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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Gary Warner’s stone quarry

New England is famous for being a stony place. The stone walls that line our roads are a testament to the stones that farmers have been pulling out of their fields for centuries. We gardeners complain about constantly hitting stone as we dig in our gardens.

On the other hand, most of us admire the beauty of stone patios and walkways and dry-laid stone walls built by stone masons. Gary Warner of Goshen Stone Quarry has been quarrying mica schist for 25 years on land that belonged to his family since the 1770s. Schist is a metamorphic stone that was created by heat and pressure acting on the mud and clay at the bottom of what was ocean over 400 million years ago, It can easily (relatively speaking) be split into leaves or layers.

Warner’s forbears were farmers, but they could pull slabs of stone from the outcroppings without too much trouble when there was a desire or need for stone. The farm closed down in 1962.

Though the stone was always a presence in his life, it was not until 1985, when he was in his late 30s and operating the Warner Tree Service, that he asked for 10 acres of farmland to quarry. This past fall, he invited me for a tour of the quarry and explained some of the history. “I didn’t know what I was doing. Gerry Platt of Ashfield Stone and Rick Lafontaine at Sugar Ledge also started quarries about the same time. We were all friends and we taught each other as we went along,” he said.

He told me about a photo of himself standing in front of the little house he built at the edge of the quarry when he began. “It was a time when I still had some sass. I look like I’m going someplace — but don’t know where,” he said with a laugh.

He said that when he began the quarry, a chisel was his important tool. But, now there is plenty of heavy machinery to get the stone out of the ground and make it saleable for stone walls or patios. “We try to work efficiently: digging, cutting, splitting, and categorizing. People think we just dig it up but that is not accurate. I’m lucky. I’ve got people who are really on the ball. The work is dangerous and we all get eight hours of OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) training every year,” he said.

As I toured the quarry, I could see workers splitting the stone with power tools: some relatively thin for patios and walkways, while thicker pieces were prepared for dry-stack stone walls. After the stone is cut and split, it is organized so that the landscapers who visit the quarry can easily find the particular stone they want and need. The stone comes in shades of silver or blue gray, but there is also some that is bronze or gold. Sometimes, homeowners go to the quarry to choose stone for a patio they are building themselves. Smaller pieces of patio stone are set aside for homeowners because they usually don’t have the equipment to move large, heavy pieces.

A walk through the quarry is a walk through a geology lesson and while the terms and explanations don’t necessarily hold firm in the mind, there is no escaping the sense of time and the power of the earth that created this stone.

In 1999, Warner began quarrying another 10 acres up beyond his grandmother’s house because he could see that the work of the quarry on the original 10 acres would come to an end.

He showed me spots where the geology of the stone was fully exposed, but he was quick with a reminder. “The stone is not sitting on the surface. You have to dig down through the soil to get to the stone. When I get into the rock, I get really excited,” he said.

In 2000, he finally sold the tree service business he had been operating for 23 years, even during the early years of the quarry.

Warner’s family history goes as deep into this area as the stone goes into the earth. The stone has joined his family history with local history as it has been used in public spaces like the Three Sisters Sanctuary, which is only a couple miles from the quarry, and even more locally at the Bridge of Flowers, where stonemason Paul Forth carefully chose large slabs that were artfully sculptured to surround what I call the “Stone Spring” on the Shelburne side of the bridge.

I was amazed to learn that Goshen Stone is so special that it has been shipped as far as Texas for a project. It has also been shipped to the Hudson River Valley in New York State to be used at Alexander Hamilton’s estate when that historic site was recently renovated.

When we think of a garden, we think of plants, but stone can give a garden a defining structure, provide comfortable social space and even remind us of the ancient history of our planet and the mighty forces still at work beneath our feet.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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