The impact of brickmaking on Franklin Martin’s character and self-confidence

Franklin H. Martin, MD, FACS, had many significant accomplishments in his lifetime, including founding the American College of Surgeons (ACS), establishing the journal Surgery, Gynecology, & Obstetrics (now the Journal of the American College of Surgeons), the ACS Clinical Congress, and much more. In the summer of 1875 when he was 18 years old, and again in 1878, Franklin Martin worked in his Uncle George Fulmer’s brickyard on the shores of Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc, WI. Franklin believed he was strong enough to handle brickwork because for much of his youth he had performed demanding farming tasks. Dr. Martin, then an unassuming young man who lacked confidence and social skills, would be working with his cousins Thomas, Richard, and Washington Fulmer, along with a hired helper (see Figure 1).


From left: Franklin Martin, Julius Besendorf (hired helper), Thomas Fulmer, Richard Fulmer, and Washington Fulmer. The three Fulmers were Franklin’s cousins. Photo from the personal collection of Donald Zillmer.

Mr. Fulmer’s brickyard was a flourishing business, producing 300,000 bricks a year. Brickmaking was a multi-step, arduous manual process. First, the clay used to make the bricks was dug by hand from the pit, then transported in wheelbarrows to the processing yard, where a horse pulled a large paddle to mix the clay. The clay mixture was then shoveled into wooden molds with six slots, where it was dried. The molds weighed 40 pounds when filled. Once the clay was dried, the molds were placed on their sides for several days of further drying, after which the bricks were removed from the molds, transported to the kiln, and fired. The finished bricks were loaded onto wagons and hauled to town for use in fabricating new buildings. Many of the businesses and homes in Oconomowoc were constructed of Fulmer brick that Martin participated in making (see Figure 2).*

Grueling work paid off

In Dr. Martin’s words, each of the steps involved in brickmaking required “backbreaking labor.” When he first began his employment, he frequently was so exhausted that he could not work and was sent to the house to recover. He slowly acclimated, however, and became a valued member of the team, later saying, “I suffered many hours of depression and near despair during the first two weeks of this labor, before I attained a physical condition that made it possible for me to enjoy my work, and the assurance that I was a valuable and normal workman.”*


The color and style of the brick are consistent with the type of bricks made in the Fulmer brickyard. Gift from Tim and Rose Burns, who now own Uncle William Fulmer’s home where the bricks were found. Photo from the author’s personal collection.

He said of his work with his cousins, “With our well-fed bodies, and with the joy of an active life and youth in our souls, we were indeed a happy group.”*

Dr. Martin described the impact that the manual labor he performed in his younger years had on his later life: “Many times, in my life, when my strength has been tried to the breaking point, I have obtained sustaining power by reminiscing on those first days in the brickyard and the harvest field, when I was fatigued to the limit of endurance and had no reserve force.”* Such challenging teamwork enhanced Dr. Martin’s self-confidence, stamina, focus, and forceful character, which he demonstrated in his later foundational work in the field of surgery. He described the time he spent working with his cousins as, “…the joyous memory of precious days, of companionship with honest men engaged in physical labor, and of competitive tasks which Nature impelled in the out-of-doors of a choice region of Wisconsin, my birthplace.”*

*Martin FH. The Joy of Living: An Autobiography, vol. 1. New York, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co; 1983: 91-100.

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