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Meet Madeleine Bolton, Williamsburg's modern-day brickmaker

Madeleine Bolton puts her thumb on the thumbprint of a brickmaker in one of Colonial Williamsburg’s historic buildings.
Christine Kueter, Virginia Public Radio
Madeleine Bolton puts her thumb on the thumbprint of a brickmaker in one of Colonial Williamsburg’s historic buildings.

All this year, the Meet Virginia series has been profiling the lives of some of the more than eight million people who call Virginia home. This month, Virginia Public Radio’s Christine Kueter (CUE-ter) introduces us to someone whose modern-day work gives us an idea of what Virginia was like 250 years ago.

Madeleine Bolton’s fingerprints are all over Colonial Williamsburg. Her footprints, too.

That’s because 26-year-old Bolton, three years into a six-year brickmaking and masonry trades apprenticeship, has a hand in making some of the tens of thousands of clay bricks used to restore, repair, and build structures on the 300-acre historic site.

“The amount of clay is the pressure, you know, and stuff like that. I really enjoy molding. I like trying to get it exactly right, trying to slot it in there perfectly, I think that’s kind of fun to do. Like, if they want to see how I do it, I have to mentally think, ‘I need to go slower.’ My want is to go really fast, because it’s kind of fun to be like, ‘Oooh, yeah. Slap it in there, squish it down,’ which is also what I think about when I’m talking: ‘Slower. Don’t talk so fast,’” she says with a laugh.

But, if she does go fast, Bolton can fashion about 180 bricks an hour: patty-caking a 10-pound wad of wet clay into a ball before rolling it in fine sand and slapping it into a wooden form. From there, the still-soft shapes are emptied onto a flat sand patch, covered in canvas, and left to sun dry. Come fall, Bolton will help build and stoke a massive brick kiln, and over four or five days and nights, fire the summer lot of bricks at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to a purpley-brown crisp.

It's satisfying, hot, monotonous work. Bolton makes the occasional foot and handprint, like a secret, collective brickmakers’ prank. Look closely at original buildings in Williamsburg, and you can see Bolton’s 17 th and 18 th century counterparts: some free, but many enslaved.

“For us, like I said, we work an 8-hour day, like, we can leave when the day is done,” she notes. “We go home, and we think about people that came before, the enslaved laborer, making all these bricks historically. They’re making them because the next day’s not going to be any different. Talk about like how much labor and suffering came from this. Because, of course, today, all of us in the brickyard, we’re working for a wage. And they wouldn’t have been. The bricklayer historically could maybe work their way up to kind of a merchant level class. But the brickmaker, they work until they can’t anymore. And people all on that site, the enslaved labor, making all those bricks, that’s all they might know.”

Bolton’s original plan, to be an epidemiologist, was scrapped when COVID-19 struck her senior year at James Madison University.

“I’d always been somewhat obsessed with that, even as like a middle schooler, which is kind of creepy in retrospect,” she says. “I was so into it and excited about learning about disease pathways and disease response, and about how we tackle these global issues. And then seeing it falter, and seeing exactly how fraught it became, it made me less and less enthused to run into that brick wall. I was thinking about other ways to make myself helpful.”

After graduating, and casting about for some months, she landed the gig in Williamsburg in 2021. She’s one of about 30 apprentices there.

“It’s probably not something young Madeleine ever thought she would be doing, but I definitely enjoy it now. I’m very much a details person, like, to a fault,” Bolton admits. “So it works out as I’ve always liked figuring stuff out in some degree. And this offers quite a multitude of ways to do that.”

Case in point is the brickmakers’ forthcoming pug mill, a room-sized clay mixer that has a vertical shaft that, when the wheelwright finishes it, will connect to a horse whose circles will stir it. The pug mill also means Bolton won’t have to spend as much time in the pit, cutting clay with her bare feet, as the 17 th and 18 th century brickmakers did before her.

Plus, you know, the horse.

“We’ve already named the horse. I’m super excited. Buckwheat. That’s a brickyard classic right there,” she says with a laugh.