on the suburban edge of same.

Brick yards are even worse than breweries in terms of finding physical remains.  You'd typically have a place to dig the clay, some machinery to mix and form it, one or more kilns to dry it, and a lot of flat space to set up drying racks, usually semi protected from the elements.  None of these were built on deep foundations or to last.

I'm standing here on what I assume is a long established county road looking east.  A 1910 map indicates the Theriault brick yard should be on the west side of the road.  So what is this odd foundation remnant?

And this nearby pond.  Natural or a clay pit now filled with water?

In the woods to the north there are these moss covered piles.  Alas, not brick fragments but apparently some sort of slag from the kilns.  I think they tossed spoiled batches here.

It is quite confusing.  So here's my attempt to make sense of it.

I think what I am seeing are actually the remains of the "other" brick yard in town.  It went by various names including the French Lumber Company brick yard, Goulet and Bergeron yards, and the Chippewa Brick Manufacturing Company.  They were near contemporaries and mined the same 4-8 foot wide vein of clay.  I know of no marked examples of their product, at least not yet.

Theriault's establishment must have been on the other side of the road in what now is heavily worked farmland.  The detailed descriptions I have of his 8 acre facility with a "pug mill", a "Craycroft soft mud machine", a 2 acre drying yard and a capacity of 1,200,000 bricks per year....all are describing an enterprise with no lasting remnants but their bricks, and of those only a tiny fraction were marked with their name.

Neither brick yard was a long term success.  The clay and the bricks made from it were said to be of high quality but there was one key factor missing for the growth of these enterprises.  There was no rail spur to ship their product.  And make no mistake, if you are in the business of making a million plus bricks, you do not want to rely on horses and wagons.

Theriault sold his brick yard in 1914 to a man named Henneman.  The generally very gossipy brick trade publications mention only that in 1916 Henneman was about to put the yard back in working order as the price of brick had risen and there was felt to still be a 100 year supply of clay on hand.  After that I find nothing.

But there is one extant structure that recalls the days of making bricks in Chippewa Falls, and it is a short stroll from my house.

This 1889 house - I think it falls just short of mansion status - was built by Theriault at about the same time as he started his brick yard.  The owner found a few marked bricks around the place.  And one can assume that brickwork on the property was likely from his establishment.

Note for instance this highly impractical sidewalk that like all such made of bricks is prone to buckling and heaving in Wisconsin weather, making snow removal a tedious chore indeed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Another Pennant for the Minnesota Twins

Tomorrow was supposed to be Opening Day for the Minnesota Twins.  If you are not a serious fan this might not be a big deal.  But even for you passionless types I'm sure the beginning of baseball still stirs something.  It is synonymous with hope, something we could use more of these days.  And it represents renewal, rebirth.

In general American culture is very linear.  Charge straight ahead into the future, or down the busy highway, or on into the next phase of your career.  Timekeeping systems that cycle are rare, and the two that come immediately to mind - baseball and agriculture - are holdovers from our simpler past.

Oh well.  Time for baseball posts anyway.   

This was to be a season of strength for the Twins.  There might have even been a pennant - in the sense of a championship win - at the end of it.  Now, who knows, so lets just take a quick look at another pennant - in the sense of a ballpark souvenir - to distract us.

Unlike the last Twins pennant I featured (its shown here on the left) this one has no identifying marks.  Judging from the difficulty I had finding an exact match out in the jumbled world of the internet I suspect it is not a common one.  But of course most of these sorts of things are not super rare.  So here's what I can say about it.

1. Pre 1969.  It has no MLB logo and so is from the free wheeling days when small manufacturers just contracted directly with clubs.

2. Pretty darn high quality.  Notice how the red uniform sleeves and the skin colored hands are slightly different shades?  Every extra color you add to such a design adds cost and probably reduces your margins. The felt is in good shape and the lettering nice and crisp.  Somebody took plenty of care with this design.

3. Probably not much before 1969.  This is close enough to my specimen that it may have come from the same unidentified manufacturer.  Slightly different font on the team name.  And the post 1969 MLB logo.

