More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Preston Collins (Brick Mason)

Well, I got into masonry work the hard way! . . . I owe everything I know to Mr. Henry LeBlanc. Then Mr. LeBlanc introduced me to another brick mason by the name of Reverend Perkin. These two guys sort of took me under their wings you know. I started out as a laborer, moving houses. My first construction job, I guess I was about 18 or 19 years old . . . this gentleman sent me on a job where they had some masonry work and I didn't know anything about masonry work, nothing at all. So I met an elderly gentleman there and he asked me if I knew how to mix mortar. . . . He said I looked like I wanted to work, and I told him, "Okay, I'll do whatever it takes." So he showed me how to mix the mortar. It probably wasn't right the first batches, but I eventually got it right and I started out as a laborer. . . . I was eager and it took a while, so when I got to the point where I could actually spread the mortar, butter the brick and lay the brick, he started me off on a 2 x 4. He said, "Now, we are going to pretend that this is a brick wall and I'm going to show you how to spread mortar if you're laying blocks." I said, "Let's just concentrate on bricks right now." So we did, and the 2 x 4 we were working on—I'd say it was about two feet long—I laid those bricks. It was approximately three to four courses and I was very proud of that. . . . I was so proud of it and I told my sister, "Look what I did today at the job!" I kept them a long, long time, I was just so proud of them. I don't know how long I kept them in a safe place. . . . From that day up until this day I just been laying bricks.

One time in a family it [skill] was passed down. If the father was a bricklayer or a plasterer or a painter or a carpenter and if he had sons he would take his sons out on jobs and these young people would learn the trade and it was actually passed down from father to son and from son to his son. I've actually worked with families that have had generations like that, but you don't see that anymore. A lot of these young guys are going to school; they are getting better education and they just don't want to get out there in this hot boiling sun and sweating and whatnot.

I'd like to see all the unions come back strong. As a matter of fact, in order for that to happen you would have to have all unions come strong in all crafts, not just brick masonry, because we all have to work together. A building cannot go up just with a brick mason—you need carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and we all work together; we help build these buildings. All this goes hand and hand. . . . I used to be a steward on the job. I used to have to keep the hours and whatnot for these guys and you have to have so many hours per quarter to stay in benefits, and in construction it's real good right now for everybody. Anyone who wants a job and knows a little bit about construction can get a job. But what has happened . . . when I was coming up in the trade, just about everybody was union. Right now it's not that way. . . . I think one of the things that hurt this state was the right to work. When the right to work came through it hurt the union. It's kind of hard when you have guys who actually have to leave and work on the road, when the union is strong, when they get their benefits, you have a lot of guys that's doing that. Right now you ask some of them to come back home because we have a lot of work here right now. There is a lot of reasons. If you come up in a family where your father is head of the house and he's got some boys there and he's working and he sits down and talks to his boys, that's a way [to strengthen trades and families]. Like when I met Mr. LeBlanc, he taught his two sons. They are bricklayers because they were there with their father and he brought them out on jobs and he just showed them the point.

Preston Collins was interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.