HASTINGS, Neb. — One day eight decades or more ago, a young man working in one of Hastings' several brickyards took a raw, soft brick and etched his name and address into one of its sides: John Blum, 317 E. So. Str., Hastings, Nebraska.
Once the brick left Blum's hands, it moved on to the kiln, a railroad car and an unknown future. Most likely, he never expected to see or hear of it again.
Blum died more than 22 years ago at the age of 80. But now, thanks to a demolition project in Guide Rock and a Superior contractor's sharp eyes, Blum's long-forgotten calling card to the universe is back in circulation.
Blum's widow, Gertrude, now 98 and still living in Hastings, had no idea the brick existed. Neither did the couple's son, John W. "Jack" Blum, now 77, retired and living just two doors down from the South Street address his father had listed.
This week, however, the brick was placed into their hands at Gertrude's home at Good Samaritan Village — just a short distance from the location of the old Polenke Brothers-Schellak & Co. brickyard where John had inscribed it all those years ago.
Jack said he was thrilled when he learned the brick existed, had been recovered, and would be his family's to keep.
"I thought it was wonderful," he said. "It's a voice from the past!"
For 87 years, the Guide Rock High School stood like a soldier near the north end of town, sheltering the studies of several generations of local students. In 2003, five years after the school district stopped offering high school instruction, Superior resident Ron Frasier won the contract to demolish the three-story building, bringing many thousands of bricks tumbling to the earth.
Frasier retained several semitrailer loads of the unbroken bricks, planning to clean them as his time allowed and then sell them to a Lincoln business that deals in vintage building materials. Nine years later, on Nov. 6, 2012, Frasier was back at that tedious project, using a hatchet to remove old mortar still clinging to the bricks, when he discovered what John Blum had done.
Frasier, for his part, is impressed just that this one particular brick survived the demolition process, let alone that it got saved back for recycling, and then that he happened to notice the shallow lettering on one of its narrow faces.
"The fact of finding the brick was one in a million," Frasier said. "Plus, the fact that a name was clearly engraved, with an address, adds to the unusualness of the whole story."
Searches of the Tribune archives and old city directories, plus conversations with Jack's mother and with his aunt, Lorene Blum, confirmed the inscriber's identity. Gertrude has no doubt John inscribed the brick while working at the yard on South Elm Avenue.
Lorene recalls that he worked there as a hacker, setter and wheeler — jobs that had him handling bricks both before and after they went to the kiln. Gertrude said John never mentioned to her that he had etched his name in a brick. Perhaps he did so on a whim and never gave the matter another thought.
Although several John Blums have lived in Hastings through the years, and more than one of them worked in the brickyards, Gertrude is sure her husband is the only one who would have listed his name as it appears in the brick — let alone listed the address on South Street.
"My husband was the only John Blum who had no middle name or initial," Gertrude said. "And if it had been any other John Blum, they would have undoubtedly used a middle initial, since that was a means of identification for them."
John's father, Henry, had worked at the Polenske brickyard. Henry spent four decades working in that brickyard. As they turned 16, his sons joined him there.
John Blum graduated from Hastings High School in 1929. Although he had other goals, the Great Depression was at hand, and he stuck with the brickyard for employment for several more years.
John married Gertrude Chambers in September 1934, and Jack was born one year later — roughly the same time John found a new line of work. Jack's only sibling, his sister Patricia, died of polio at age 13.
Gertrude said her husband was not the type of person who talked a lot about what he hoped to accomplish in life, but he wanted to find a better place than the brickyard to earn his living.
The story of John's brick reminds Lorene of all that family history and brings a few smiles, as well.
"It really brought back a lot of memories," she said.
Information from: Hastings Tribune, http://www.hastingstribune.com