Our Brick Main Street
by Tony Parker
Sherman County Star
The red bricks that decorate Main Street and downtown Goodland have stood the test of time, lasting for over 77 years. This unique attraction was laid be a single Oneida Indian, Jim Garfield Brown. This “Speed King” bricklayer worked for Cook and Ransom Company paving the streets of several towns, and could easily lay 36,000 bricks a day.
In 1920, petitions were circulated in Goodland about paving Main Street. The mayor and city council awarded the paving contract to Cook and Ransom, an Ottawa firm, for the sum of $109,703.60. Cook and Ransom advertised their Indian brick layer, that he could lay brick as fast as eight men could bring them to him.
Brown reportedly had been educated as a football star at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. The purpose of this school was to train Indians to learn the ways of white men. In its 39-year life span, Carlisle Indian School was attended by 12,000 children and three Jim Browns. The Sherman County Historical Society is searching for the records about bricklayer Jim Brown. After attending school, Brown decided to find work rather than return to a reservation, and the tall, slender Indian made a name for himself in brick laying and concrete work.
Brown had just completed his work for a brick layer in Liberal when he came to Goodland. The best way to get from Liberal to Goodland in 1921 was via Topeka or Kansas City for the trip to Goodland.
Goodland’s Main Street was to be 65 feet wide and paved with brick from Eighth to 17th. Side streets (10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th) were to be paved for one block each side of Main St.
Work started June 7, 1921, and was not finished until December of that year. The streets had already been prepared with five inches of concrete covered with a layer of sand when Brown arrived. He was so proficient that he could lay 125 to 150 bricks per minute. Six men were constantly bringing bricks to him using an instrument similar to ice tongs which could carry a group of nine pound bricks at a time. Brown did the work leaning over from a standing position with leather pads on his fingers as a group of spectators watched the work. He would lay a brick with each hand laying about two bricks a second at a steady pace.
Brown accompanied the Ransom family, who traveled with their projects. On many fishing and picnic trips, Mr. Ransom would include Brown to be sure that he would no have a hangover from weekend partying when it was time to go to work on Monday morning.
“In spite of his alcohol problem, Jim Brown was highly regarded as a gentleman and considerate individual” stated Willard Ransom Jr.
Ransom Jr. remembered his father’s employee as an enjoyable character to be around. Â He remembered Brown teaching him and his brothers how to use a rifle. “He seemed to be good at anything he started out to do” recalled Ransom Jr. After finishing the brick laying in Goodland, a contest to see who was faster at laying bricks was set as Brown became famous for his skills. An Omaha man named F.L. House wanted to compete with Brown, but the two argued about the place of competition and negotiations collapsed.
Brown was publicly quoted as saying, “You can sit on the curbstone in Omaha and lay bricks with your feet while you roll cigarettes. You got to scamper back and forth like a prairie dog down here.”
Frank Hoffman was offered as a prominent opponent and Brown accepted. The contest day was set for Sept. 12, 1925, in drizzling rain and 60 degrees. The contest celebration included 300 floats and decorated cars. The contestants were to lay brick on a stretch of unfinished road 833 feet long linking Olathe to the highway. The contestants were positioned at the midway point of the roadway, back to back. Brown laid 200 tons of bricks, paving 416 1/2 feet with 46,664 bricks, 1,755 more bricks than his opponent. Although Brown received a medal designating him as the Middle Western Champ, he claimed to be the “World’s Champion Bricklayer” and although his claim was challenged, he was never defeated.
Brown continued to pave the streets of Baldwin and other towns as we was needed.
The last time anyone is known to have seen him was in 1931 at the Oklahoma Free Fair in Muskogee where Ransom Jr. was showing cattle, and saw Brown was an unemployed drifter.
Today, the bricks are still traveled on by all who come down Main Street. The history of the bricks and the man who laid them is a story that is a part of Goodland’s heritage. Much controversy surrounded the project in 1921 with allegations that the brick was not of proper quality, spacing or satisfactory work. However, it has proven to be one of the longest lasting and beneficial investments that the city has ever made.
The history along Main Street does not end with the red bricks. The Sherman County Historical Society along with the Kansas Historical Society is taking action to preserve the heritage in the bricks, buildings and businesses. They will be undertaking several projects in the near future, and may include a walking tour, some type of plaque or banner outside of each building and possibly a framed photograph and history to hang inside the building. Also, citizens in the community will have the opportunity to show their support and buy a brick to preserve the heritage that is a crucial part of downtown Goodland.
“Tourists are attracted to these sorts of things” said Gennifer House, President of the Sherman County Historical Society. “This is a specific area of interest, and you take for granted what you have in your own town.” If anyone else has information on the Main Street bricks or any history in the area, the historical society would appreciate the information.