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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Indian Jim

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Barely 50 years after the U.S. Cavalry drove the last hostile Indians out of the Panhandle an Indian from New York made page-one news in Pampa and across the nation.

His name was James Garfield Brown, but he was much better known simply as “Indian Jim.” Born in the 1880s (the exact date has not been determined) on the Oneida Reservation in central New York State, Jim stood six-feet-one and weighed 180 pounds. Educated at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylviania and Ontario Agricultural College, he had been a standout football player – strong and fast. Incredibly fast.

Like Jim Thorp, Brown could have become a professional athelete, but that didn’t pay much in those days. Instead, he turned to the building trades, eventually specializing in laying paving bricks. With a muscle memory that must have been off the charts, he evolved into a human brick-laying machine who began attracting attention whereever he went.

Oil is what brought him to the High Plains. The petroleum boom that started in Hutchinson County and led to the development of the new town of Borger quickly spread 28 miles southeast to Pampa, which had started when the Santa Fe Railroad came through the Panhandle in 1888. By the spring of 1927, the Gray County seat, fueled by the burgeoning Panhandle oil industry, was transforming itself from town to city. And that meant paved streets.

“Bricks Fly As ‘Indian Jim’ Brown Loafs With 33,000,” the Pampa Daily News noted on April 29, 1927 as the city’s streets were being paved with heavy red bricks shipped in by rail from Kansas and Mineral Wells in Texas. According to the front-page story, Brown “placed more than 33,000 brciks in less than 8 hours and did not seem to be hurrying. Twelve men could not keep him supplied with bricks.”

City engineer A.H. Doucette timed the Indian, finding he averaged placing three bricks per second. If he kept that up for eight hours, the engineer calculated, the total would be 80,000 bricks. That pace would break Brown’s own world record set on a job in Olathe, Kansas when on September 12, 1926 he put down 64,644 paving bricks in 7 hours and 48 minutes.

Prior to that spring, now-bustling Pampa had not had a single paved street. But on March 3, the Wichita Falls-based Stuckey Construction Co. began a project to get Pampa “out of the mud.” By that November, 24.5 city blocks extending along 11 streets had been paved with bricks, the bulk of the work accomplished by one man – “Indian Jim” Brown.

When the Pampa Daily News came out with a special “Paving Edition” on Nov. 13, it ran a photograph of a big-hatted Brown in a typical pose setting three-inch bricks in wet concrete. “‘Indian Jim’ Brown, world’s champion bricklayer, quickly and efficiently covered the concrete base on Pampa’s wide streets. He was very intersting to watch,” the caption read.

So who was Indian Jim?

Twelve years later, newspapers around the nation carried a Ripley’s “Belive It Or Not” cartoon featuring a drawing of Brown noting that “Indian Jim Brown – full blooded Oneida Indian – lays 58,000 payving bricks a day – 207 tons…This is his daily average. He challenges any man.”

Despite all the publicity he garnered, perhaps because he was a Native American, newspapers did not dig particularly deep into his background. When he went to work for Stuckey is not known. Neither does there seem to be any information on whether he had a family, though there is some indication that he suffered from alcoholism.

What is known is that by the time he came to Pampa, Brown had been laying bricks for at least six years. In the summer of 1921, research shows he had helped pave the streets of Goodland, Kans.

There, with six men using metal tongs constantly bringing him bricks (which weighed nine pounds each,) Brown could lay 125-150 bricks a minute. He did the work leaning over from a standing position. Wearing leather pads to protect his hands, he placed bricks ambidextoursly at a pace of two to three bricks a second.

“His back seemed never to tire as he stooped over the smooth sand cushion and dropped bricks with mononous regularity,” one newspaper observed.

Brown left Pampa after laying nearly a million bricks. More than 80 years later, many of them are still there.

Technology is what finally proved faster than “Indian Jim.” By the early 1930s, though brick paving had been the industry standard since the turn of the century, concrete had proven to be less labor-intensive, easier to spread and cheaper.

By the time the drawing of Brown appeared in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not,” the use of brick paving was well past its prime. And so was Brown, his body doubtless beginning to show signs of wear after working – and drinking -- as hard as he did.

What became of him is not known. The Oct. 1, 1953 edition of the Ukiah, CA News notes that on Sunday, Sept. 27, “Rev. DeFord took an aged Indian, Jim Brown, to the hospital.” Whether that was the former champion brick layer is not known, but an online search of thousands of digitized newspapers reveals no further mention of “Indian Jim.”

© Mike Cox - February 13, 2012 column
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