The Stonecutters Imported Stone

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The Stonecutters

Imported Stone

In the summer of 1897 Minnesota newspaper writers were up in arms over the impending decision to use Georgia marble on the state’s new Capitol building. The legislation establishing the Capitol Commission back in 1893 stated that “preference shall in all cases be given to Minnesota materials and labor,” and many felt this required the use of stone from the state.1 Organized Labor was also supposedly strongly in favor of the use of Minnesota stone and some union organizations passed resolutions advocating using only stone from Minnesota on the building.2 There was, in fact, a “mass meeting” in St. Paul on June 25, 1897 at which union leaders and local politicians spoke out against the use of Georgia marble. Speakers at the rally, however, remarked on the absence of St. Paul businessmen and union members.3 The rally was purportedly called by the Stonecutters’ Union however there was no speaker from that union mentioned. The Minnesota stone issue seemed to be of the sort that politicians could use to look good to both labor and business and there was much political chest thumping over the matter. Maybe it was difficult for St. Paulites to see how it would make much difference to them. Much of the Union push for Minnesota stone appears to have come from the St. Cloud Central Labor Body, which represented the Granite Cutters’ Union in that area, and officials from Minneapolis who saw St. Paul as their chief rival in the struggle over government dollars. 4 Granite Cutters’ Union members worked exclusively on granite and did not even have a local in the city while St. Paul’s stonecutters worked in the local limestone industry and were members of a different union. The country had been suffering through a prolonged economic depression and unemployed stonecutters may have felt the huge Capitol project was now poised to provide them with little relief. The building was contracted in stages, and when St. Paul contractor, George Grant, had won the bid for the foundation of the Capitol the previous year, he had used some local material but mostly huge blocks of limestone which came fully dressed from Winona, Minnesota.5 The new Federal Courts building (now Landmark Center) was also under construction and the contractor had gone to St. Cloud in 1893 and opened a granite quarry to furnish the material; and now there was pressure to use granite for the Capitol as well.6 By August of 1897 the Capitol Commission had still not hired a contractor for the superstructure. At their last meeting before awarding the contract labor leaders from Minneapolis and the Granite Cutters’ Union urged the Commission to insist on Minnesota stone. The President of the Minneapolis branch of the Journeymen Stonecutters’ Association, W.R. Worden, however, submitted a letter in which he argued that using “soft stone,” i.e. marble, limestone or sandstone, would actually employ more Minnesotans, (namely, his members), than granite, since the size of the job would require importing many granite cutters from out of state to do the work.7 Although Worden was bitterly denounced for his views, it should be noted that St. Paul Labor did not weigh in on the marble controversy at this point. The foundation had been finished the previous year and the summer building season had been lost while the politicians debated; first over the appropriation of money for the building, and now over the type of material. Apparently St. Paul businesses and workers just wanted the talk to end and the work to begin.

Hundreds of people were involved in the construction of the Minnesota “Peoples’ House” between 1896, when ground was first broken, and 1907, when the sidewalks and grading were completed. The roles of the politicians and he architect in this process have been well documented.8 During the celebration for the Capitol’s centennial in 2005 however it became apparent that the story of the people actually engaged in doing the construction work was yet to be told. So the project, Who Built Our Capitol?, was launched with the goal of telling shedding light on the lives of these workers. My 30 year experience as a carpenter gave me an idea of the variety of occupations in the construction industry. Carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, sheet metal workers, ironworkers and hoisting engineers were all trades that were familiar to me, but when one looks at the Capitol the most obvious feature is the enormous quantity of precisely cut and carved marble. Ginny Lackovic, an architect who has been involved in restoration work on the Capitol since 2005, reflected on the character of the building: “This building is really a monument made of stone…. The exterior is about stone. The interior is also stone. There are 38 different types of marble, but one type of wood.”9 The stonecutters were possibly the most important craftsmen working on that job yet I had never come across any in my years of work. They worked not only on the shaping and carving of the exterior stone, but also the interior stone staircases, balusters and handrails. A hundred years ago the stonecutters and carvers were well known and respected members of the building trades and, although the evidence of their expertise endures, little is known today about the stonecutting trade and the lives of these artisans.

On September 1, 1897 the contract for the superstructure of the Capitol was finally awarded to the Butler-Ryan Company of St. Paul.10 The specifications required that the walls be constructed of granite on the basement level and two feet of brick faced with four inches of marble on the upper floors. The decision to go with a St. Paul contractor was celebrated by the St. Paul Globe; however the use of marble was bitterly condemned by the Minneapolis papers. To mollify the business interests and newspapers which had been pushing for the use of Minnesota stone, Channing Seabury, the vice-president of the Board of State Capitol Commissioners, stressed that the contract included 250,000 cubic feet of Minnesota granite, limestone and sandstone as opposed to 141,000 feet of marble and that all stonecutting and finishing would be done in state.11 Contractor, W. C. Baxter of Minneapolis, had submitted a bid to build the entire structure of granite, but his bid, because of the greater expense of working with the harder stone, had been quite a bit higher than Butler-Ryan’s. He was fortunate to subcontract the material for the basement; that work was performed by Granite Cutters’ Union members at his quarry in St. Cloud.12 The bulk of the work, however, would be done by the soft stonecutters.