Today's featured pennant is in good enough shape that I'd consider taking it to a Twins game and waving it.  Gently.  But until that happy day, well I'll take it off the wall tomorrow and give it a brief, gentle wave anyway.


Monday, March 23, 2020

A Service Animal for Troubled Times

This is my pal Bear the dog.  He lives across the alley.

I consider Bear to be my Emotional Support Animal.  To the extent that he thinks about me at all he just considers me to be a vaguely familiar face/smell that shows up to see him from time to time.

Bear weighs 127 pounds, which for reference is more than I weighed when I wrestled in high school.  A fair percentage of that weight is his gigantic head, which despite its impressive size seems to be entirely empty.

This makes Bear excellent company in challenging times.  He's content to have me scratch his ears while I stare into the dim, happy emptiness of his eyes.  After a while I start to get dimmer too.  The world no longer contains problems, and it diminishes in size to a warm patch of dirt in the back yard.  If I don't limit my exposure to the simplifying effects of Bear I eventually begin to desire chasing tennis balls and rolling in things with interesting smells.

I'm thinking that's enough on mopey current events for a while.  Various little research projects have been pulled off the back burner in recent days.  Some of them might be half baked and smell like something Bear would like to roll in, but that's how it is in our back yard.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Covid Cancellations

I had a fun, busy spring scheduled.  I had five different talks scheduled.  One happened before things got ugly....and it went well.

Then there was our robotics tournament in Duluth.  That was right on the cusp, with handshakes being nixed and the frankly tedious parade of giant teams who win all the awards no longer trooping up en masse to get them.  So there's that.

A few days later our school had the every two years STEM night where robot and team had a grand time showing off for all concerned.  But by then a sort of Party at the End of the World feeling had set in.  You could just sense that it was not if but when things would close down.  A few days later the cascade began.  Schools, sporting events, non essential everything...gone.

Of the four remaining talks I have on the agenda one is officially off, likely postponed to fall.  Another I'm working to convert to a "virtual" format.  The final two are in limbo.  I figured just maybe things would quiet down in April but that is looking dubious.  The first case of covid-19 was reported in our community yesterday morning.

Even the annual archaeology trip to Vindolanda is in peril.  I'm fine with a couple of weeks of open air work, but when pubs are closed in Ireland then the English speaking world is taking this very seriously.  Also of course, at the current time there is no way to get across the Atlantic ocean without a paddle.  I did manage to sneak over in 2010 when an exploding volcano halted all trans Atlantic flight for a while, but I see fewer windows of opportunity this time around.

We actually flew over it on the way back.  It was way more impressive than this bucolic scene would have you believe.

My to do list is skimpy.   

Finish our taxes.  Like Death, they are certain.  Unlike death, they have an April 15th filing deadline.  While I'm feeling all official there's also a census form on the kitchen table.  Several writing projects that I've been dawdling over will go forward, probably demonstrating why I was luke warm about the subject matter in the first place.  And, if we can avoid infected people successfully, we are planning a few days each week up north with the grand kids.  Understandably the prior child care/preschool schedules have been blown up along with everything else and this is a nice opportunity for us.

In the end all will be fine.  There is a sense of shared community and a modest reduction in political rancor these days.  

And my family will be fine.  Wife and I are expendables.  Oldest and his clan live in superb northwoods isolation.  Youngest kid is in Milwaukee, which is getting weird, but he has his sense of humor.  Also a girl friend who is a neurobiologist working with rat brains.  I figure she'll get the both of 'em in good with our New Rodent Overlords.

And the middle kid?  I know I should worry about each of them equally, but there are just so few possible Post Apocalypse scenarios in which he does not emerge as a highly successful fur clad Warlord ruling over the remnants of human kind.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


Spent the first few days of Covid-19 Crisis at the cabin.  No particular reason, its not as if we felt safer there.  We just had not been up for a while due to the bustle of robotics and so forth. and grandkids to hang out with!

It was not exactly a Quarantine....I'm calling it Cabin-tine.  There could well be more of this in the months ahead as the situation is changing and could stretch out to the summer months.

It was not unpleasant.  After all Generation Two was able to work remotely.  And Generations One and Three had nothing better to do than amuse each other!

