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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

Written in stone: From the ground to the buildings- just how does it get there?

A glimpse at the lives of Indiana's limestone workers

Quarries, cutters, and carvers--words often heard throughout Monroe and Lawrence counties. You know they're talking limestone, but what exactly do they mean?


Every quarry is different. Some are vast and some are small. Some are abandoned and piled high with useless stone. Some are even underground. But all of them are the starting point for Salem Limestone's transformation, literally the groundwork.

It begins with testing the stone. First, quarriers poke core holes throughout the ground to find valuable stone and determine where to start. Holes are several hundred feet apart, so there's no promise the surrounding stone will be usable, making core holes an important part of the process. "All you're doing is a four inch hole," says Brett Skilbred of Indiana Limestone Company. "I know the stone's here, I see the depth of the stone, but I don't know the quality."

Once they decide the location, the stripping crew blasts the layers of unusable St. Louis limestone sitting above the desired Salem stone. The sawing crew then prepares the stone for extraction and cuts it with giant chain saws. Next, the extraction crew slips airbags in the cuts and expands them to separate the limestone from the rest of the rock. They cut the extracted block into smaller slabs weighing around 145 pounds and move them out of the quarry.

Each quarry produces a variety of stone graded on three things: color, structure and inclusions, marks left in the stone from its time underground. The industry recognizes four colors on a buff to gray scale. Grain structure varies from fine to visible, depending on geography and elevation. The final element is inclusions, usually a path created by water and leaving shapes and colors in the stone.

Directors link the quarried slabs to building projects according to grade and demand and then ship them to the mills. "On any given day we're always concerned with the production crew and what's going on there, because that's our lifeline,' Skilbred says. "We're watching what type of material and how much we're getting out of the ground."

But the biggest challenge of limestone quarrying doesn't lie within the stone. Skilbred says new quarriers can be hard to find, especially with tough weather conditions. Dependability and willingness to work hard are musts. "It takes a certain mentality and a certain drive to come out here every day," Skilbred says. "A lot of times, they're gone by lunch on the first day."


As slabs of limestone arrive at the dust-filled mills, the fabrication starts in the drafting room. Architects collect information and create patterns to guide the stonework. They draw a plan for each stone piece that is passed along throughout the process. The architects finalize the designs and the tickets are off to the saws.

First massive gang saws cut the quarried stone into smaller slaps, commonly with diamond-studded saws. Next they cut the final length of the stone with ripsaws. The smaller slabs move on to the planers where they slice and shape the stone on a machine, much like a table saw found in your garage.

They place the limestone on a flat bed and slice it along one path to create a product that matches the final design as closely as possible. They use lathes to make a column by rotating the limestone around a horizontal, spinning axis, similar to the idea of a pottery wheel. Once the planers' cuts are finished and columns are made, they pass the stone to the final cutters for the finishing work. They trim and cut any extra material and give the stone its final shape.

Carvers add character to the stone with their detailed creations. Clients often give pictures as a design's blueprint and the head carver makes a limestone model for the other carvers to duplicate. Bybee says all they really need is a nice picture. They can carve anything from a large gargoyle to a tiny beetle barely visible mounted at the top of a column. Depending on the amount of detail, a piece of carved work that fits in your hands can take up to 20 hours to complete.

You'll find all kinds of men carving in the mills. Some have fine arts degrees and others have only worked in the mills, but they're all ready to create art from a slab of rock. Once the carvers fashion the stone, they ship the finished limestone to the construction site and start on their next project.

More about Indiana limestone:

Rocks to riches

Indiana's bedrock

Southern Indiana's superior stone

Indiana limestone across the nation

Stepping stones