Two books provide valuable insight on building stone

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The other day, Jim Gow dropped in with a couple of books, one from 1912, and the other dated 1925.

They are technical reports prepared by the federal Department of Mines. The older one is titled Building and Ornamental Stones of Canada, and the later one deals more specifically with limestone for building purposes.

I have never seen either of these publications. They are of particular interest to me at present, because I am working on the history of older buildings in Centre Wellington. For both Fergus and Elora, stone was the favoured building material in the middle part of the 19th century, and continued to be popular, particularly in Fergus, when it had fallen out of favour elsewhere.

As far as I am aware, the 1912 report is the first systematic and scientific examination of the subject of building stone in Canada. The book deals with the properties of various stones in Canada, and the techniques used in quarrying them and preparing them for use in construction.

The chapter on limestone, of course, is of most interest to us in Wellington: this is the stone found in the southern portion of the county. This, happily, is the longest chapter in the book, claiming 120 of the 350 pages.

The sandstones of the Credit Valley are also covered in the book. These have been imported into Wellington, and used particularly on public and downtown commercial buildings.

For us in Wellington, it is the limestone of the Guelph Formation that is of overwhelming significance. This is an area roughly 80 miles by 30 miles, and stretching from the southern edge of Wellington to the north, in the area of the town of Durham. The author, William A. Parks, describes these limestones as magnesian (the principle element being magnesium), yellowish in colour, and porous in texture. This is a sedimentary rock: the entire area is an old lake bottom.

William Park’s survey includes descriptions of all the quarries active in 1912, and those that had been important in previous years. Park notes that stone for the buildings of the Ontario Reformatory, then under construction on the outskirts of Guelph, came from small quarries on the site that had been opened at an earlier time. Three quarries had operated on the grounds in the 19th century.

Active quarries in the southern end of the county included one owned by John Maloney of Toronto, and situated west of Puslinch station and south of the CPR tracks. This quarry measured 600 by 200 feet, and was excavated to a depth of 14 to 17 feet. Maloney produced crushed stone, rather than building stone.

In the west of the city of Guelph, Robert Kennedy’s quarry, on the west end of town adjoining the Speed River, was still in production. This quarry had been a source of Guelph building stone.

Near Kennedy’s quarry was, and still is, the Standard White Lime Company. In 1913 the excavation measured 900 by 150 feet. The stone was roughly four feet below the surface. A top layer, some 15 feet thick, consisted of irregular stone, but below this was a layer about two feet thick that was suitable for building stone.

Most of the output was made into lime when Park wrote the report, but the firm did sell some stone for rubble construction (walls made of irregular pieces of stone, rather than cut blocks). Standard Lime had a second quarry, long closed, on the east of Guelph. Much of the stone from this site made good building material, but the market was not large in 1912.

Henry Benallick operated another quarry on the east side of Guelph, but it had shut down by 1910. This quarry had produced good stone in layers between six and 18 inches thick, and had been the best source for cut stone in the Guelph area.

In the Fergus and Elora area, there had been several quarries over the years, but at the time of writing, only that of James Gow in Fergus was an active producer. 

This was a huge quarry, more than 1,000 feet long and 250 feet wide, and 18 to 20 feet deep, on the south side of the Grand River. The Fergus fire hall and sewage treatment plant now occupy part of the site. Gow’s quarry produced small quantities of building stone, but only as orders came in. Much of it was used for foundations, or for rear walls of commercial buildings. Gow sold the stone for 50 cents per ton, plus transportation from the quarry.

Almost all of Gow’s production consisted of crushed rock and lime, produced in two kilns on the site. Most of the crushed rock was used for road construction. With the quarrying, crushing, and lime making processes, Gow employed 40 men in the early years of the 20th century. He supplemented production at the Fergus quarry by leasing an older quarry on the bank of the Irvine in Elora. The remnant of a kiln can still be seen on this site.

A pleasant surprise is a section on the quarry of Ashenhurst Bros., near Brisbane in Erin Township. Park notes that this was the largest of a group of small quarries in the area. The stone produced here was of an even quality, and well suited for use as lintels and window sills. The Ashenhursts prepared the stone on site, and shipped by rail from Erin. Stone from this quarry was used for the cut and dressed stone portions of buildings in Fergus, combined with rubble stone from Gow’s or another Fergus quarry for the plain portion of walls.

The Elora Quarry, now a popular recreational site, had not yet commenced production, and receives no mention in this book. Production there peaked in the 1920s.

The second book, written in 1925 by M.F. Goudge, deals specifically with limestone as a building material. There is some irony in the fact that this book appeared when limestone had virtually vanished as a building material. The volume provides some figures to support the observations I have made over the years in this regard. The total value of building stone in Canada dropped by more than half in the early 1920s. 

As well, much of what was being used at that time came from Indiana. This American stone found its largest application in facings on large commercial buildings.

Another development was the increasing popularity of portland cement to make concrete. This material had first appeared on the market in quantities in the late 1890s.

Locally, and notably in Fergus, we can still see that there was strong resistance to the trends. The old-time masons clung to the use of rubble limestone, particularly in foundations. Concrete found its first applications in bridge and abutment work. Interestingly, the local masons shunned this material, leaving the concrete contracts to recent emigres, such as Mattaini in Fergus and Battaglia in Guelph. Construction practices in Italy had made them comfortable in working with concrete.

According to Goudge’s 1925 book, the only producer of limestone for building purposes in Wellington was the Erin quarry, operated then by James Ashenhurst. He notes that much of the cut stone used in Fergus buildings came from this quarry, and cites examples constructed in the 1880s. He described the stone as fine, and weathering to a light buff colour. 

Goudge noted it was so soft that it could be cut by scraping grooves into the surface and using wedges to split the rock. Ashenhurst’s limestone hardened over time, on exposure to air.

The widespread use of limestone, not only for entire buildings, but also for decorative work, sill and lintels in brick structures, is one of the characteristics of Wellington County architecture of the 19th century.

These two volumes put the stone quarrying industry into perspective, and give some hints of the practices of more than a century ago.

Much of this information has been lost. Those working with stone acquired their skills through on-the-job training. There were, no doubt, quirks and techniques that worked best with stone coming from particular quarries.

We can see subtle differences between walls and buildings that at first glance seem plain and similar. The old masons took this information and their skills with them when they passed to the far side of the Jordan. These two books provide the best glimpse I have run across about this important part of our built heritage.

I am grateful to Jim Gow for letting me dig through them.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 14, 2003.

Thorning Revisited