THE MARBLE INDUSTRY IN SYLACAUGA

A Story of Its Growth, People and Contributions 

Beneath the city of Sylacauga lies the finest white marble in the world.  It was discovered shortly after white settlers moved in to the area and has been quarried ever since.  Thus, the marble industry is the first recorded industry in the Sylacauga area.  This year the Sylacauga Chamber of Commerce awarded Avondale Mills with the first Edward Gantt Industry of the Year Award.   

Dr. Edward Gantt and the Early Days

The first recorded discovery of marble was in 1820 by Dr. Edward Gantt, a physician who had accompanied General Andrew Jackson through the area in 1814.  Even Gantt probably did not realize the extent of this calcium carbonate deposit.  The deposit is part of the “Murphy Marble Belt” extending 321/2 miles wide by 400 feet deep and is the world’s largest commercial deposit of madre cream marble.   

In the 1830’s, several quarries were opened in Talladega County and perhaps one in neighboring Coosa County.  Using the old Plank Road, they made shipments throughout Central Alabama.  By 1906 New York interests had bought Gantt’s Quarry from its Ocala investors, and this site emerged as the center of marble-working activity.  An elite town actually developed in and around this property, later called the Alabama Marble Company.   

By the turn of the century, Sylacauga quarries had an established reputation; and shipments were being made throughout the state.  Although structural marble was being produced to some extent, a very lucrative use of marble was found in the steel industry.  More and more of the Sylacauga deposits were being blasted and used for fluxing steel.  Later dolomite replaced marble in this process. 

Giuseppe Moretti, the Italian Sculptor

Meanwhile, in 1903, James MacKnight, a member of the Birmingham Commercial Club, envisioned a colossal statue of Vulcan, a god of fire and the forge, to represent Alabama at the World’s Fair in St. Louis the following year.  MacKnight, with the backing of Rufus Rhodes, publisher of The Birmingham News, and F.M. Jackson, Commercial Club president, contacted a number of sculptors concerning the project. 

The results were discouraging, primarily because of the project expense and short timeline for completion.  Finally, an Italian sculptor, Giuseppe Moretti, took the commission for $6,000.  Born in Sienna, Italy, in 1857, Moretti had already done extensive work in marble sculpture in Florence, Carrara, Vienna and Budapest and was to play a significant role in the development of Alabama’s marble industry.  He had established a studio in New York; and there in an unfinished church, he did the entire model for “Vulcan.”  Conditions were far from favorable; and at one point since the church was not heated, then entire back side of “Vulcan” fell, requiring hundreds of barrels of clay to be replaced.  Nonetheless, the model, standing fifty-five feet tall, was completed in an unbelievable forty days. 

After it was carefully dismantled, the model was shipped by rail to Birmingham where it was to be cast in iron at the McWane Foundry Company.  Moretti came to Birmingham to supervise the casting and established residence at the old Hillman Hotel. 

Moretti’s First Work with Alabama Marble

Wherever Moretti went, he always inquired about the possibility of marble in the area.  Legend suggests that Moretti’s first signt of Sylacauga marble was at Old Nix Spring.  Disturbed about the dynamiting, he immediately sought to encourage the use of the marble solely for artistic and building purposes.  Almost instantly, he set a goal to develop marble production in the area.   

On one of his first visits to the area, he obtained a piece of “strada” from the Gantt’s Quarry.  From this block he carved his masterpiece, “The Head of Christ.”  This touching portrayal of Christ upon the cross was the first sculpture to be done from Alabama marble.  He carved the work in his Birmingham studio, located on 19th Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenue North.  Along with “Vulcan,” it was a prize-winning entry in the St. Louis World’s Fair.  “Vulcan,” Moretti said, represented the material resources of Alabama and “The Head of Christ” represented the spiritual resources of the state.  The sculpture remained the most prized possession of the artist throughout his life.  After his death, his wife presented the work to the Alabama Department of Archives and History where it is now on display. 