The usual, well usual for us, play items were deployed.  Rice, excavator and giant tarantula.

Here and there around the cabin are various cameo appearances by Gold Bug, an inhabitant of the Richard Scarry Busytown Universe.  I'd gotten quite tired of having to find him on every page through three of my own kids...and it was a chore through GK#1, but I think I have one more round in me if necessary.

It is difficult to say if the world up there was different.  It tends to be a bit quieter under all conditions.  But with fewer vehicles going past on the road the deer did seem a bit bolder.  They had some tender new greenery just peeking up here and there and a herd of them trekked past the windows regularly.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Pandemics and Me.

Like all of you I am being inconvenienced by the corona virus pandemic.  Well, that's hardly fair.  I'm being inconvenienced but a lot of people are having their paychecks, retirement accounts and small businesses severely tested.

This too shall pass, although nobody knows exactly when.  Everyone hopes that days of sunshine and warmth will cause the virus to slink off the stage.

There's a lot of anxiety out there.  More than I remember in the previous such incidents.  Oh yes, this is not the first time I've been around when the First Horseman is supposedly galloping into town.

I have vague memories of polio.  This now extinct disease was once among the great terrors of parenthood.  It hit young children.  It paralyzed them.  They died or lived in iron lungs.  In its own way this was far scarier than old people dying.  I would jump in front of a bus for my grandchildren.  I would do the same for yours.

I recall when still very young hearing that you should not run through a water sprinkler on a hot day.  Because that caused polio.  At the time this was just the lingering "after rumor" from an earlier era where it was only vaguely understood that the virus could be water borne.   I might have gotten the first inactivated polio vaccine in the late 1950s.  I do remember getting the oral "attenuated virus" vaccine when it became available circa 1961.  There was a tiny paper cup half full of pink liquid.  I was in the basement of a school.  I swigged the stuff down and wondered why it did not taste much like medicine.

My next brush with Pandemic was in 1976.  A strain of the H1N1 influenza appeared out of nowhere and killed a military recruit in Fort Dix New Jersey.  It was feared that this was the same strain as had caused the great 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic that had killed unimaginable numbers of people.

Then President Gerald Ford took action.  A vaccine was rolled out.  His own sleeve was rolled up, and he publically got vaccinated.  I did too, in the student union of my college.  I remember very little of this.  Just standing in line.  And that the student union building was so aesthetically atrocious that it offended my sensibilities even at a time when I  sported large sideburns and wearing way too much polyester....

The Swine Flu pandemic never got off the ground.  Did the vaccine turn the tide?  One hopes so, as it had a legacy of - still controversial - causing a number of cases of vaccine related paralysis.

Since then the science has gotten better and the general nature of mankind has gotten sillier.  

I don't know if we are over reacting this time around.  As in 1976 it is an election year, that hardly helps the situation.  But everyone now is taking this seriously and it is encouraging to see the country united in this effort.

Hope you are all well prepared to ride this out.  Me, I've got some backlogged writing to do and a few books I need to get onto.  Several speaking gigs are or will be cancelled but they can be done another day.  Digging in England in May.....not looking too great at the moment.  Betting on a swift and effective response from the NHS.  Dubious.

But having shaken off a few non Covid-19 maladies this winter I'm doing great.  And I've laid in a supply of decent beer.  I can live on ramen noodles if necessary.  But life is precious, uncertain and always too short to drink bad beer.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Seasons Turn

Spring is in the air.  Hopefully it comes on warm and soon to help dispell coronavirus if that indeed is even possible.  In the meantime...

Emptying out pockets before the jeans go down the laundry chute.  Guess robot season is over.

We've started running maple syrup out to a farm that processes it for us.  They also took in a family member's chicken last year when it started loudly crowing every morning.  As you can see not every instance where you tell kids that an animal has "moved to a nice home out on a farm" are actually bald faced fibs.

With many plans for speaking and traveling all uncertain today I'm feeling a bit unfocused.  I'll try to gear up for regular Detritus of Empire postings again but the gas tank is a bit low at the moment.

Stay well.