Sunday, June 26, 2011

Once Upon a Brick --- A Simons Brick

I like to explore old maps of Los Angeles and its environs. And when I discover something I'd never heard of before, I'll often get in my time machine (OK, my car) and drive into the future of that map. Such it was when I saw an old map of the area that's now Montebello and the City of Commerce and I noticed a train stop and what looked like a town called Simons. If you ever drive through the area on I-5, it's north of the freeway and north of Telegraph Road, just a bit east of Garfield. There's a Home Depot close by that's pretty close to what was once called Simons.

It was a huge brick manufacturing company, but even more interesting was what I learned about how the owners created a self-contained little city for the employees --- almost all of whom had come north from Mexico to work there, live there, dine there, attend church there, go to school there and even watch movies in the theater there.

When I drove to the area, there was practically nothing left. The school that you'll hear about in the video below is still there, but not the original buildings. What was once a self-contained community is now one of those typical industrial zones with look-alike buildings. I found a few houses that may have been there to house employees. I'll have to do some public records searches to learn more.

Now, whenever I see building or sidewalks made of brick, I look for the distinctive "Simons" bricks. I first found one as part of the steps in front of Shakey's in Burbank. Then I discovered that my neighbors, Jan and Henry, had a couple of Simons bricks on their walkway. Most recently, I found Simons bricks adorning the front walkway in front of my friend Pat Hall's house in Hacienda Heights. OK, I'm hooked on the story of the Simons Brick Factory, better known as Simons Brick Company No. 3.

Today, I was pleased to find a wonderful video made by people who really know how to do the perfect oral history interviews. And they're pretty good at production, as well. I invite you to enjoy it.

And in case you didn't read the full description that goes along with it, I'm including it here:

An interview with Rosa Lemus Carlos who grew up at Simons Brick Company No.3 in Montebello, California.

Her father was a decades-long employee there. Simons Brick Company, established in the Los Angeles area before the turn of the last century, grew to become the biggest brick producer in the world, and to make the millions of bricks that were used to build much of Los Angeles, San Francisco and cities throughout the nation.

Simons imported thousands of Mexican workers and their families to Los Angeles in order to work and live at their 300 acre facility. Simons was almost literally a Mexican town, where generations of Spanish-speaking workers and their families were housed, worked, went to school, worshiped and shopped - and where they died. The work of making bricks was back-breaking and pay was low. But as Rosa Carlos's interview shows, their lives there (and that of their families) were centered around far more than just grueling work: Simons families' cultural and social life was multi-layered, multi-faceted and enriching in its own way.

The Simons Brick Company went bankrupt in the 1950s and closed after more than sixty years of existence, due to changing construction methods causing brick sales to decline drastically. The shanty homes of the workers and their families were condemned and demolished, along with the entire brick yard. Hundreds of Mexican residents saw their homes torn down and the debris set afire, but their memories of their lives at Simons lived on.

Rosa's interview excerpt, from the epic documentary film "Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles" is very moving and enlightening.

See more at


Anonymous said...

Interesting video. I liked the story. The delivery bothered me, in that she seemed like she was on the verge of crying throughout the whole bit. I was also bothered by the photo-shop look of her being cut & pasted over the background. The archival photos were wonderful, but presented in a cut sequence that would have been more interesting if the timing was more varied. I guess I don't really understand the format, because I like your work better

Bill Prather

Don Ray said...

Thanks for the comments, Bill. It's clear that you're a career movie person. I understand what you're saying about the photos in the background. A lot of people use it effectively. I've seen a lot worse. The problem is that, using the green screen, the lighting on the actual person should match the lighting on the image or video you put behind him or her. With older pictures, it's difficult.
Indeed, she was on the verge of tears. Of course, you were seeing "sound bites" and not the entire interview. I'm guessing that when their documentary comes out, they'll let you follow her into the tears. I was watching it and focusing on the way the interviewer conducted himself or herself. We didn't hear the voice of the interviewer (which is the way I like it), but it was clear that he or she prompted the woman with open-ended commands.

Gill Rapoza said...

That was very enjoyable Don. The lady had some good memories to share. I particularly enjoyed the statement she made about not knowing she was poor. Good stuff.

Don Ray said...

Thanks, Gil.
The key to getting such good stuff is in the way the interviewer handled it. It's clear that he or she knew to listen more and talk less. After a while, the person being interviewed understands that it's safe to wander anywhere and say whatever comes to mind. As a great investigator, you already know this. But it's nice to know it works on people who aren't suspected of committing a crime. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Thanks Don for sharing this story on your blog. It's great to hear stories from the past.

Don Ray said...

Thanks for the positive feedback. Stay tuned for the next one. It's about an exotic island -- an island that only survived for a couple of years.

Jen F. said...


I came across your blog after spending the day at Disneyland. After riding Pirates of the Caribbean, my son needed to tie his shoe. We stopped near the left side staircase leading up to the Disney Dream Suite. While stopped, I took notice of the name "SIMONS" on one of the bricks making up the staircase. I'd never noticed it before and it intrigued me... which lead me to do a Google search and ultimately land on your blog. Very interesting and cool to learn the history behind the bricks. I have a couple photos of the brick if you'd like to see them.

Warm Regards,

Don Ray said...

What a great story, Jan. Thanks very much. Yes, yes, yes. I'd love to see the photo. I'm not sure if you can attach it to a comment. I'm not good at this technical stuff. You could always send it to me at my personal e-mail, Ever since I discovered the interesting history of the Simons Brick, I also see the bricks in interesting places. I found one in my neighbor's walkway and another in front of a friend's house in Hacienda Heights. History can be fun. I wish someone in my school days would have lit the fire under me. Thanks so much.

kranma said...

Thanks for posting. I'm restoring my craftsman in Pasadena. I was looking to replace my broken driveway with brick and was looking for a reclaimed brick. After learning more about Simons I will definitely be using it. I love learning about these and house and the materials they were made with. Green screen is always difficult. Try back lighting your subject to have a softer transition. It creates a slight halo that is not as harsh. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Why don't we hear more about Walter Simons? It sounds like he tried to give the workers a place that included all things necessary for a good life.

Don Ray said...

It wasn't my video. But you're right.

Don Ray said...

We're always looking for more voluntary historical researchers A The Endangered History Project.
Donations are welcomed as well.