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An Interview with
Jasper Vincent Phillips
Interviewed by Mrs. Frances Oberschmidt
Transcribed and typed by Rebecca Nations
Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Lincoln-Lawrence-Franklin Regional Library
Oral History Project
Brookhaven and Vicinity
OBERSCHMIDT: Mr. Phillips, you’re the president of the Brookhaven Pressed Brick Company. Can you tell me any of the past history of the company? Who established it?
PHILLIPS: The company was established in 1906 by my father. And it was originally started as a dry-press (process plant) business in order to take advantage of the facing brick market in this area which was supplied at that time by the St. Louis Hydraulic Brick Company in St. Louis, Missouri. For instance, the Inez Hotel has a St. Louis Hydraulic brick on the exterior and the back-up brick were made from local plants who were largely small family operations, operated by the family, and handmade brick that were hand-molded, set out on the lot to dry (in the sun) and set in scove kilns and then fired with wood which made a beautiful brick but it brought a very low price at that time because everybody wanted a (smooth finished) fancy brick like the brick from St. Louis for a facing brick. So he – at that time, they set out to make this facing brick to compete with St. Louis for the facing brick market in this area.
OBERSCHMIDT: Now, this was your father?
OBERSCHMIDT: And he at that time had married your mother who was Eileen Becker. Yes, Eileen Becker. And the post office is an example of the type brick he made at that time. So it was along then they had large up-draft kilns (that were gradually) fired with wood and then with coal. And they had problems with controlling the temperature. * (Experience was the only control available.) Later, in about 1916, M. G. Becker, who was one of my mother’s younger brothers, joined the company and got interested in the business. (He left to) serve in World War I and then later came back. He furthered his training in ceramics at Ohio State University and came back (to help) and develop the plant. In 1929 * (the first tunnel kiln in the south was put into operation.) At that time, the production was still just dry-pressed brick although many advances had been made in production of stiff-mud extrusion. * (In the industry…)
OBERSCHMIDT: Let’s see. Mr. Ferd came back about when?
PHILLIPS: In about 1918, Mr. Ferd Becker came into the business and was active in the office and financial management of the affairs of the company; in the plant there was my father and Cleve Becker. *
OBERSCHMIDT: That’s all right. I just wanted to be sure to establish when Mr. Ferd came. Now we’ll go back to 1930. You want me to play that back?
PHILLIPS: Yes. [Pause] And then in the 1930’s, we commenced development of stiff-mud processes in the way of stiff-mud facing brick and hollow clay tile and paving brick and firebrick. And during this time then, Ferd Becker’s son, Walter Becker, joined the company and has been with the company ever since. He is now general manager and chairman of the board. The products of the company have been used in many outstanding buildings in nearly every state east of the Mississippi. One of the interesting products that was developed by this company was the clay screen tile which served as a solar shield against the sunlight heating up the interior of the buildings that were largely faced with glass. This screen has a depth and a slant to it so that the rays of the sun would hit the glass behind it only when it was very low in the morning or very low in the evening and not too hot. Some of the buildings that were covered with clay screen tile were able to effect tremendous savings in air conditioning. The Caribe building on Canal Street in New Orleans is an example of this. The architects Curtis and Davis designed the building to house their own offices and they wanted a striking-looking building that would yet be economical and easy to maintain. They designed the air conditioning load to carry what would be expected from a five (5) story building and found that with that much glass – and found that the clay screen tile saved a third of their cooling costs in the summertime, which was an interesting development. The material is so old that nobody really knows where it really started. Most people think that screen tile originated in India but you can see examples of it in North Africa that were built before the Romans even came into there. And then during the height of the Moorish empire, they find examples of screen tiles where they kept the sun out and let the air in. We have sold it even in Canada to prevent snow glare. They had not problems of cooling but they did in the summertime. They did want to design buildings that used glass but they needed something to prevent snow glare from coming in the buildings and they found out that the solar screen did that. That’s one of the materials.
Now, most so many things (uses for old items) that are (products of) the brick business have come and gone. They enjoy popularity, widespread acceptance, and then the use is dropped for a while and then it comes again. For instance, the old handmade brick that were a drag on the market when this plant was started are now almost priceless. When you can find them at all. (Secondhand brick are popular but) they are very expensive and the only reliable source for secondhand brick now is in the wrecking markets of Chicago and St. Louis (and they are not handmade – just secondhand). Today we’re selling tremendous quantities of used brick from Chicago and they bring about twice the price of a good, new, used manufactured brick.
OBERSCHMIDT: That’s amazing. Back to your last remark about the brick that you use for snow screen and sun screen and all, is that used in building E-3 buildings?
PHILLIPS: No, that’s different. The E-3 concept is something entirely different. It’s (based) on insulation; this (screen tile) brick has no great value for insulating. Its value is that it keeps the rays of the sun from striking the building; * if you’re under a tree in the shade, you’re cooler than you would be if you were out in the sun where the rays hit you.
OBERSCHMIDT: That’s interesting.
PHILLIPS: This prevents the direct rays of the sun from striking the walls of the building and in many cases in modern buildings, that wall is glass, you see? Glass transmits the heat right through to the inside of the building.
OBERSCHMIDT: Well now, let’s go back to in the early days. How was the brick, how did you get it to the market? It’s not worth anything unless you get it to the market.
PHILLIPS: Yes, in the early days of course, they were locally moved with mules and wagons and then by rail. (For more distant shipments) there was a spur track in from the Mississippi Central Railroad and then one from the – what did we call that? – that was the B-N…
OBERSCHMIDT: “Peavine.” Brookhaven and…
PHILLIPS: Brookhaven and Monticello Railroads that came in; “P” and what was it?
OBERSCHMIDT: The nickname was “Peavine” of the Pearl River.
