The early stone cutters of western Missouri were mostly Germans, and Irish, and Italians, and English and 2nd and 3rd and 4th generation Americans. They were wealthy- earning wages equal to lawyers and physicians and they existed at the poverty level, working at farming, logging and wrangling to supplement their income from stone working. They lived in the country and in the towns and worked from their homes and from proper shops in the business districts. They stayed for only a few months to work on building a courthouse and they stayed for generations passing on their skills to sons and daughters.
For all their diversity, they shared a common work experience. It was physically exhausting. Stone, any stone, is heavy. It was moved with plain brute strength, ingenuity and a few simple tools – rollers, railroad bars and block and tackle. It was dangerous. Few stonecutters made it to old age without losing fingers, suffering eye injuries or broken bones. “The Drink” seemed to be a constant companion to many.
It was a young man’s job. Those who stayed in the business into old age became owners or supervised the younger hands. It was seasonal. You didn’t work the quarries in winter – freezing and thawing without proper seasoning could ruin good stone. Spring rains could drop the bottom out of the roads making it impossible to transport the stone from quarry to building site.
Using tools and methods nearly unchanged for centuries, stonecutters broke the rough stone from the ground, cut it down to size and built homes and commercial buildings that endure today. They marked the graves of their friends and neighbors with memorials whose artistic detail is almost a lost art. They took great pride in their work, often adding decorative details to stone that would never be seen once the building was finished.
And most passed into obscurity, unknown except for an occasional contract notation “45 men have been hired to work the stone”. In those days, men did their jobs quietly and without fanfare. Newspaper stories reporting on a new bank building or fine new home for the doctor did not mention the builder, much less the laborer. Obituaries rarely told of long
days pitching stone, instead they spoke of love of family, church and service to their fellow man. Details were of the final service, not the day to day events of life.
Stone cutters in the Midwest tended to move frequently, going to new towns where building booms made jobs plentiful. When ever they moved they always took their tools. John Brophy came from Ireland with a sack of clothes, his chisels and his hammer heads. John Hill fled the mining town in the middle of the night but still took his tools with him. They scratched their initials in the handles. When death came, they became a legacy to be displayed with pride for the younger generations.
In most industries, the hand tools of the 1800’s and 1900’s have become antiques to be displayed in the home with old quilts and country décor. Some so obscure their original use is uncertain. With stone cutter tools, however, the industry has remained hands on. The 6-tooth limestone chisel of Civil War time is just the same 6-tooth limestone chisel used today. Pneumatic hammers from the early 1900’s are still used in monument shops today. Computers may be used to design and print the plans and specifications for modern stone work but it still needs the stone cutter with hand tools to complete the job.
In western Missouri, lack of an adequate transportation network, small isolated quarries, the coal boom of southwestern BatesCounty and substantial deposits of clay for brick making all contributed to slow the development on any sizable stone industry. At the southern end of the state, Carthage had the largest deposit of quality building stone. A sizable industry developed and accomplished cutters moved to Carthage where opportunities abounded and wages were premium.
Transportation difficulties made it less expensive to bring in finished stone from Carthage or the granite centers in Vermont and Georgia than to use locally quarried stone. Small quarries, frequently hand worked, often could not supply enough finished stone for large projects. The tremendous growth of the coal industry inBatesCounty drew laborers to that field with higher wages and steady work. Bricks were less expensive and became the primary choice for use in commercial buildings. Stone was used only for accent. In order to stay and prosper, those stone cutters with skills and business sense established combination memorial and building stone companies which have survived for several generations.
Most small quarries in western Missouri closed in the early 1900’s. Those with softer stone and near roads were reopened and used for road making as the highway industry developed in the 1920’s. The few quarries that exist today supply road rock, agricultural lime and aggregate for asphalt.