Quarry diggers carved their legacy in stone
Thursday, March 06, 2008
We walk to the edge of the big hole and look into it. The hole - Duane's word for the great canyon carved out of limestone vein - is just to the south of the Firekeeper's Diner on the Onondaga Indian Nation. We're there because Duane's grandfather, John Williams, and his pals worked the quarry.
"Our house was right over there," Duane explains, pointing to the quarry's rim. "My grandfather's well is still there, still producing water."
This real estate is a piece of the great vein of limestone that runs east and west through Onondaga County. The stone is just under the topsoil, which Duane remembers being trimmed by a scoop dragged by a team of mules "about 3 feet down" to uncover limestone.
The Onondaga Nation's quarries are a faded memory now: blasted out by TNT, dressed and polished for building stone and tombstones a century ago, now "big holes" in the ground, ice-covered, meandering back to their natural state. It's hard to imagine, looking at the landscape today, that great buildings in our city grew out of this exposed, rocky substrata.
Duane, who is 80, remembers the quarrying well.
"Our whole family bragged about it," he explains. "We were so proud."
So proud that when his grandfather drove by South Presbyterian Church on South Salina Street, he'd say to his passengers in the car, "I cut that stone."
Same when they passed City Hall downtown.
City Hall was dedicated in 1892. South Presbyterian in 1908.
John Williams was a strong, colorful guy, according to his grandson. He had but three fingers on one hand, the result of an accident moving a big slab of stone in the quarry. Loss of limbs was one of the risks the stonecutters took.
Duane Williams is Wolf Clan Mohawk. He left Onondaga in 1952 - "going over the hill," he called it - to make a mark on the world, which he did. He used his skill as an artist to work in the aircraft industry in Texas as a tool designer. When his wife died a year and a half ago, Duane returned to his roots, in the Onondaga Nation. He works security at the nation's new factory building on U.S. Route 11.
We met in 2002 when Duane drew my portrait in chalk, based on the small picture that runs with this column. He labeled it "Old Stick," a term of respect given to over-the-hill lacrosse players. Duane figures he's drawn thousands of studies over the years.
He's a Navy veteran who enlisted with his Onondaga buddies, Paul Waterman and Vern Doctor, to fight in World War II. They ended up on the same ship, loading shells at the Normandy D-Day invasion.
The California collector of stained-glass windows who bought South Presbyterian Church would like to make over the South Salina Street landmark into a performing arts center.
Richard Marcello, of Malibu, Calif., made the suggestion in The Post-Standard this week and privately to representatives of community groups in the South Side neighborhood.
The church, which opened in 1908, was sold to Marcello and his wife, Dianna, for $300,000. It's been closed since 2006 and merged with Onondaga Valley Presbyterian Church. The congregation had but 15 pledging members at the time.
The Marcellos said they bought the church for its Tiffany stained-glass windows and other antique fixtures. They'll be taken out and replaced with replicas, under an agreement with the Syracuse Landmark Preservation Board.
The couple said the windows - three large panels and approximately 40 smaller ones and Tiffany chandeliers - would be placed in a chapel they're building at their California home.
It's been estimated the cost of restoring the church is about $2.5 million, a figure beyond the means of groups that have spoken up in favor of a performing arts center. The Marcellos have promised to help with such a project, but it's not known whether that includes chipping in on the cost.
One suggestion on the table would be to tear down the church, once the antiques in the sanctuary are removed, and to build a new, more modest structure on the lot. The building was appraised at $397,000 in 2006.
In an interview with The Post-Standard, Marcello rejected the idea of demolition, saying, "I'd like to see it remain religious, in some way." He's taking suggestions by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dick Case writes Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com or 470-2254.