There is a stone boulder on the banks of Wilkeson Creek. Carved into the rock are three initials and a date, gently worn from the ebbs and flows of the shoreline: VHG 1915.
The maker’s mark is often masked in moss.
Poking around in censuses surrounding the decade, I have yet to hammer out who carved the stone 108 years ago.
One day, after another exploratory hike in the woods, I stumbled upon a modern-day stone cutter, Dan Miller, preparing to purchase some Wilkeson sandstone.
Miller belongs to the Tenino Stone Carvers who lease The Shed, a historic old feed storage building complete with dirt floors, in downtown Tenino.
The Stone Carvers use the Public Works space both as a commercial business, selling address stones and artwork, as-well-as for developing a non-profit organization that will teach classes preserving the history of stone carving and train future stone cutters.
People come from all over the state to see what the six artists have contributed to the shelves.
Along with new work that the Tenino Stone Carvers produce (such as the hand chiseled Olympia Beer Logo recently completed out of a 7,000 lb. block of Wilkeson sandstone for Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls), the stone cutters use their well-honed knowledge to restore stonework on historic buildings such as the Hoquiam Library, Fort Lewis, and the State Capitol.
First discovered by Samuel Wilkeson himself as early as 1867 during his jaunt around Puget Sound, the large sandstone outcrop encompassed the camp that eventually became the Northern Pacific Railroad company town.
Dave Knoblach, an on-leave geology professor trying out teaching as the “Geology Dude” through YouTube videos, said that Wilkeson sandstone probably started as a sandbar in a subtropical river near the Pacific Ocean during the Eocene period – 33 million years ago – and currently extends over ten miles from Wilkeson to Flaming Geyser State Park.
In The Tacoma Daily Ledger, dated the Feb. 6, 1896, it reads that a bid was selected to construct the Washington State Capitol but “from what particular quarry the stone will be taken has yet to be determined, beyond the fact that it will be a white sandstone from either the Pittsburg, Carlson, Sunset or Old Wilkeson quarries”.
The quarrel over quarries had nothing to do with the sandstone itself, being each quarry was a chip off the same block, but about which quarry could cut the best monetary deal.
For the carver, no matter where the stone comes from, the hope is that it brings good vibes.
“Good stone, I know it sounds bizarre, is in the sound”, Miller explained how to choose the right rock for carving, “An old technique that the old stone masons used was to drop their chisel on the stone, and if you hear it ring that means it is solid throughout the stone; there’s no big cracks in it. If it sounds dull, then there is an issue with the stone.”
In W.P. Bonney’s History of Pierce County written in 1927, Wilkeson sandstone was “pronounced by competent authorities to be superior to any other sandstone in this country” as it “will not absorb water and is so recognized by the United States government in the fact that it is the only sandstone that does not require to be waterproofed”.
For this very reason, Miller is trying to promote Wilkeson sandstone for just about any exterior project.
“Wilkeson is the crème de la crème,” Miller offered a comparison of his local stone versus mine, “Tenino, in the old days, was called the butter stone because it was soft like butter. Wilkeson is harder, Tenino is easier to work. Wilkeson is the higher-quality sandstone of the two.”
With historic restoration of significant importance to his character, Dan Miller is concerned that the Wilkeson and Tenino stone quarries will close completely.
“When it comes to a building built with Wilkeson or Tenino, they need to be the specific stones. You cannot mix-and-match them, you cannot color concrete to match in, it has to be available,” worries Miller, who finds it personally important that Washington State preserves a certain amount of these stones for restoration, “If they don’t, they are going to be in trouble. We are really seeing it with Tenino. I’ve had a few jobs come in that required Tenino and we don’t have it. There is a small amount on the ground and that’s all we got left. Unless they open the quarry, it is pretty much done.”
Closing the quarries would not necessarily affect the trade, though Miller has a lot banked on the weather-tolerant Wilkeson sandstone.
“We would suffer, but I don’t think it would be the end of the Tenino Stone Carvers” Miller admits, yet confident in his craft, “People are coming in all the time interested in stone, stone cutting, sculpture, so I think the whole venture that I am involved in is growing. It is capturing people’s imaginations and popularity of it.”
There is something to working hands-on with tangible things; something you can nurture that is missing from the identity of screen-dedicated people of today. A pride in work accomplished and the sense of how it has benefited others.
Miller understands this to be the case, insisting that within any stone carver you can see a twinkle:
“I go around and look at different people’s work at cemeteries…the stuff that’s machined on I just walk straight past. You get a hand carved piece, and you have to stand and look at it. You can’t explain it, it’s a thing that is very real. Stone is such a wonderful, malleable material. I think that’s the beauty of what we do, knowing there is no limit to creativity. That passion never dies. There is always something to strive for. It’s a career that you never reach your limit. Even when you are old, you can still see room for improvement “.
The city and community of Tenino already recognize the value of keeping their historic trade alive but, with the high demand for exclusive work done by The Tenino Stone Carvers, The Shed could probably do with another six people carving stone.
“It needs more people involved,” was Miller’s final plea for keeping the stone cutting trade and quarries thriving, “I don’t think it needs more money. I think it needs more trained stone carvers, people that realize this is a viable future. If we can embrace the youth, get them in and trained to a competent level and embrace technology/social media to increase export nationwide, I think we can achieve good success.“
And that has a nice ring to it.