Indiana Limestone: Extracting A Pound Of Flesh
… 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.
“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
“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
“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
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
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…