The Story of How One Property Helped Influence The Red Brick Look of Vankleek Hill
History gives us a good excuse to look into early lives and older buildings. Here is a history of 4132 Highway 34, Vankleek Hill which was on the 2018 Christmas Home Tour organized by The Review. The Vankleek Hill & District Historical Society provides the property research for this event. Photographer Jan Amell provides the images. Enjoy a bit of local history and Christmas during our Covid-19 physical isolation.
4132 Highway 34 Vankleek Hill
Our property history for this location begins in the late 1840s when a small brick factory started-up and kept going through different owners into the 1930s. Many of the brick homes in Vankleek Hill were built using red bricks fired in these yards between the 1850s to the 1920s. Other busy brickyards included the Reasbeck Family, Guindon (Yado) Family, and the Curran Family. For the owners, farming was their primary occupation with the brickmaking a second income.
Hiram Johnson Brick Yard
Hiram Johnson purchased the property at 4132 Hwy. 34 in 1849. Our local soil is clay-based with a sandy loam topping, and in wet areas this is a perfect combination for brick-making. In 1856, as often happened in early villages where wood and coal were mainstays for heating and cooking, a fire swept through Vankleek Hill destroying, or damaging many wood frame buildings.
The hotel operated by Hiram Johnson in Vankleek Hill was severely damaged in that fire. Using bricks fired at his Highway 34 location, he rebuilt the Dominion House on the same site – the corner of Highway 34 and Main Street East, where the Creating Centre is currently located (above). The building we see today is an example of construction using the red brick from the Johnson brickyard.
The 1856 fire sparked serious fire prevention interest from many building owners. They got busy covering their wood frame buildings with brick, and turned to using brick for new construction. What a boon to the local brick business! The Vankleek Hill Museum building at 95 Main Street East (below), built in1834, is a wood frame building, and was reportedly the first to be covered in red brick after the 1856 fire.
Red Brick, a Vankleek Hill signature
Let’s talk brick for a moment. To shape a brick, wet clay is pressed into wood molds. Then the brick shapes are removed and spread out on platforms to dry in the air. The key to good brick is the final firing process. Small brickyards had single fire kilns. The kilns were loaded with bricks, the kilns were lit and the bricks were fired. The kiln was then allowed to cool before the bricks could be removed. This cycle usually took about a week.
The bricks closest to the heat become the hardest and least porous. These are the bricks used on building exteriors where they face all types of weather – called “face brick.” Those bricks further from the fire are softer, and they are used where there is little to no weather exposure: basement walls, chimney interiors.
Our local clay produced red bricks, known as ‘Vankleek Hill brick’, that are thinner than modern commercial bricks. While no two bricks were alike, they were typically 7 to 8 inches in length and about two inches high, they were not as perfectly finished as today’s commercial bricks which are wire-cut and always uniformly flat. That is why brick restoration using modern bricks is always quite visible.
John Potter Brick Yard
In 1870, after more than 20 years in the brick business, Hiram Johnson sold the brickyard, his home and buildings plus 60 acres to employee John C. Potter Jr.. Potter then continued the brick business until his death in 1901. In 1894, John Potter sold a section of his land for the brand-new Central Counties Railway. The rail line, which crosses Highway 34, continues to be used today to service the Ivaco steel mill in L’Orignal.
In 1895, author Cyrus Thomas reported that John Potter produced 700,000 bricks annually. Apparently, he could have produced more; however, he preferred to put time into farming. His brick yard, said Cyrus Thomas, “has all the modern implements, steam engine etc. by which brick of most excellent quality and pattern are manufactured with dispatch.”
Edwin Steele Brick Yard
In 1901, the estate of John C. Potter sold the property. It quickly changed hands twice, and in 1906 was purchased by Edwin Steele for $7,100 subject to mortgage. We assume that John Potter’s brick-making equipment was part of Edwin Steele’s purchase.
From 1906, Edwin’s goal was to operate a thriving brick factory. The Steele brickworks did achieve some success; however, Edwin unwittingly chose a difficult time to enter the brick business. In 1914, WWI began. The young men, who in the normal course of life should have been completing their education, entering the workforce, starting families and building homes, went off to serve God and Country – no one knew the Great War would last for four years, to finally come to an end in November 1918.
