The road is named after a guy named Brick?

One of the great disappointments of my life came when I learned that Brick Road in South Bend was never actually paved with bricks. In retrospect, it should have been obvious. It wouldn’t have made any sense for the disjointed rural route to have been paved with bricks back in the day. In fact, for a long time, the glorified dirt lane wasn’t paved with anything at all.

As a northside kid, I encountered plenty of roads whose names didn’t lend themselves to obvious nomenclatures. What the hell is a Kenilworth? Or an Ironwood for that matter? But as sure as Riverside was on the side of the river and Main Street was the main drag through downtown, I knew the story of Brick Road without needing to be told. I knew it had been paved with bricks.

Aaron Helman

Of course, I was wrong. And of course, the real story is even better.

The Brick fellow who Brick Road is named after was born on a farm in Warren Township, was raised in South Bend, and died in 1908 after serving five successful terms in the House of Representatives. The eulogies remembered him as a man who was a reluctant political figure, and the obituaries recalled that Brick’s own father had imagined a quiet mercantile life for his son, far away from the busyness of Washington D.C.

I have to call shenanigans on all of that.

After all, Brick’s father is the one who gave his son his name. A year before the Civil War started and five years before it was won, the Brick home was excited to welcome its newest arrival, a clever and curious little boy they named Abraham Lincoln Brick.

Little Abe’s teachers and early peers remembered him as diligent, serious and studious. The South Bend Tribune even took care to report that as a child, the boy had a “somber face” and “cared little for jokes.”

As was typical of the obituaries of the day, newspapermen lionized young Abe’s earliest and most mundane accomplishments, remembering his heroic diligence in polishing the hardwood floors at the Arnold law offices and sharing the following dispatch from his time at the Silverby’s clothing store, which I have to admit, feels a little over the top:

From Abraham Lincoln Brick’s obituary in the South Bend Tribune (April 7, 1908).

Brick’s time as an errand runner and floor polisher at the Arnold law offices whetted his appetite for the profession. He attended Cornell and Yale, then ultimately graduated from the Law School at the University of Michigan, where he is still considered a notable alumnus.

That’s not to say that everything was easy for him. Brick occasionally suffered from unexplained and undiagnosed bouts of ill health, including one episode that forced a yearlong sabbatical from his studies. There wasn’t much of a word for it at the time, but the most likely explanation is that for his entire life, Abraham Lincoln Brick was plagued by anxiety. It was that same anxiety that led to Brick secretly acquiring a key to the South Bend Library, where he would retreat for whole evenings and days when he became overwhelmed with his schooling or his work at his first law office.

Brick’s anxiety might have caused him to think twice about running for public office, but it’s hard to imagine that any other career was ever destined for the man. He was a well-connected and well-liked member of the Republican Party, a brilliant legal mind, and he had that name. By 1898, Abraham Lincoln Brick was elected to Congress.

Brick would win subsequent contests and would push through ugly politics to get there, winning re-election in 1900 despite public and unfounded accusations that he was a heavy alcoholic who had renounced his belief in God.

Brick was a consummate politician and knew how to retain the support of his district, championing a Washington, D.C., statue of the Polish hero Casimir Pulaski, and guaranteeing the enthusiastic votes of South Bend’s westside for the duration of his tenure. All told, Brick would win five elections, representing his district through the tumult of the assassination of McKinley and the subsequent rise of Teddy Roosevelt.

Brick was especially fond of the latter. He was an early Roosevelt Republican when the rest of the party was still trying to figure out exactly who their new leader was. Despite their dramatically differing upbringings and personalities, Brick sought reason to work with the old Bull Moose as often as possible, regularly writing fawning letters that praised TR’s countenance, policy, and politics:

Letter from Brick to President Theodore Roosevelt.

It wasn’t just the shoulders of the political elite that rubbed against Brick’s own shoulders during his time in Washington. In a collection of letters he wrote to his daughter in South Bend, Brick shares his thrill at meeting Mark Twain and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He is particularly impressed by a young man named Winston Churchill, and that’s how I learned about the less famous Winston Churchill, a largely forgotten American novelist.

During his time in the Congress, Brick was afforded opportunities to accompany delegations that visited Hawaii and the Panama Canal. He was an advocate for American expansionism, speaking on behalf of Alaskan interests fifty years before that territory attained statehood. At the same time, he was, by his own omission, an exclusionist. He was a proud champion of the Chinese Exclusionist Act and was the loudest voice against allowing Mormon polygamist Brigham Roberts to claim the Congressional seat he’d rightfully won from his district. In both cases, Brick found himself on the winning side of the debate, and both positions only bolstered his position amongst a populace that was fearful of the unknown. Either way, when he successfully brought a statue of a second Polish hero – Thaddeus Kościuszko – to Washington, the votes of his constituents were all but guaranteed.

By 1908, he was a well-respected and highly esteemed member of Congress who sat on the House Appropriations Committee, the body’s most important group. Brick seemed poised to ascend to bigger things if he chose to do so. As the election of 1908 approached, the sky was the limit for the 47-year-old from South Bend.

It was not to be.

Brick had been keeping a secret for years. Bright’s disease had ravaged his kidneys, and during the state’s Republican convention in April 1908, he found himself rushed to a sanatorium. Uremic poisoning took his life a day later. No one had known he was ill. It was a tremendous shock to South Bend, to the Republican party, and to a Congress that brought a halt to its proceedings to process the surprising death of one of its leaders.

His home county did not delay in naming a road in the man’s honor, and as a long stretch of confusing, jogging farm lanes on the city’s northside became more formalized, the Brick name became attached to it, slotting perfectly into St. Joseph County’s neat alphabetical grid.

Abraham Lincoln Brick is buried in the Riverview Cemetery.

Aaron Helman is an author, adventurer and historian from South Bend. His forever Valentine is named Ashley. His books are available at