The stonecutters had their roots in the traditions of the European guild system whose members had built medieval cathedrals and castles. In Scotland, even in the mid-19th Century, the stoneworker was expected to be competent in all aspects of stone construction, from the quarrying of stone for a building, to the decorative carving, and everything in between. The ambitious stonecutter could aspire to eventually become a contractor and architect. The vocation and craft pride as well as a tradition of independence fostered by having a skilled trade was passed down from father to son in many families.13 In America, as time went on, the stonecutting profession became more specialized and increasingly was defined as the work performed after the stone was extracted by quarrymen and before it was set in the building by stone masons. Stonecutters had a long tradition of banding together and establishing standards for the trade, and, like many other skilled craftsmen of their day, they saw the rise of industrial capitalism as a force eroding both the standards of their craft and their ability to control those standards. From the Preamble to the 1890 Constitution:

At no period in the world’s history has the necessity for association on the part of labor become so apparent to any thinking mind as at the present time; and perhaps in no country have the working classes been so forgetful of their own interests as in North America…. Capitol has assumed to itself the right to own and control labor for the accomplishment of its own greedy and selfish ends…. It is an evident fact that if the dignity of labor is to be preserved, it must be done with our united efforts…. Stonecutters, seeing the benefit and prosperity that may be derived from so uniting have formed themselves into an association, through which they are determined to guard and cherish the trade which gives them an honorable livelihood.14

Also known by the members as the General Union or G.U., the Journeymen Stonecutters’ Association of North America was founded on March 1, 1888, though it had been preceded by several other attempts at national organization going back to the 1850’s. There was also a history of independent local unions in cities including Washington D.C. and Newark, New Jersey as early as the 1820’s, and some historians credit the first strike in America to New York stonecutters who struck in 1823 to reduce their hours from twelve to ten 15 The St. Paul cutters first organized in 1885, while Minneapolis pre-dated them by several years.16 Although their demand for recognition in the 1880’s had first been met by staunch resistance, relations between Twin City stonecutters and their employers were generally harmonious by the time of the Capitol construction. If a raise was sought the union simply presented the new scale to the contractors at the beginning of the season and demands were usually met with no opposition. In St. Paul stonecutters had no problem increasing their hourly wage from 40 cents to 45 in 1900 and to 50 in 1902.17 Many of the bosses had come up through the ranks and the workers felt a responsibility to promote the industry. The employers, in turn, were in sympathy with the union’s goal of maintaining a high level of craftsmanship. A stonecutter served a four year apprenticeship after which he was considered “practical stonecutter.” All-out strikes over wages or hours were rare, and discouraged by the Constitution.18 Three quarters of the local members had to vote for a strike then the action had to be approved by the General Union’s Executive Board. Strike pay was only 5 dollars a week when a full time stonecutter might make over 20.19 One of the few conflicts reported during the years of the Capitol construction was a short strike, (unsanctioned, I presume), in Minneapolis in 1901 over the right to smoke at work. The Jones and Hartley Company attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban smoking arguing that many of their employees had been working at the Capitol where smoking had been prohibited by the contractors. The Minneapolis Journal reported that at the end of the year the stonecutters of the city and their bosses got together and celebrated another successful year.20

Although the G.U. was governed by a constitution and published an excellent monthly magazine, the Stonecutters’ Journal, their central organization, with only two full time elected officers, a President and a Secretary-Treasurer, was fairly weak. The General President, whose duties consisted mainly of visiting the branches and helping negotiate their contracts, was paid “the current rate of wages per day” plus rail fare and $2.50 for expenses.21 Disputes were handled by the Executive Board, elected representatives from seven geographical jurisdictions; and their deliberations were conducted by mail and published monthly in the Journal. Conventions were held only if deemed necessary by a vote of the membership. Stonecutters were an independent lot and many of the branches, as the local unions were called, had a history much longer than the G.U. It was not unusual for a branch to secede if a disagreement with the national organization could not be resolved.22 The stonecutters were one of the highest paid trades, and, although they voiced support in the Journal for the many campaigns of the wider labor movement, they also liked to say that in their own affairs they did not ask for or offer help to other unions.23 They distrusted national alliances such as the American Federation of Labor afraid they would have no voice in a body dominated by much larger affiliates. This independent attitude was fairly typical of early construction trade unions which had carved out their area of expertise, “jurisdiction,” without the help of, and often in conflict with, other unions. It was difficult for these unions to weigh what they might lose in control over their jurisdiction against what they would gain in power by being part of a larger organization. One of the largest trade unions, the Bricklayers, though founded in 1882, did not affiliate with the A.F.L. until 1916.24 The membership of the G.U. finally did vote to join the A.F.L. in 1907 but only after years of discussion and debate.25