Moretti’s Earliest Operations

Since he could not afford to open a business alone, Moretti desperately wanted to interest someone in one of the small quarries in Sylacauga.  In 1905, Moretti was core-drilling around the Sylacauga area and found that the land north of Sylacauga, near Oldfield, had a modest but attractive deposit of marble.  The same year he went into partnership with J.B. Gibson and formed the Gibson-Moretti Marble Company.   

Since railroad service was imperative to the success of any quarry, it was fortunate that Moretti met a Mr. Archwright from Atlanta.  Archwright and several others were beginning a railroad, the B&A, which was to connect Birmingham and Atlanta; and they were interested in the possibility of a quarry for tonnage.  In 1907, the railroad bought a quarry in Talladega (20 miles north of Sylacauga); and Moretti established a studio at this location.  The marble in this area was blue-grey; and among the most significant works from the Talladega quarry was a statue of Mary Callahan, a Birmingham schoolteacher, and one of Father O’Reilly, located on the grounds of St. Vincent’s Hospital, in Birmingham.  Moretti returned to Italy in 1909. 

The Partnership of Moretti-Harrah

After a year in Italy and an additional year in New York, Moretti continued to dream of the beautiful Sylacauga marble.  

He returned to Sylacauga a second and a third time in the early 1920’s and opened the Moretti-White Marble Company, previously known as the Herd Marble Company, located near the original Gibson-Moretti property in Oldfield.  In 1923, Moretti sold out and returned once again to San Remo, Italy, where de died in 1935.  He left an artistic legacy, not only to Sylacauga, but to the entire country.  By the time of his death, he had done more than eighty figures that were life-size or larger, not to mention hundreds of smaller works.  In the United States, his numerous works can be found in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Alabama and Tennessee.  Two monuments in Tennessee are particularly outstanding.  One marks the Battle of Nashville and was the first statue erected to heroes of both the North and South.  The other monument is of Commodore Vanderbilt on the Vanderbilt University Campus. 

Changes in Management

Before and during World War I, a number of changes occurred in the management of major Sylacauga quarries.   

Shortly before this Alabama Marble change, C.J. Harrah sold his interest in the Moretti-Harrah Company to the Tompkins-Kiel Marble Company in New York.  Moretti-Harrah remained the company name; and William G. Hoffman, a New York banker, became president.   

Expansion since the 1930’s

In spite of the approaching depression, the late 1920’s and early 30’s were times of spectacular growth for Sylacauga’s marble industry.  Technology changed the course of the industry when electricity replaced steam.   

Countless small marble operations had sprung up throughout the years.  Facing tough competition, many went out of business or were absorbed by the larger companies, Alabama and Moretti-Harrah.  One such significant merger was in 1929 when the Madras Marble Company (formerly Sylacauga Marble Corporation) merged with Moretti-Harrah. 

In 1935 the Moretti-Harrah Company was sold to B.F. Coggins of Atlanta and T.A. McGahey of Columbus, Mississippi; and later in 1944, Coggins sold the Sylacauga operation and Columbia Marble Company of North Carolina to McGahey.  Alabama Marble Company remained under the same management until 1963 when it merged with The Georgia Marble Company. 

The reputation of Sylacauga marble producers began to be evidenced by numerous building projects throughout the nation.  Alabama Marble Company supplied marble for the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.  Marble supplied for the Washington monument was so like its Italian counterpart, “Carrara,” that it was placed aside until a confirmation of its origin could be made.  Moretti-Harrah, in a 3 year project shared by Gray-Knox Marble Company of Knoxville, supplied much of the marble for the U.S. Supreme Court Building, including thirty-six massive interior columns measuring 22’ long x 3’4” in diameter. 

Listing all the buildings which display this lustrous stone would be difficult; but a few memorable projects are the Dime Savings Bank (NY), the Mercedes-Benz showroom (NY), the Chicago Post Office, the Alabama Archives Building, the Chrysler Mausoleum (NY), and the Al Jolson Shrine (CA).  Beautiful cream marble from Sylacauga can be found in hotels, offices, mausoleums, memorials and homes across the country. 