The Steele brickworks continued in a limited fashion. By the 1920s, homes were more modest than their Victorian predecessors. Building materials and home design changed. Vankleek Hill has only a few red brick homes from the 1920s and into the mid-20th century. Two strong examples are: the Hall House on Higginson Street which is a four-square red brick home. And the home of John Wilson, an early car dealership owner, at the corner of Home Avenue and Higginson Street which is another four-square, this one with a second storey balcony.
In the post WWI home-building market, local brick had to compete with mass-produced factory bricks arriving by rail at lower prices. As well, home building materials that were less labour intensive became popular such as wood siding, and asphalt tiles. In the late 1920s, Edwin took on mortgages to survive. Sadly, the mortgage holder exercised his power of sale in 1934. Edwin then moved to Ottawa.
Daniel McIntyre Farm
Farmer Daniel McIntyre purchased Edwin Steele’s farm (above) that same year, and owned it until 1955. His son, Mac McIntyre of Vankleek Hill, has warm memories of his family home. He recalls their farm had 12 to 15 milking cows. There were two work horses. His mother had her hens, and they raised a few pigs from spring to fall. In winters, Daniel McIntyre worked in the bush on Scotch Road in Kilmar, Quebec. He brought his work horses with him to skid logs. It was work that supplemented the farm income.
Mac recalls the remains of two very small red brick houses on the farm, likely for employees of the early brickyards. Bricks had to fire in the kiln for days, so having staff on-site to keep the fires evenly burning was common in brickyards.
Mac said his father sold the remaining Steele bricks for perhaps a penny a brick. There was also metal to be sold – boilers, and steel bits-and-pieces. A short rail bed on the property that was used to shuttle equipment and bricks was still there. He and his siblings enjoyed exploring and playing on the short track bed. The fields, he said, were difficult to cultivate. They had basically been surface-mined for the clay and this left many indentations.
Mac attended the little red brick school house that once stood at the corner of Pleasant Corners Road and Highway 34. He has fond childhood memories of life on the farm with his siblings.
Two Houses Connected
The earliest home on this property is a one-and-a-half storey brick home built by Hiram Johnson during those first years of the brickworks. It is now covered in cladding and is still in use. The older home forms the rear section of the large three-storey red brick home which passers-by can see from Highway 34.
John Potter married Nancy Lough in 1866, then made his purchase of the Johnson brick business in 1870 – we reasonably assume John C. Potter Jr. built the large house in the 1870s. This Victorian house construction used locally milled wood, local plaster craftsmen, and the red brick was made on-site. Originally there was a beautiful large front porch with finished posts and brackets.
Mac McIntyre recalls that his family lived in the large front house with its 27 windows in spring and summer; and, during colder months, his family moved into the smaller home at the back. The smaller home was cozy and easier to heat using a wood cook stove, while a box stove with pipes brought heat to the second floor. In the early mornings, you could get into warm clothes by hanging them over the hot pipes.
Inside the 1870s red brick home, there are strong examples of Victorian design. The windows and doors have the same height, while the front door is designed to be much wider and massive to signal its importance.
The impressive front door is in Queen Anne style with a transom window, sidelights and glazed pattern glass in the door. There is an unusual crank bell in the door. On entering, the hallway matches the dignity of the front door with its extraordinary wide staircase that has 22 stairs anchored by a heavy newel post.
Photo: Jan Amell
Victorian homes have uniform moulding patterns, with variations in detail allowed in major rooms and significant entryways. This significant entryway provides an unusual raised profile in the moulded casings of the doorways to the right and to the left. There are high ceilings throughout. The interior window sills have impressive depth which indicates the walls are three-brick deep.
Photo: Jan Amell
There are plaster ceiling mouldings and ceiling medallions. This is all an expression of Victorian affluence. At the top of the staircase, the banister wraps around to provide an airy hallway. Intermittently, along the original floors, there are decorative iron grates that serviced the initial heating system.
A modern kitchen is now located where once there was a formal parlour, and the tall floor mouldings remain from that time. The tin ceiling in the kitchen was added and maintains rapport with the original building period which is a goal with renovations – to pay tribute.
Last story goes to Mac McIntyre!
We finish this story with a wonderful fact that Mac McIntyre tells. He explains that the dining room today (below) was once a bedroom. Then he smiles to say, he was born in this very room.
Refs: History of Argenteuil County and Prescott County, Cyrus Thomas, Lovell Publishing, 1895.
Structure Magazine, Mark Mendel Master Stonemason, May 2005