Town Historian

Adrienne Kirby
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Hours: Available by appointment
Phone: (585) 483-0771

An excellent overview of the history of the Town of Gaines may be found in “Historic Gaines, 1809-1984” by Delia Robinson. Featuring numerous photographs, each community in the town has its own chapter, highlighting major events and significant people. It was originally published for the 175th anniversary of the town, and may be borrowed from the Nioga Library System.

1875 School Districts Map, Courtesy of the Cobblestone Society.

Note: I am deeply grateful to Dee Robinson for her overall encouragement, her suggestion of this topic, and for her assistance in researching it.

The New York State Fair, held Oct. 1-4, 1867 in Buffalo, was a disappointment in some ways. “The grounds, unfortunately, presented a rough surface—appearing as if tread up by cattle in wet weather, and left to dry and harden in that condition. The buildings were poor, unattractive, and, in some instances, of not sufficient capacity for the use for which intended….The victualing department did not present its usual attractions.”1 But for John A. Lafler of Gaines, it was a source of celebration. Along with at least two competitors, he demonstrated how his brick machine worked for the crowds at the fair, producing “crude” or unfired bricks. The New York State Fair report for 1868 noted Lafler “showed his iron clad brick machine, to which was awarded the first premium at the late fair in Buffalo, for making best quality of brick. We believe it still maintains its superiority.” Lafler not only brought his machine to the New York State Fair multiple times, but he also displayed it at the Centennial Exposition in 1876, an international event which covered over 285 acres in Philadelphia.

The only information we have about John Lafler comes from census records, his patent, a handful of passing references, and church records. Lafler first appears in Gaines on the 1855 census, but was most likely here in 1852, since his three year old son was noted as being born in Orleans County. Lafler was a native of Ontario County. When he decided to settle here in the 1850’s, Gaines had a larger population than Albion and at that point might have appeared to be a more vibrant community than our neighbor to the south. He and his family lived across the road from his brickyard which is now the Brick Pond on Rt. 98, a half mile south of Rt. 104.

From the information we do have, we can surmise he was a successful businessman. By the time he applied for the patent for his machine in 1863 at the age of 48, he had been in Gaines for at least ten years. He enlisted the support of John N. Proctor and Isaac Gere, both from prominent area families, to sign as witnesses to his application. His brickyard was in operation from the early 1850’s to the early 1890’s. His son Charles continued to run it for over ten years after his death in 1883. As a member of the Congregational Church in Gaines, he paid for the transom window above the double doors of the old church.

Lafler’s brickmaking machine was essentially a barrel with a vertical shaft inside that had tilted blades protruding out of it. As noted in the patent, this shaft was “rotated by any convenient power,” most likely horses or steam. The clay would be placed in the barrel from the top, and the rotating blades would simultaneously knead the clay, push it down into the molds, as well as scrape excess clay off the top of the molds. A spring-loaded “clod-crusher” would compress the clay in the molds from below. It is unclear from Lafler’s patent exactly how many bricks could simultaneously be pressed by his machine. However, one of his competitors paid for a full-page advertisement in the 1866 edition of the New York State Agricultural Society’s Abstract. It claimed that the machine “will make from 2,000 to 3,000 brick per hour, with seven or eight hands and a pair of horses.” A look at the 1875 census suggests Lafler’s machine might have required a similar amount of manpower. In that year, twelve men were listed as laborers in his household, half of whom were immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium and England. It’s reasonable to suppose that if eight men were kept busy running the machine, another four might be needed to dig the clay to feed it. If Lafler’s machine had a comparable output to his competitor’s, then the amount of bricks needed to build a small brick house about the size of the one next to the Cobblestone Church in Childs could be pressed in three hours or so.

Lafler’s brickyard was not the first in Gaines. William J. Babbit established the first brickyard around 1820, on the southwest corner of the intersection of Ridge Road and Crandall Road. It is also believed there was an early brickyard on the southeast corner of the intersection at Ridge Road and Rt. 279. Before the advent of machines like Lafler’s, brickmaking in the early 19th century was a handmade, straight forward affair. Clay was pressed into a single brick mold, and then a tool was used to scrape off the excess clay. The mold was then tipped over onto a small pallet, and hopefully, the brick would come out of the mold intact. If some clay remained inside the mold, the brick would have to be repressed – the mold placed over the brick once more, tamped, and tipped out again. Perhaps this is the problem Lafler claimed his invention overcame in the ads he placed in a few 1869 issues of Scientific American.

Another improvement of machines like Lafler’s over the ages-old method of hand pressing bricks is that they would produce more uniform, more compact, harder bricks. Prior to factories, there was no way each handmade mold would each be exactly the same. Repressing would also create variation in bricks. Using a team of horses or steam power, it is easy to understand how Lafler’s spring-loaded machine would be able to exert more pressure on the clay than even the burliest of brickmakers.

It is probable that we see Lafler’s product in many local brick houses, but we don’t have documentation. There is strong reason to believe that the First Baptist Church in Albion was constructed with Lafler’s bricks in 1858. What is now the rectory for Holy Family Parish may have also been built with his bricks as well. There is proof beyond a doubt that his bricks were used in the platform in front of the Cobblestone Church in Childs, for several have his name stamped into them.

Adrienne Kirby,

Town Historian

1The author adds, “[These faults] detracted from the visitors’ full enjoyment of pleasure, and were the source of petulant comment from some….We simply record the facts in making up a true account of the exhibition.”

Nestled in the heart of Orleans County, the Town of Gaines has largely retained its agricultural character over the course of its 200 year history. In the years after the first settlers arrived in 1809, life was hard. Sometimes crops failed, and if they were abundant, there were few markets close by to sell to. Despite these challenges, the communities of Gaines Village, East Gaines, West Gaines and Proctor’s Corners (now Childs), were established on Ridge Road before the Erie Canal came through in 1825. Once the canal was completed, Gaines Basin and Eagle Harbor grew as a result of the commercial traffic. With a means of selling their crops to markets across the state at higher prices, Gaines became a little less rustic.

Confident that their town would become the county seat for the newly formed Orleans County in 1824, the citizens of Gaines were eager to prove its worth. Prior to the incorporation of the county, Gaines could boast its own newspaper, and over twenty businesses, including several factories. In an effort to make itself a more likely location for county seat, a Masonic lodge was established and a meeting house built. Although Gaines lost its bid to become the political center of the county, the plans made for a court house were refurbished to become an institution of learning, the Gaines Academy. Until 1850, the population and businesses of Gaines continued to grow.

Like many rural communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social life in Gaines revolved around one of the six churches, the Grange, one of the two temperance groups or at a tavern, depending on one’s sensibilities. The latest news could always be discussed at one of the general stores. There were fires that devastated several of these meeting places, and there were community efforts to rebuild them.

Despite the changes that have occurred over two hundred years, Gaines has always had farmers. In the early days, farming was a necessity to survival. Later, farmers sent their commodity crops of wheat and beans along the canal to distant markets. In the 20th century, farmers grew tomatoes for the Hunts factory in Albion. Orchards have long been a part of the landscape, from the days when Gaines boasted the largest apple orchard in the world, to today where they can be found spread throughout the area.

Town Historian,

Adrienne Kirby