When Gerald Croteau comes into Fab@CIC, he usually arrives with a large polished stone under one arm and a roll of rubber in the other. He stretches a piece of the rubber sheet over the face of the stone and places it into the laser cutter to score the outline of a date, word, or figure. After that, he’ll take the piece back to his workshop in Lowell, MA where he’ll peel off the rubber scoring and sandblast until the design has been etched into the rock.
Gerald’s company, American Stonecraft, is in the business of sustainably harvesting rocks and stones from around New England and cutting, polishing, and etching them into stoneware for the kitchen, home, or office. Underlying the story of his company is a story of glaciers, plate tectonics, and traditional farming.
You may be surprised to learn that rocks in New England are pretty special. Mostly marble and granite, they are especially durable rock formed by the high temperatures and pressure of tectonic movement, products of the tectonic movement of the land that is now the United States East coast separating from northern Africa and joining the North American continent. This started about 170 million years ago. Then, during the last glacial period, lasting from around 100 to 11 thousand years ago, New England was covered by a sheet of ice. The approach and retreat of the glaciers churned and tumbled rocks into rounded shapes. The resulting colors, striations, and patterns pressed into the stone from all this geological activity are astonishing.
Now buried under soil and vegetation, rocks make their way to the surface of the ground as the New England earth freezes and thaws each year. This process is called granular convection, and, as Gerald explains, is also responsible for how a toy in a cereal box ends up on the surface of the cereal.
In New England lore, hardy settlers back-breakingly removed the stones in their fields to plant crops and create the historic stone walls that are now icons of our cultural landscape. We hear less often that the farmers could never fully succeed in this task, as each year a new crop of stones surfaced to block their plows. There are an estimated 250 thousand miles of stone wall in New England and New York, longer than the distance to the moon and more massive in their sum than the Great Pyramids of Egypt* – and the rocks continue to sift upwards!
American Stonecraft’s mission is to connect people to this incredible geology and history of place. Many of Gerald’s products are created in partnership with the farms that provide this endless supply of beautiful stone. For example, a dairy farm might provide Gerald with a load of raw materials in exchange for a portion of their stones returned cut and polished into stoneware. The cutting boards, cheese slabs, trivets and coasters, possibly engraved with the farm’s name and location, can be sold in the farm’s store or used in the farm’s restaurant. Many American Stonecraft customers request rock from a particular farm or township that is meaningful to them, taking a piece of place with them in the form of a stone utensil.
Beyond just business, American Stonecraft reflects Gerald’s worldview. In a society that is anxiety-ridden by climate change and yet addicted to consuming mass-produced, disposable things, stone can be the embodiment of an alternate set of values.
“Stone makes the world a prettier place, sort of the opposite of the broken window effect,” Gerald says, referring to the concept that broken windows and other signs of neglect in neighborhoods create a vicious cycle of abandonment. He is inspired by the stone buildings in places like Egypt and Italy that were erected hundreds or thousands of years ago and that have outlived all other structures. The permanence and durability of stone, and the effort required to shape it for a purpose, gives it more value and requires more intention to be put into the product. It’s impossible to throw stone away.
This worldview imbues American Stonecraft’s products. Aside from the sustainable harvesting of rocks, the company uses only rubber bands and recyclable cardboard, branded by a hot iron instead of ink, to package and ship stones. Speaking about the full lifecycle of his product, Gerald emphasizes the utility of layering cardboard in sandy ground to restore soil stability in places like Cape Cod, where some of his stones come from. Community is central to his work, not only through strengthening the connection between people and place with stone products, but also through the learning and craftsmanship in workshops in Lowell and at Fab@CIC.
Of his time spent in our fablab, Gerald says that the resources of a shared workshop helped him overcome his apprehension about introducing new techniques into his products. He’s learned software to design customized etchings and has used laser cutters that, for a small business, are too costly to own independently. His reward for his effort in the fablab is the delight of his partners and customers when they can memorialize a special event or sentiment in stone from a place they love.
* Source: https://www.concordmonitor.com/The-History-and-Ecology-of-Stone-Walls-7163910
All photos supplied by American Stonecraft.