We hope you enjoy these narrations about the stone masons of Baltimore and Maryland, and consider their work next time you drive by, or stop in to visit the structures they helped create. This work was a step up the ladder for the Irish, and all who performed it.
Perhaps you are a descendant of immigrants who came to America several generations ago. Tell me…if you want to visit a place or two that express your heritage and ancestors, where do you go? Growing up in the Baltimore area, I was hard pressed to point here or there and say that a particular place, neighborhood or building was a monument to my immigrant ancestors.
These recent writings have changed that a good bit, and no more so than while I considered the work of masons…whose work lasts for generations, in many cases. Many thousands of Baltimore’s brick front rowhouses, which the city is famous for, show their work, Irish and otherwise. Many were climbing the ladder towards a better life for their families.
A relative of mine told me about her bricklaying ancestors, and how that work led to their becoming successful contractors. Their children received a top flight education, and had careers that allowed them to live well. This might have happened to you and yours. Do you remember those who came before you, and took advantage of the opportunities afforded them?
Perhaps you might look out the car window at those brick rowhouses, or stone front churches and municipal buildings you pass by. Most were built using the labor of the most modest, including slaves, indentured servants, free laborers and ultimately skilled tradesmen who learned a vital trade, created their own modest monuments and changed lives for future generations.
Living in a major city was not always the right answer for our immigrant ancestors. Irish were drawn towards where the work was, and traveled along major thoroughfares that took them to America’s small towns. These were often established where natural resources were found; sometimes the land itself, where farmers could tame woodlands and vast fields of wild grasses that could be cleared, seeded and planted. Others arrived in towns where particular resources could be found nearby, such as clay fields or stone that was vital for building massive structures elsewhere. Such was the town of Texas MD, pictured above "in part".
A large marble and limestone quarry was established 12 miles north of Baltimore, and Irish families gathered in Texas even before famine times. The Baltimore and Susquehanna Railway was established in 1828 and eventually provided service for both passengers and freight coming to Baltimore and Washington. This connection to major cities gave the small town of Texas ready access to markets where their quarried stone could be put to good use.
Early Irish workers in Texas hailed from the West of Ireland, and many were added to their number by the Great Hunger, or Potato Famine. Approximately half of the town’s population was the result of an 1847 tenant clearing scheme by English authorities in Ballykilcline, County Roscommon.
They arrived and took up the dangerous work of quarrymen: blasting and forming stone into important elements of buildings such as the lower Washington Monument (see Picture; Texas marble on the lower section, 1854), porticoes of the U.S. Capitol building and the towers of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Their important work was continued by African Americans; enjoy this photo from 1959.
John A. (Johann) Knecht and Family
Johann Knecht could serve as the classic rags to riches American dream story. He arrived in Baltimore in 1837 at age eleven and started working life as a cart man. Johann (also known as John) married American born Mary Huber in 1849 and began a family. He was a brickmaker for the Burns and Russell Brick Co. and worked his way up to foreman.
By 1880 he bought at least one brickyard from Burns and Russell (located on the southwest corner of Baltimore's Carroll Park). John and Mary had five sons, but only one worked in the brick business – John A. Jr. He established his own firm in 1888, known as John A. Knecht & Sons (pictured below). They did quite well and owned at least three brickyards, as well as the house and office that once belonged to John Russell at 529 Columbia Ave. (modern-day Washington Blvd.)
They were one of 14 firms that was purchased in 1899 to consolidate brick production in Baltimore. The new firm was known as Baltimore Brick Company: a business that sought to increase the city’s output of 130,000,000 a year to their full capacity...potentially 250,000,000 bricks. Baltimore bricks were considered high quality, and the new company did business across the nation, selling at a rate of $6.00 per thousand.
The Knecht firm was not quite done with brickmaking, and John A. Knecht Jr. bought land in the Arbutus/Violetville area for home sites for his 13 children, but also to establish Excelsior Brick and Pottery Company nearby.
They lived on Knecht Ave., and other families also built along the street, including Daniel Shanahan Sr. and family. He was the son-in-law of James and Sarah Feeley, a native Irish couple who lived at our Museum building between 1863-1885.
His daughter Rita Cecilia was the Feeley’s only surviving grandchild (pictured above), and caught the eye of neighbor Martin Knecht. They met and married, and hundreds of partially Irish Feeley descendants are with us today due to a German brickmaking family named Knecht.
Joseph V. Lochte Sr.
Joe (pictured above with Museum friend and former Board member Tim Harvey) is our modern man; a talented brick mason who has done marvelous work at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum for years. He is one of many who have created a Baltimore distinctive: brick facades of thousands of row houses, and their maintenance over decades and centuries.
Baltimore had many brick yards where masons would get their supplies. Brick was available in various quality levels, and some was referred to as “soft” brick, a less expensive option. These would deteriorate a bit quicker than the higher quality brick that was frequently used. Some brick facades were replaced or covered by other materials, such as Formstone.
Modern bricklayers do new work, of course, but the art of laying brick includes restoration of earlier installations. This can include “re-pointing”: adding mortar to joints where it has deteriorated. Some firms specialize in the gathering, cleaning and sales of various styles of historical brick. It is used by masons who do historical preservation and are challenged to recreate a brick face that is in keeping with the original work done when the building was constructed.
Joseph has done many projects for the Museum (see pictures), and occasionally drafts a few fellas from the community to do some grunt work. He displays his love for our story by installing engraved brick pavers that are purchased by our supporters (order on our web site). He has done this for years, and we are thankful that such a skilled master mason gives his time and energy so generously to our organization.
Many thanks to those who keep Baltimore's marble steps clean, and contributed to this, our 45th issue of The Big Pivot:
Stephen Brighton, Ph. D.
Brian Fisher Johnson
Cassie Kilroy Thompson
Library of Congress
Baltimore "Brick by Brick" web site (accessed 9/10/20; needs to be reactivated by the owner (hopefully soon)