This is the Friday Find to end all Friday Finds.
The title of this post is a misnomer: “needle in a haystack” is generally used to describe the near futility of finding a sought after item hidden among a mess of other non-sought after stuff. A more apt description of today’s Friday Find would be a needle in a galaxy of haystacks, and it comes to us via the incredibly sharp eye of Ms. Bernadette.
We clean a lot of bricks on Eager Street. In fact, we’ve palletized north of 100,000 of them so far. All told, the 35 houses on the 2400 block of Eager Street contain well over half a million bricks. If you lined up half a million bricks end to end, you’d have a row that would stretch from Baltimore to Wilmington, DE. In a sea of anonymous bricks, what are the chances that Bernadette would spot the jewel below?
If you can’t quite make out the writing on the brick above, you’re looking at the handiwork of one James Walker, who scrawled his name, the date (June 21st, 1906 A.D.) and his hometown (Highlandtown, MD) on the bed of the brick. Bernadette tells me she was stacking bricks when this brick caught her eye for some reason. The odds of her finding this among the half million others are beyond miniscule.
James A. Walker was born in Indiana in 1872 to Irish parents. He moved to the Baltimore area shortly thereafter, where he took up work as a bricklayer. By 1910, he lived at 3207 Canton Ave (now Fleet Street) with his wife, Mary, and his three children. Elmer, his 15 year-old son, worked as a pipefitter’s apprentice, and his 13 year-old daughter, Gertrude, worked as a helper at a can factory.
By the time the 1920 census was taken, Highlandtown had become incorporated into Baltimore (just one year earlier) and James had moved on from brick setting to carpentry, an occupation he would keep until his retirement two decades later.
It’s tempting to say that James’ message is analogous to a modern “James Wuz Here” tag, but James likely never meant for anyone to see this brick. He would have scratched his words into the brick before it was fired, probably just after it was molded, the clay still wet. The wet clay then would have been sent to the kiln, where James’ words became baked into the brick itself, achieving a longevity uncommon for what was likely no more than an act of boredom. The fired brick then would have been sent off to be laid in a nearby house; maybe the bricklayer saw James’ message, maybe not. Regardless, with a quick flick of the bricklayer’s wrist, a smear of mortar should have covered the words for all time.
Did James Walker, the brick setter, imagine the lives of the bricks he molded? Did he assume that the bricks he made, durable as any contemporary building material, would serve stoically in Baltimore rowhouses for centuries? Or maybe he was a realist, and imagined that one day his bricks would be pulverized by a wrecking ball or steam shovel. One thing is for certain: James surely did not envision that 109 years after he scratched his message, a crew of fellow Baltimoreans would be taking apart a block of rowhouses, brick by brick, and come across his scrawl.