The local level was where most of the stonecutters’ efforts were focused. High attendance was the norm for union meetings and it was considered both a privilege and a duty to serve the local. Many of the larger unions had just begun the practice of hiring a full time organizer or “walking delegate” but apparently St. Paul stonecutters felt this was unneeded, and all elected officials spent their days working at the trade. During a tough time in 1912 the St. Paul branch reported that, “all the officers had volunteered to serve gratis.”26 Individual branches routinely joined, and members took, leadership roles in local union coalitions, such as the Trades and Labor Assembly and the Building Trades Council in St. Paul, as well as in the larger community. The Minnesota Labor Commissioner appointed by the governor in 1899, Martin HcHale, was a prominent member of the Minneapolis local.27 Despite their avowed independence, members discussed current issues of the labor movement at the meetings, welcomed guest speakers from other unions, and took action in support of other labor causes. They were enthusiastic participants in the Labor Day parades, and for the 1899 celebration featured a float with several members carving marble blocks from the Capitol.28

The attitude of the G.U. toward international cooperation and foreign workers was also complicated. The Minnesota Labor Commissioner reported in 1893 that 72 per cent of the stonecutters he had surveyed were foreign born.29 Members traveled freely between the branches in the U.S. and Canada; and points as far south as Guatemala were considered to be within the jurisdiction of the Union.30 The Stonecutters’ Journal, which featured letters from stonecutters around the world and reports on conditions in other countries, fostered a spirit of international camaraderie. The October 1903 issue included a report from the International Congress of Workers in the Stone Trade held in Zurich that year. 31 On the other hand, there was an attitude of hostility towards “harvesters,” that is, workers who only came from Europe to America for the work season and left in the winter. The influx of foreign workers had a tendency to depress wages, and also made it difficult for young Americans to enter the trade as apprentices. The trade was traditionally passed down from father to son; it was even written into their constitution that members’ sons had priority in entering apprenticeship; so this was a particular concern for members.32 To address the problem the G.U. required foreigners to pay a $50 initiation fee.33

Members caught violating trade rules were vehemently denounced, and periodically there was a “scab list” printed in the Journal. If a member wished to make amends, however, he could pay his fine and all would be forgiven. The March 1897 St. Paul scab list included James Ross, Louis Eschenbacher and William Hay who all later were readmitted and worked on the Capitol. James Ross even served as vice president of the local in 1901.34 William Hay was the Corresponding Secretary of the St. Paul branch in 1899; and when he died in September of that year he was eulogized in a letter to the Journal, and his union brothers served as pallbearers.35 In Kasota, Minnesota there was an unsuccessful strike in 1886 and the local was disbanded. When it was reorganized in 1898 the men who were responsible for the local’s dissolution were still on the list and were required to pay fines before being readmitted.36

Imported Labor

Though the claim that building the Capitol of granite would require introducing help from out of state was true, using marble, a material foreign to most Minnesota stonecutters, also required imported labor. Cass Gilbert had never designed a marble building and the contractor had never worked with the material. The Butlers were bricklayers by trade. Walter and William and had been early members of the St. Paul Bricklayers Union when it was founded in 1881 while younger brothers Coolie and Emmett also laid brick alongside of their employees.37 Being tradesmen themselves they recognized their dependence on the expertise of the various trades they employed and knew they would need competent help, and much of this help would come from outside Minnesota. Architect Ginny Lackovic talks about how construction culture at the time differed from current practices:

This wasn’t a conventional building. There weren’t that many domes built that were self-sustaining, or self-supporting. And so to move forward with something that’s not conventional with a material that is not local, this is not something that laborers here had a lot of experience with. And then to move forward at (that) scale is pretty amazing. And given the tools of the trade, and just availability for hoisting and moving quantities like that, it just is baffling to me today knowing (how) we struggle with all of the advantages we have by comparison. It’s an amazing undertaking. And In spite of the conversation that’s happening right now about the deterioration of the material, the tooling… and the craftsmanship that went into it is really why the building has held up as well as it has. The detailing is, is amazing. You know, every piece sheds water and some very subtly but still every single inch of the building was designed with intent…. Drawings at that point had maybe a hundred sheets. Maybe not even that many for this building. Compared to what we would issue now to build a building like this would be a four-volume set of a hundred sheets each. Buildings at this time… you relied a lot on the craftsman, on their knowledge and their sensibilities…. There are often comments that say you’ll do it this way and then… it’ll take you up to a certain point and then it’s… using typical methods. And what are those? They didn’t describe them at that point. They just relied on craftsman and the trades to actually carry that through, carry that forward. And so there was a lot of trust and there was a lot of field adjustment and a lot of field ingenuity that went into these buildings. 38

