Sunday, April 15, 2012

THERE'S MARBLE IN THEM THERE ISLANDS (PART ONE)


A piece of pure white marble from Mount Calder, Southeast Alaska. Native corporations have sold millions of dollars of this material to Japan for paper whitening and other chemical uses, including (probably) indigestion tablets!


Black marble from a small quarry next to five large white quarries abandoned on Marble Island, Alaska (around 1925).


Two small mill blocks sitting next to my truck in SE Portland. We sent these blocks to New Mexico Travertine to be cut into slabs.

Thirty-five years ago I rented a small quonset hut in southeast Portland's low-rent district and attempted my first effort at my own stone business as a 35 year old. I was totally impoverished with a wife and two children and no work. This was pre-granite counter days, the stone business didn't exist. Outside tombstones, or an occasional fireplace facing. Stone tiles were first beginning to appear. There was some question whether these stone tiles were work for marble masons or tile setters. In an attached shed next to mine worked Schmitty, a 70-year-old man who cast cement collars around flat tombstones for cemeteries. We became friends.

Schmitty told me that during the depression he raised and trapped for furs in the southeast Alaska islands. He told me that there was a machine shop on an island that he could use to repair his outboard motor left by a marble quarrying operation. Apparently a caretaker was still assigned to this operation by the Vermont marble company. This was when I first heard of marble in southeast Alaska. I never thought much about it until 15 years later I received a phone call from an Alaskan fisherman. He told me he got my name from a maritime attorney in Portland suggesting me as a stone expert. Thus began a five-year misadventure with Alaska marble.

The fisherman to the best of my recollection was fishery biologist who retreated from a government fisheries post for seclusion in southeast Alaska to create his own private reality, which he seemed to prefer. This sort of behavior seems to be not uncommon in southeast Alaska, rugged individualists. He had all the skills to function in a world of what seemed to me to be a severe and dangerous profession. We became phone companions with daily conversations. He told me about marble blocks on an island, and that he had an offer to provide slabs from this stone for a courthouse remodel in eastern Washington. In the next several months I talked him through the steps to remove these blocks for his courthouse dream.

About 4 months later he showed up at the front door of my small stone fabrication shop in Portland and told me he had gone to a competitor stone company and they had no idea what to do with the stone blocks he had on the back of this old beat-up flatbed truck, and again asked for help. We went for breakfast where he informed me he hated cities and particularly restaurants with their fake flower arrangements. He also expressed a dislike for people in general and that he had lost 35 pounds breaking the stone and getting it on his boat and eventually down to Portland on this flatbed . I later found that his food preferences were lukewarm sausages, instant coffee and cigarettes, which seemed to sustain this 6-foot-5 inch healthy man. It could have ended right there if I said go away but I didn't. This was before the internet, information was hard to get so I decided to help him.

I went back to my shop and called a friend of mine who owned and operated one of only two stone saw shops west of the Mississippi, that could saw his blocks, Ted Orchard. Ted, a true professional, a hero of mine agreed to help him. The fisherman was off and running, glad to get away from town. I was told he slept under his truck for the week it took to slab his blocks.

Six months later the fisherman called me out of the blue and told me he delivered the slabs to the courthouse, got paid, and wanted to try this marble business again. I was flabbergasted and asked why I should help him. He asked if I would meet his partner, a Yakima farmer at the Alaska air terminal in Seattle, and they would show me Alaska. How could I say no?

Thus began one of the greatest friendships of my life with a 70-year-old farmer who got his degree in chemistry before World War II.

I packed my old Navy seabag with what I thought might be appropriate gear for life on a fishing boat and found Bob. He was hard to miss in his coveralls, and small hand bag. Pulling two white styrofoam coolers taped up, filled, I learned later, with Bob's own home-cured without any refrigeration that is, beef. Quite crusty. A process all new to me. This aged beef was to be a special treat for the fisherman even though he had no way to properly cook it. I found out later. Bob the ever-harvesting farmer wanted the cooler to be filled with fish he intended to sell when we got back from our trip to Alaska. Bob's mind was not on marble, although he was curious to learn. Bob's interest, besides shrimp and salmon, was looking for a good spot to raise oysters, the salinity of fresh and salt water and location was someplace in southeast Alaska. The whole experience was all new to me, the marble man.

Bob was a practical man, he would just as soon provide sandwiches hot coffee and cash to native fishermen for resale then to harvest them himself on fish openings. My friend Bob loved to say cash is still legal tender. The fisherman's favorite expression I later learned was nothing final till Lisbon, the U.S. Not having an extradition treaty with Portugal. He had big dreams about the value of marble. Bob and I were off to Alaska – me with my overpacked seabag, him with his Yakima meat, which later turned out to remind me of another Joseph Conrad's meat supply, getting larger and smellier as they traveled upstream one hundred years earlier.

View of #1 stone mill blocks stacked on 6 x 6s waiting for shipment by ocean transport to San Francisco - but they never left! (Marble Island, Alaska)


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