PHILLIPS: Yes, the Pearl River was a nickname of the Peavine. The spur track came in there and then they were shipped by rail and ninety-five (95) percent of the (brick) shipment was at that time by rail. Since that time, gradually with the improvement of highways and improvements in trucks and improvement in handling and packaging of brick it has – from this plant at least – just about reversed itself. It’s ninety-five (95) percent by truck and about five (5) percent by rail
OBERSCHMIDT: How about this energy problem that we have? What’s it look like that’s going to do to the shipping?
PHILLIPS: Well, the energy problem will have its effect on the delivery and it will also have its effect on the production. Is that what you mean?
PHILLIPS: Well, looking ahead it seems to us that the (percentage of rail shipments will increase.) A ton of material can be moved more cheaply by rail than it can be by truck. Right now the economical trucking radius is about two hundred (200) miles and it appears to us that this in time as we move into the future that this economical trucking radius will shrink because it can be more efficiently moved by rail that it can be by truck. In the plant it will also have its effect in that it will change some of the designs, the sizes of the brick, and the weight of the brick. Whereas the average brick have been weighing around four (4) to four and a quarter (4¼) pounds, it will have more and more of a core up to and beyond twenty-five (25) percent core which will reduce the weight of it and also increase (decrease) the per square foot cost of firing it. That’s one of the effects it will have and it will also make the unit even at that much more expensive that it has been in the past.
OBERSCHMIDT: Do you know anything else that you want to add to this history of the brickyard? Did your family live on the property that was owned by the brickyard when…? How long was it you lived there?
PHILLIPS: Well, I can remember coming out as a child when we moved into the house out here. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember I was very young and we lived there until there was a fire in 1925 and then we moved to town and later built a house on Storm Avenue and moved in there. Then the house (at the plant) was remodeled and M. B. Becker moved into the house and he lived there and raised his family in the house. Then he later built a house in Brookhaven which is now on Chippewa Street and Mrs. Becker still lives there. All of her children are married and gone. Then Walter Becker moved into the house and he’s lived there and raised his family and they’re all moved out and now Mr. And Mrs. Walter Becker still continue to live in the house. So the manager of the brick company has always lived in that house.
OBERSCHMIDT: Well, how about your labor? What differences have you seen evolve from these developments with labor?
PHILLIPS: The labor has of course had big improvements made in the tools with which they operated. I can remember when we stripped the topsoil off of the clay pits with slips and mules and men, and now it’s done with plows and tractors and bulldozers. And one man on a tractor and one man on a bulldozer can do in a day about what (a much larger group of) hard working men were able to accomplish in two (2) to three (3) weeks. The same thing is true with the gathering of it and bringing it in. In the plant the clay was moved up to the crushing machine with wheelbarrows whereas now it is moved up with the front-end loaders and the crushing and screening is streamlined and efficient. Then the handling of the brick though, a man today can’t begin to handle as many brick per hour when it is necessary to move them by hand as the old man did. When I first started here, what we called a shader could handle a thousand 91,000) (bricks) an hour. He would pick them up, put them in a wheelbarrow, and roll them to a railroad car and then handle them again – place them in a railroad car – and handle a thousand (1,000) brick an hour. Now, all the man does is pick the brick up and lay it in a jig and put it in a five hundred (500) brick package and it’s picked up by a lift-truck and moved over (away) and the man still does about a thousand (1,000) brick an hour.
OBERSCHMIDT: Well, that’s amazing, isn’t it? Progress didn’t help too much like that, did it? Well, how do you go about testing the soil? Do you have to have a certain instrument to test that soil to see how it’s going to work?
PHILLIPS: Well, the men that bring in the clay have been there for years and they can look at it when they remove the topsoil and tell whether it’s good or not. It it’s no good, they just leave it there and if it is good, they bring it in.
OBERSCHMIDT: You don’t have to put any chemicals in it in order to make – just the dirt.
PHILLIPS: Just the clay. The clay is brought in and put in the clay shed and stored and goes through what we call a “souring” – s-o-u-r-I-n-g – souring process and then it’s crushed and ground and screened and then formed into either the dry-press – we still have the dry-press system operating – either goes into the dry-press or the stiff-mud operation. In the stiff-mud operation now we’re using blends of our clays and clays from Alabama and we also regrind “rejects” and “bats” which is a waste material that has been fired and it’s recrushed and reground and blended back into the body of the brick which (improves the quality of the) brick and makes it fire easier and fire straighter and truer.
OBERSCHMIDT: And how do you get the colors?
PHILLIPS: The color is gotten by the selection of clay you use. Some clay will fire a light color *. And then another one might fire, another clay will fire red at a certain heat and then you take the heat higher and it will fire pink and you take it still higher and it will go into browns and tans. Further than that you can use manganese in it – manganese ore which is a black powdered substance – and that will turn brick black when they are fired.
OBERSCHMIDT: That’s interesting.
PHILLIPS: And then many of the brick now are coated. You (use any clay in the extrusion machine), take another color and just put a (different) clay slurry on the extruded column as it comes out of the stiff-mud machine and that gives it (an entirely different appearance). An example of that downtown would be the Southwest Saving and Loan Building. That is a brick that had a coating on it. Gives it a little different, kind of an aged effect, and that has been a very popular trend on brick.
OBERSCHMIDT: Well, Mr. Phillips, is there anything else you want to add to this?
PHILLIPS: Well, I think that about covers it.
OBERSCHMIDT: Well, I think you’ve been mighty nice to do this and I certainly thank you. Appreciate this interview.
PHILLIPS: Well, appreciate you coming.
Notes: * marks deletion by interviewee
() Parentheses enclose additional words or phrases included for clarification by the interviewee, Mr. Phillips