A feature article about the Minnesota Capitol in the Stonecutters’ Journal stated: “The preparation of the stone is under the able superintendence of Mr. Joseph Bourgeault, whilst his son, Joseph Bourgeault Jr., acts as shop foreman.”39 Born in Quebec in 1849, Joseph Bourgeault had emigrated in 1881, and was well known in St. Paul for supervising the stone cutting on a number of downtown commercial buildings, including the Germania Bank building which still stands.40 During the stone controversy he was asked for his opinion by a newspaper reporter and gave possibly the most sensible view of the situation. He admitted that, “foreign labor will have to be imported at any rate,” however, a combination of stone would employ the largest number of Minnesotans because, “if the building is part of granite and part marble all of the stonecutters will have a chance.”41 One son, Albert, worked on the Capitol as a stonecutter, while his eldest, Joseph Jr., played the clarinet in a local orchestra and liked to be known as a professional musician; but apparently his day job was foreman in the stone shed.42

Another one of Butler-Ryan’s indispensable employees was stonecutter Everett Shahan. Shahan’s father and brother also worked on the Capitol, but Everett was considered the genius of the family. The family was from Kansas and had first worked for the Butlers on a job in Cherokee, Iowa just before they all moved to St. Paul. In 1901, Everett, at the age of 21, took on the task of figuring and cutting the hundreds of blocks of marble for the Capitol dome. Ginny Lackovic has studied the original plans for the building:

“It is phenomenal to see how everything fits together…. The marble is self-supporting. It’s one of only four self-supporting domes still standing…. By the time you get up to the dome level … there are no drawings…. We’ve never found a drawing that shows the actual construction of the dome. There’s a drawing that shows the intent, but that’s not what got built. So at some point there was an adjustment made. There was a lot of arguing between the architect and the engineers, contractors and the State at that point…. I think the top of the drum wall was finished and sat vacant without a dome for several months until they resolved some of the issues. And at that point, again, it was basically verbal communication, between Cass Gilbert and some of the people that were doing the construction. But there are no drawings that show exactly what it is now. We have a couple sketches that we found in New York, but … there is no formal drawing that we ever found that shows exactly how that’s built.”43

Emmett Butler, the youngest of the Butler brothers, talked about the dome construction in a memoir which he wrote in the 1940’s. According to his account, Everett Shahan made a model of the dome on the floor of the St. Paul Y.M.C.A. gymnasium which he used to make patterns for all the pieces. Shahan went on to work for the Butler Brothers for many years and was the chief engineer on the company’s biggest project, a seven and a half million dollar underwater tunnel connecting Windsor, Canada and Detroit.44 Eventually he went to work as a civil engineer for the Federal Government in Portland, Oregon.45

In addition to Bourgeault and Shahan, dozens of Journeyman Stonecutters Association, members who traveled with their trade, came to St. Paul. The G.U. had its own network for informing members where work was coming up and needed no invitation from the Butlers. The St. Paul branch was fairly small and made up primarily of stonecutters working in the stone yards of contractors providing limestone blocks for the city’s basements.46 They were among the highest paid tradesmen in the city at 40 cents per hour and had achieved the 8 hour day by 1897.47 In May of 1898, when the stonecutting at the Capitol was at its peak, the Minnesota Union Advocate reported that the St. Paul branch had 175 members.48 In March of 1907, when the job was long over, the membership was down to 37.49 The Stonecutters’ Journal, as well as the St. Paul Globe, noted the admittance of members into the St. Paul local by traveling card. Here is an excerpt from the Journal of June 1898 showing several members who were admitted into St. Paul from Tate, Georgia and other cities: Almost all the cutters mentioned here named Butler-Ryan as their employer in the St. Paul City Directory.50

It was a time honored custom among stonecutters that, after completing apprenticeship, the journeyman would spend several years traveling the country to gain familiarity with local practices and his brothers across the country. If these traveling members heard of a more lucrative job in another city, they were liable to quickly move on. In April of 1899 ten cutters who were working on the Capitol here left for Helena to work on the Montana Capitol building where they were told they would make 50 cents an hour.51 Thomas Gibney, noted in the excerpt above as coming from Tate, who worked on the Capitol and eventually settled in San Francisco, offers a good example of this tradition. He was appointed as Auditor and profiled in the Stonecutters’ Journal in March of 1898 just prior to his move to St. Paul.:

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