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David Templeton's Seldom Seen: There's nothing half-baked about Jean Bear's devotion to her hobby

Sunday, February 23, 2003

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Her house in Canton is solid brick. So are her sidewalks. The patio under her arbor -- brick. The living room fireplace, the basement walls and landing, and the basement sink and shower are -- you guessed it -- brick.

 
 

Seldom Seem, David Templeton's whimsical perspective on life and times in and around Washington County, appears weekly in Washington Sunday.

   
 

So guess what Jean Bear collects?

(You'd have to be as thick as one to get this wrong.)

Jean collects rectangular clay blocks whose creators' names were stamped on them before they were fired rock hard. Some are salt glazed and shiny. Others are covered with hard ceramic and enamel. They can be white, black and the full spectrum of color in between.

Jean collects the building blocks of our civilization -- pavers, building and fire bricks.

The irony is, she moved into the house in 1988 before she had a notion to collect bricks. Although she's responsible for building the brick sidewalks, it's pure coincidence her house is brick.

"It's a house built for a brick collector. I just didn't know it at the time," she said.

Jean has lost count of her bricks but estimates her collection numbers 3,000, most of them bearing names, symbols, designs or unique characteristics that make them collectible. One will find blank bricks in her walls but not in her collection.

But why would a personable, classy lady like Jean spend her time collecting heavy clay rectangles? One would think it the ideal hobby of construction workers or masons.

Jean agrees with the Third Pig of fairy tale fame that brick buildings are less likely to be blown down by wolves, tornadoes or time. Bricks can be cemented together into fascinating histories. But the bricks' colors, logos and names are what attracts most collectors.

"They are sort of like faces," Jean said. "Each one is individual. Each one has its own story."

Besides, she said, they are useful and don't require dusting.

A member of the International Brick Collectors Association, Jean said she has the best collection of bricks from the C.P. Mayer Co. of Bridgeville that produced at least 35 pavers. She owns 100 Mayer bricks and bricks made by the Donley Brick Co. of Washington and the Monongahela Clay Manufacturing Co.

Donley continues selling bricks but no longer manufacturers them. Jean co-wrote a history of Donley that remains posted on the company wall.

"Jean is very interested in Pennsylvania stuff," Jim Graves, brick association librarian, said. "She's probably the expert in Pennsylvania because she's there. She finds interesting stuff. But you don't know what you're looking for until you find it."

Her collection is not restricted to local bricks. She owns bricks from as far away as Thailand and Russia. She has handsome bricks with stars, borders and designs; misshapen bricks including one her grandchild gave her; and bricks bearing chicken tracks.

One curious brick has a dog's paw print and what appears to be squirrel's paw print, as if the dog had chased the squirrel across the brick before it was fired. The proximity of paw prints does not bode well for the squirrel.

Jean has the type of brick used to pave the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, thus the speedway's nickname as The Brickyard. She even has one that warns, "Don't Spit On Sidewalk," created in the early 1900s at the request of a doctor convinced that spitting spread tuberculosis.

When Jean joined the brick association in 1991, she owned 27 bricks. The growth of her collection is testimonial to the camaraderie of association members who trade bricks rather than buy or sell them.

Through trading and scavenging, Jean has collected bricks bearing each letter of the alphabet, save for "Y" and "Z." She does own one bearing "ZZZ." "I don't have an official 'I,' but I have something that looks like an 'I,' " she said.

She also has bricks with names beginning with each letter of the alphabet except X. However, she has one bearing "XXXX." "It's just an idea I got once," she said of her alphabetic bricks. "A lot of collectors don't like ones with one letter, but I though it was fun.

"Everyone has his own angle."

Her rules? Never use mortar on bricks, never turn down a free brick and keep in close contact with association members. A century ago, each major town had a brick company, and many streets were paved with brick.

"Bricks that were hard to find sometimes show up by the thousands when buildings come down or streets are torn up," she said. "I get into the history when I'm not looking for bricks."

It's no "burning desire," but Jean hopes to find an Ohio Reformatory brick. She's not sure if the Mansfield, Ohio, reformatory made bricks or if bricks used to build the prison bore its name.

Collectors often keep scrap books with photographs of favorite bricks. The association does extensive research and Jean owns its books, inches thick, that list every brick members have documented, company details and a bibliography. Graves, of Wichita, Kan., said his books list 32,000 brick companies -- about half that existed.

If brick collecting sounds boring, consider that bricks hit the news recently during the airport crackdown on terrorism. One collector was interrogated when agents discovered a brick in his suitcase and refused to allow him to board the plane with it. For agents, it did not click that someone actually would collect a brick.

Jean's son, Charlie Bear of Boston, encountered a similar circumstance years ago upon arriving at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., with a suitcase full of bricks from Thailand.

Customs agents quizzed him about why he carted bricks from Thailand and suspected they contained drugs. The doubtful agent wanted to break one in half, but Charlie argued it would destroy the brick destined for his mother's collection.

"Drill holes in them," Charlie suggested.

And that's what Customs did.

One of her Thai bricks now bears two drill holes in the back -- lasting proof of government brick bats about her hobby.

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8652.

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