News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 26, 2012

YOUR GREEN VALLEY: What can we feasibly use old bricks for today?

Jane Santucci
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Locals know to avoid the left lane traveling east on Wabash Avenue from downtown, to avoid a bumpy ride. Thankfully 5,000 feet of Wabash Avenue, and $1.1 million dollars later, drivers won’t have that worry anymore. City officials in Terre Haute have decided to fix one of the main arteries in the city.

Wabash Valley Asphalt won the bid to re-construct parts of Wabash Avenue. Wabash Valley Asphalt contracted with Dennis Trucking and Excavating to haul away the layers of asphalt. Amongst the asphalt, rocks and dirt, 20 percent is bricks, said John Hanley, president of Dennis Trucking. Those bricks date back to when Terre Haute was in its prime.

Clay County historian Jeff Koehler said Brazil had an interurban transportation system running around 1893. Terre Haute had a street car system prior to the interurban. The interurban did not connect with Terre Haute until the 1900s. The streets where the interurban ran were paved with brick, unlike asphalt that many drivers are use to today.

Brick manufacturing plants helped to pave the way for many Wabash Valley families. In 1907, Brazil had 12 clay factories. When Kenneth Turner started working in the brick industry in 1950, there were about 10. Turner worked at various plants producing bricks in a multitude of ways for about 23 years. Today he is a member of the brick collecting association, where collectors meet and swap unique types of brick. It turns out there is a market for old bricks. A quick search on brings up dozens of people who are selling old bricks.

Cost dictates

brick use

Bricks have been used for streets, walkways and buildings since before the machine was invented.

“I was in Italy. I have been on the Appian way made by the Romans in 312 B.C.,” Turner said.

Turner says brick would last a lot longer than the asphalt used today for roads. Asphalt is weather prone; it expands and contracts depending on the temperature. Over the course of a few years asphalt starts to crack and may be in need of repair.

“The freeze and thaw wouldn’t affect the bricks, as long as they are installed right,” Koehler said.

Even though bricks would last a lot longer, Turner says we don’t have brick streets today because of cost. Bricks are more costly to make and install. Labor costs have skyrocketed since the early 1900s, driving up the cost of the installation.

“We can build a brick street now and it would last many lifetimes, but the initial cost is what keeps them from doing it,” Turner said.

The Netherlands and China are starting to pave more brick streets. There are a handful of YouTube videos showing machines that can lay brick instead of using humans for the labor.

Various uses

for old brick

Jim Reberger started at the same company that Turner last worked at, but decades later in 1973. His experience in working at brick plants inspired him to find future uses for old brick.

“We do building restoration, so a lot of times we have to find bricks that will match the time period of the building,” Reberger said.

A lot of the bricks Reberger finds are covered in mortar, a compound that has to be removed to reuse them.

“It is very labor intensive; you basically have to do it by hand. A guy at my shop wants $1 a piece for them, and that is probably not enough for the work he is going through. He is cleaning them with a hammer and a chisel,” Reberger said.

Most of the bricks consumers see at Menards or Lowe’s are made of concrete, not clay, and sell for around 40 cents each. An older brick fired by coal or pressed by hydraulics may sell around $2 each. When a typical ranch-style house takes 12,000 bricks to build, there will be a substantial difference in cost.

When Reberger helps to tear down old buildings, he makes landscaping chips out of any excess bricks he collects.

“We have a big crusher at the shop, we put the bricks through them and make landscaping chips,” Reberger said.

The landscaping chips can be used in place of mulch and can last a lifetime. The chips cost more up front, but when you add up the cost of mulch year after year, brick chips are cheaper, at $40 a ton. Weeds can still come up through brick mulch, much like wood mulch, but a barrier can be put down between the soil and chips to prevent weeds. Brick chips do not attract mold and termites. The benefits of using wood mulch include soil improvement. Also, since more people use wood chips for mulch, there is a limited market for using brick chips as mulch.

“If we crushed all of the bricks from the streets, then we would have 500 tons of brick chips and no market for it,” Reberger said.

Brick dust can also be sold to schools and athletic fields. Reberger bags the dust from his shop and sells it to local schools. He says the schools then mix it with sand and put it on their baseball diamonds. Sand doesn’t absorb rain water. When sand is mixed with clay brick dust, the water is better absorbed.

“After it rains it will soak that water up real quickly and you can get right back on the field and start playing,” Reberger said.

While it is unlikely future bricks torn out of U.S. 40/Wabash Avenue will be rescued from being used as fill, it can be helpful to know that there are more ways to reuse old brick.

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. She also sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@