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


Wilbert F. Monette (Brick Mason)

I was born and raised in New Orleans and my father was a bricklayer and cement finisher and I learned the trade through him. In fact, during World War II, I went into the Marine Corps and in 1946 I was discharged and I went to work for him as an apprentice. I stayed with him for five years and I entered the union as journeyman. I learned most of the trade under him. I retired out of the union. Right now I'm still in the union 47 years. I have a wife, three daughters and two sons, seventeen grandkids, and five great grandkids. . . . This is the trade that I've taken—that has raised the five kids, and partially raised 16 of the grandkids, and has been good, and God has been good to me!

My dad told me, "Don't worry about speed," because I wanted to be fast, "You do the work right, no matter how slow, make sure it's done right. Now if you get fired for slow work, that's no problem, but if you're messing up the building or messing up a wall your name is going to be dirt around the city. 'You're not no brick layer,' that's all they're going to be saying." Well, [if I'm sometimes] a little slow, well the work is better, but you have to like what you're doing, you have to have taste as far as masonry work is concerned; you don't have it, it's going to look a mess. A lot of people think it's easy; it's not easy. Laying bricks is not just laying the brick. When you lay that first coat, you have to know where you are headed.

When I first started with my dad he had a crew, but it looked like I was the one he stayed on! "Get this, get that, do this, you did it wrong!" But he was a wonderful person. You wouldn't want another father if you had him. He was a family person. I was the oldest out of 11 kids. He did so much for all of us, not only for me, but my sisters and my brothers. He worked for his family. I started out with a shovel. About three days after I started, we sat down to eat lunch and I told him I didn't come out there to be a laborer. I wanted to be a cement finisher or a bricklayer and he told me, "You are going to learn this trade the way I want you to learn it. If you learn it out of the ground you'll never have to worry about a job in this trade."

One time I was laying [an arch] and got to the top and started turning and I was at the top. I brought this side to the center, and brought that side to the center, and then I pick a brick mortar board side and stick it right in that center and plumb it up. So he [past master Amedée Fredericks] was standing and he said, "How did you do that? Most brick layers mark off." You mark off your course and you know you're going to finish, but I've done it so many years and once I've come halfway, or three quarters of the way on this side and three quarters of the way on that side, and just measured it and measured the other side, it just hold the same joint. But when I first started you take the ruler. He say, "How you did that? You didn't take your ruler out one time!" But that's experience.

You don't have the mechanics they had when I was coming through. They called them "aces." They had their circle and you had to be good to get in that circle....That's in the beginning; then things begin to change. When Arthur Perrault died the circle broke, because he's the one that kept the circle going. . . . A bricklayer is supposed to lay everything, given the chance to lay it. And certain ones had that circle. . . .You have to work your way with the bricklayers. In other words, you have to show that you can work. Then you want to socialize a little bit with them.

Wilbert F. Monette 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.