The Dirt on Adobe
by Hale Sargent, Anza Trail Interpretive Specialist
If you work with Spanish colonial history, you've probably felt obligated at some point to conduct an adobe brick making demonstration.
And why not?
Adobe is literally a building block of Southwest history, and making it gives kids permission to get their hands dirty.
But I've often felt that adobe activities are more fun and messy than they are meaningful.
So at this year’s heritage event at the Presidio of San Francisco, we made two easy adjustments to the activity. Our goal was to bake a little more thought into our adobe bricks.
Adaptation #1: The Most Important Ingredient is Labor
The temptation when leading a young audience through an adobe demonstration is to focus on the bricks themselves. Here are some of the oft-repeated facts about adobe:
- Adobe is the building block of the missions, presidios, haciendas, and other structures of the Spanish colonial era
- Adobe is a building technique that is centuries old and practiced around the world
- Adobe construction utilizes materials from the natural environment: clay, water, sand, and straw
- Adobe buildings remain cool in the summer heat
At a typical event, kids make the adobe mixture, press the goop into forms, and leave their miniature bricks out in the sun to dry. It’s fun and easy.
But that approach ignores a dirty truth about making adobe—back in the 18th century, there was nothing fun or easy about it.
As William Deverell writes in Whitewashed Adobe (University of California Press, 2004), “There is no easy job in a brickyard. Digging hard clay from the ground, pulverizing it, adding water, shaping bricks from the mixture…stacking these into endless pile after pile after pile—it is all backbreaking labor. A brickyard is a swarm of labor.”
To me, what’s meaningful about adobe is not that it might contain manure (“Ewww!”). It’s that our remaining adobe structures are a tangible reminder of the hard labor – both forced and freely given – at our community’s foundation.
I see an adobe wall, and I think of the settlers who toiled to make a society in a faraway land. If you showed up in a new town and had to build everything from scratch, what would you do? Where would you start?
And I especially think of Indians that the Spanish undoubtedly coerced – forcefully or not – into building their earliest forts and missions. What would it be like to erect someone else’s structures on your land, the very structures intended to replace your way of life?
These are complex questions, ones that often take a back seat once kids are wrist-deep in the muddy adobe stew. So how can you introduce these concepts?
Chances are your activity begins with a recitation of the adobe ingredients, and this is your opportunity. Any list that includes clay or straw but forgets "labor" is incomplete.
Once you've covered ALL the ingredients, ask the kids which one they think is most important. See where the conversation goes. Then roll up your sleeves and get messy.
Adaptation #2: What Would You Build?
At a typical demonstration, kids make their model bricks and then lay them out to dry. Some kids come back to retrieve them later, but most don’t, and at the end of the day you are surrounded by useless clumps of mud.
This, too, can be an opportunity to find meaning in the adobe.
Once kids have built their bricks, instead of putting them off to the side to dry, offer them the chance to “build” something with their bricks. We outlined words on a big roll of paper – HOME, SAN FRANCISCO, FAMILY, etc. – and asked kids to use their brick to fill in whatever word they wanted to help construct.
Some still came back later to collect their bricks, but most didn't, and by the end of the day our participants had spelled out some meaningful ideas, all with adobe.
If you could spell something with your adobe bricks, what would it be?
Making Adobe - San Francisco 1776
Hands in the Mud