Other stumps depict vines climbing the bark, a lamb at the base of a child’s tomb, doves nesting on branches, or frogs hiding in foliage. Not purely decoration, each design has symbolic meaning. A broken branch represents a life cut short. A frog alludes to resurrection. Doves symbolize peace. These are shibboleths, codes that united individuals to a larger community. Even in death the residents of limestone country looked to stone to forge a common bond.
My favorite carving of all though honors Louis Baker, a 23-year old stonemason, who died in April 1917, when lightning struck him at home. His co-workers sculpted an exact replica of how Baker left his work bench. On the upper edge of a slanted stone slab, they carved his metal square. Below rest a narrow drove and a stub-handled broom, one edge of which abuts a foot-long point. A wider chisel leans atop a hammer that just touches the sharpened end of the point. Nearby is the apron he tossed onto his mallet. The slab sits on another slab, propped on a bench so perfect in detail of the wood that one of the “boards” warps and others have cracks where someone, perhaps the young stonemason, had overtightened the bolts holding together the planks.
The bench moved me not only because it reveals the qualities of stone—90 years of weathering have not removed the details of individual straws of the broom, but the bench also reveals the qualities of the men who worked the stone. Yes, they could carve elaborate and beautiful pieces, but to honor one of their own the men of limestone country produced a monument that reflected gratification in working with simple tools, pride in their trade, respect for their co-workers. Neither fancy nor symbolic, Baker’s tombstone is utilitarian and straightforward, qualities that made Salem Limestone America’s building stone.