For a hundred years beginning in 1830, rich clay deposits along the Merrimack River in Hooksett were mined to produce millions of bricks used across the region.
Although a drawing of brick-making kilns is front and center on the town’s seal, little evidence remains on the ground of this activity. Below the ground, it’s a different story.
Workers have been finding old bricks when they turn earth to build the Brick Kiln Historic Trail loop off the Hooksett Riverwalk Trail, which begins near the town’s dog park and its district court.
The quarter-mile loop is being opened in conjunction with New Hampshire History Week, designated by the state Legislature as the third week in October. Other events to mark the week will be a scavenger hunt in Martins Cemetery and a review of a 1973 scrapbook in the Hooksett Public Library.
Signs along the Brick Kiln trail will explain the prominence of bricks in town history.
“Glacial melt at the end of the Ice Age left 20 to 30 feet of clay deposits on the east side of the Merrimack River,” the Hooksett Heritage Commission signs will state. “Clay prospected from the riverbanks was found to produce large quantities of high-grade brick.”
At one time there were five brickyards in operation, each producing 5 million to 7 million bricks per year. The bricks were floated on the river and loaded onto railways.
“Hooksett bricks gained a reputation for hardness and color unsurpassed in New England,” according to the text of the historical markers. “Anywhere from 60 to 100 or more workers, many of whom were French-Canadian immigrants, could be found toiling in the extensive brickyard operations along the river.”
Bricks were loaded above the falls on the Merrimack and lowered via locks through a canal on the west side of the river. Railroad tracks were laid to the brickyards and more than two dozen railroad cars were loaded with bricks on some days.
Nadine Miller, deputy state historic preservation officer, will speak at the trail opening on Oct. 28 at 4 p.m.
She said evidence of former industries are never far from the surface in New Hampshire.
Bricks from the Hooksett kilns can be found in Manchester City Hall, Hooksett Town Hall and historic homes such as the Merrimack Street mansion of former Gov. Natt Head, whose family built a fortune in the brick industry.
They can also be found in what remains of the textile mills that once dominated the state’s economy. Evidence of another once-prominent industry, sheep raising, can be found in stone walls that still dot the landscape.
“A lot of communities are interested in sort of what we don’t see, the stone walls and cellar walls that form fragmented but important evidence to our history,” Miller said.
The extent of the human labor required to remove large stones from fields or to toil in the mills or to make bricks is impressive.
Men mined clay from the riverbank with horses, mules and early steam shovels. It was mixed with sand and water and pressed into molds to dry and then be fired in the kilns. The firing lasted days and had to be constantly monitored.
Thousands of acres of forest land were logged to provide the cord word for the fires. Once the bricks were ready for shipment, the back-breaking work of loading them on train cars began.
In a 2004 oral history interview, Forrest S. Evarts of Hooksett recalled working in a brickyard for two seasons as a teenager at the end of the industry’s century-long run along the Merrimack River.
“It was hard work, but it was at the start of the Depression, so you didn’t mind the hard work as long as you had a job,” he said.