Literary Journalism

Indiana Limestone: Extracting A Pound Of Flesh

Arindam Mukherjee

… when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

W.H. Auden
“In The Praise Of Limestone”

The battle raged right before your eyes, the outcome no more certain. The pit was choked with dust and smoke as a fearful racket of engines growled, saws and drills whined, men shouted, chisels hammered. Forklifts the size of earthmovers lurched and grunted, butting their forks under blocks of rock - just like the horns of a raging bull scooping away daredevils right from under their feet. Overhead, suspended from cables, blocks of limestone loomed like slaked meteoric cubes. Wherever the eyes went, it met with giant blocks of stone. This was no place for the faint of heart; this was a limestone quarry right in the middle of United States. Here, weather-beaten, hardworking fathers and sons have extracted their pound of flesh from the unrelenting gut of the ground for the last 120 years.

“O’ boy.. o’boy! The way we did it,” reminisces Bob Woolery, the 76-year-old retired president of the former Woolery Stone Co., whose grandfather and father both were in the limestone-cutting business. With his chest and belly formed in an unbroken curve, in profile, Bob looked like a bulge of a nail keg.

“The first quarry to be opened around here was in Stinesville,” continued Bob. “If there was a discoverer I don’t know. But in 1913 my grandfather father Henry Woolery build his own stone mill, took his sons as his partners. The original name of the company was A.J. Wooolery & Sons. Later it became Woolery Stone Co. And I am a son of one of his sons. It was a family owned business from 1913 till 1996.”

There was a point of time in southern Indiana when miles and miles of limestone lay exposed on the surface. The only thing a quarrier needed to do was start digging. The Salem outcrop, as the geologists call the limestone in the region, extends 5 miles in width and 25 miles in length from Stinesville, north of Ellettsville, to Bedford, Indiana. In 1913, Henry Woolery built a small stone cutting mill in the same belt in the south side of Bloomington.

“Fifty foot square, two machines and a crane.” Bob chuckled. “We expanded it over the years. In the late 20s, my grandfather bought a Kennedy farm along Tapp road. In 1928, we built a small mill out there with five machines. In later years we expanded the mill and closed the original mill down south of Bloomington.”

With that Bob broke into a hearty laugh as if he just cracked a joke. He had an infectious chuckle that he would let out at abrupt moments. He lived in the basement of a small house which was made of bricks just west of the giant limestone structure of the School of Optometry in Bloomington. Like a workman who loves his tools, he loved gang saws.

“In my days of production we put in gang saws. Our gang saws would cut 9 foot 6 wide and 14 foot 6 long stones. Gang saws had blades on it. The saws slammed in and did the cutting. We actually mixed sand and water and put it as the machines ran its blades against it… Today they put in diamond belt saws. The new belt saws have diamond teeth that actually saws the slabs. You need a 4-inch block.. and you can saw exactly a 4-inch block out of the ground.”

I asked Bob how he and his fellow stonecutters toiled in the days when electricity was rare.
“There were guy derricks that would handle the stone,” said Bob. “We had steam-driven channeling machines that would actually cut the stone in layers in the ground. And then in the heydays of bulldozer we used hydraulic stripping. And, of course, they had big water nozzles to wash the dirt off our bodies.”

If limestone in buildings across America could speak they would tell of how it all began in 1871 when the heart of Chicago was gutted down in fire and a new city rose from the ashes. Trainloads of Indiana limestone arrived to rebuild the old wooden city. Then on, a limestone fervor caught on New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit and all the big northern cities. America had come down with building fever and the limestone came from southern Indiana.

The stone scooped out from here have provided the building blocks for the world’s finest monuments such as the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, Rockefeller Center, the National Cathedral, Grand Central Station, San Francisco’s City Hall, Chicago’s Tribune Tower, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, Vanderbilt mansions, fourteen state capitols and numerous banks, hospitals and homes. In the very edifice of American culture and heritage, the light-ash colored durable limestone from southern Indiana had etched a durable and indelible mark.

A block of limestone, about 5 miles west of Bloomington, says, “WELCOME TO ELLETTSVILLE THE BUILDERS OF AMERICAN HISTORY.”

“So which buildings around here have your stone?” I asked Bob.

“You name it,” he said.

“The Union was built from stone from our company, the dormitories on the corner of Tenth and Jordan. We did furnish some stone on the remodel of the new library on 10th and Jordan, not the original, but the current one. Then, the Business School, dormitories on the corner of 10th and Woodlawn. The addition to the Chemistry building. What used to be the main entrance to Union was from our company. Lot of stone used in building houses in and around Bloomington were furnished by us. But outside of Bloomington is where most of our stones went. We had an agent in Chicago, through him we did a lot of business. Illinois, Michigan and Northern Ohio areas, and Northern Indiana.”

After the rebuilding of Chicago in the late nineteenth century, the limestone fever soared again in the 1920s, again in the boom after World War II, and once again in the 1980s with skyscrapers frequently dotting American skylines. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the Bybee Stone Co. in Ellettsville, a company owned by Bob’s cousin Wilbur Bybee, sent around 45 truckloads of limestone to rebuild the Pentagon.

It does not come as a surprise when on your way from Bloomington to Ellettsville, you see several gaping holes in the earth on the side of the road. These are the jigsaws of time. It would be easier imagining the truckloads back to these abandoned quarries block by block, but seeing how the Pentagons, or Empire State Buildings for that matter, could squeeze into such holes was hard.

Limestone has been a fascinating subject for geologists, builders and poets as well. The cap of Mount Everest is made of it. But no matter how far you go, you will find few places where the presence of this stone is richer than it is in a narrow belt of hills and creek beds in southern Indiana.

If the stones in these quarries could speak they’ll also tell you numerous stories. They would tell you of 'Sneeze' Shields who squashed his feet between limestone slabs while working in the quarry; the tales of the small boys who carried drinking water in the quarries to quench the thirst of quarrymen toiling under the scorching sun; the oiler who fell down a derrick and six floors into a quarry and ended up as a sack of bones; or about the drill-runner who sat leaning against a tilted block to eat his lunch when the block fell over. If stones could speak…

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