What started out as a relatively straightforward research study turned into an addicting hunt for information on a subject little touched in journals of the day.
My mother’s family have been stonecutters for generations. “Memorialists” is the term they use today because they work mostly on gravestones. Great, great, great grandfather came over from Ireland and worked his way across the country cutting stone for railroad bridge abutments. He settled in Louisiana, Missouri where he remained a stonecutter. He took as an apprentice, a young German boy who later married his daughter. This boy make the change from building stone to grave stone and four generations later Kling Memorials has made its mark for excellence.
I know this, not from newspaper stories or state sponsored studies of industry or books about the pioneers, but from family records and stories told by my grandfather at suppertime. This is where I went first to find the stories about the other stonecutters of his time. It was the interviews that brought the most interesting information. People called to tell of an old rock quarry on their farm. They brought in tools, not sure exactly what they were for, only that they belonged to a neighbor who built the courthouse. They opened their homes, shared family letters and photographs and led us through pastures and brambles to show us where “grandfather” cut out the stone for the summer kitchen.
We found old tools of all kinds from hand forged to mass produced, old catalogs of stone equipment and naturally a wealth of information on gravestones. This is the rural Midwest and no one throws away anything.
We had planned to concentrate our research on our county – Bates. However, as word spread about our project and they called from other counties to come look at their quarry, their stone foundation or their tools, we just kept expanding our focus. Everyone was most helpful and in some ways we were overwhelmed with information.
I believe we accomplished much with this project. As we proposed, we located and identified tools, found quarries and looked at different kinds of stone, tracked the lives of stone cutters who came through our part of Missouri and drew together and preserved this scattered information in printed and electronic form for many to use.
And almost more importantly, we involved our neighbors in our look back. Many expressed surprise that an association from “back east” would care enough to look at rural Missouri and then worried it would be “stuffy and uninteresting”. With assurances to the contrary, we began our interviews. A few newspaper stories added impetus and soon we had volunteers driving the back roads hunting quarries, giving us their cell phone minutes to save money, and taking over the two microfilm readers in the county to search through old newspapers.
One day we received a packet of material in the mail from an older lady in CassCounty. Just hired part time by their historical society, she was told to find information to help us out. Her note said she was new to all this but hoped this helped, especially since she had gotten lost in the Amerigua hills, been given a ride to an abandoned stone house by a stranger in a pickup and even ventured into Kansas City hoping to find the home of stonecutter. It was the “best time of my life”.
We took our preliminary results and put together posters and displays for the Poplar Heights Farm 120th Anniversary Festival in late October. The weather was perfect and the turnout tremendous. It was a “hands on” demonstration scheduled for 1:00 and 3:00 pm. The 1:00 program finally ended at 5:00 when we closed the gates. We had people waiting in line to try their hand at chipping stone, commenting they didn’t realize you had to hit the chisel so hard. They brought tools for us to identify; made us promise to come photograph their stone barn; and signed us up to give programs to their clubs. It was fun. It was different. Many excitedly pointed out to others a family members name on the list of cutters or that “the quarry in Sec. 24” was on their farm and to come see it!
This project was a first for our area. It brought a new awareness to our communities of the need for historical preservation. It brought a better understanding of the contributions of our early settlers. It energized all of us to take a close look at our everyday past and appreciate the hardships, work and successes that made our today possible.
On behalf of all of us, I thank you for giving us this grant. We had few guidelines to know exactly what you expected. We hope this project meets your goals.