The quality of Alabama marble has never been disputed.  One of the world’s greatest sculptors, Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mt. Rushmore, sculpted a masterpiece from Alabama Marble – the bust of Lincoln – which stands today in the rotunda of the nation’s capitol.  Borglum commented that the fine texture of Alabama marble enabled him to portray the expression of kindness on Lincoln’s face that he had never been able to do with any other stone.   

By the 1940’s endless uses for calcium products extracted from the marble deposits became obvious.  Calcium was needed for agricultural, pharmaceutical and paint products. 

Alabama Marble Company had already moved in this direction, having introduced its first Raymond Mill products for animal feed, insecticides, and joint cement materials in 1933.  By-products were sold under the name of Alabama Calcium Products.  By 1964, the company had completed one of the largest multi-product calcium carbonate plants in the United States and in 1967 the structural marble plant was closed.

 Moretti-Harrah chose to continue its structural finishing operations; and with increasingly fast and up-to-date precision machinery, it introduced exquisite new lines of tile, window sills, and other building products which keep pace with the changing market.  In addition, Moretti-Harrah expanded operations to include calcium products, entering into a partnership with Thompson-Weinman and Company of Cartersville, Georgia, in 1944.  In 1956, Thompson-Weinman expanded its own crushing operation in Sylacauga; and Sylacauga Calcium Products was formed as a division of Moretti-Harrah. 

 Thompson, Weinman and Company remained privately owned until 1975 when it was purchased by Cyprus Mines Corporation.  In 1979 Cyprus Mines was purchased by Standard Oil Company of Indiana and it became a subsidiary of Amoco Minerals Company. 

In 1983 an expansion project in the area of its calcium carbonate facilities was conducted.  The expansion involved the installation of additional grinding capacity and new mill facilities and increased production.  Calcium carbonate, long used as the coating of paper, was now being used as an important filler as the paper industry converted from acid-based paper making systems to alkaline systems.  In 1988 English China Clays (ECC) International purchased Moretti Harrah and in 1989 ECC purchased Cyprus Thompson Weinman.  Then, Georgia Marble Company purchased Cyprus Thompson Weinman.

In 1995, Imetal Group of Paris, France acquired the Georgia Marble Company, allowing this international company to strengthen its U.S. presence in the white pigments industry. Between 1994 and 1998 Imetal doubled in size; one-third through sales growth and two thirds through acquisition. In 1999, Imetal acquired ECC.  At that time the corporate name was changed to Imerys to reflect a new minerals processing organization. The Georgia Marble Company maintains its competitiveness and the quality of our products we manufacture. The Georgia Marble advantage comes from our ability to be innovative and respond to our customer's business.

Imerys ranks as the world’s largest producer of natural mineral products. Hundreds of products, ranging from the uniformly beautiful panels for buildings to finely ground marble powders for fillers and extenders in paints, plastics, papers, rubber, adhesives, caulks, roofing, flooring, fiberglass and ceramics.

The Industrial Products Group continues an active research and development program, concentrating on improving and refining existing products and seeking new applications for calcium carbonate.  Listed below are a few products familiar to all of us, products we use or come in contact with daily.  Each product contains powdered marble (CaCO3) as a filler or extender:

 

 


Cosmetics

Paints

Stucco

Latex

Glass

Glue

Rubber

Roofing

PVC pipe

crayons

paper coatings

chewing gum

baking flour

carpet backing

carpet padding

vinyls

plastics

wall paper

printing inks

wire insulation

asphalt products

putties

caulking compounds

liquid cleansers

cultured marble

joint compound

glass

The Georgia Marble Company has its headquarters in Tate, Georgia. Plants are located in Tate, Nelson and Elberton, Georgia. These consist of marble and granite operations for structural and memorial products. The company has the expertise and ability to produce traditional and complex dimension stone projects. The statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, the New York Stock Exchange Building in New York City and Watertower Place in Chicago are but a few examples produced from and by Georgia Marble.

 

Today the new horizons for calcium products in paper and plastics are overwhelming. Likewise, a return to classic building styles is creating a demand for changing lines of structural marble products. In short the future of the industry looks as exciting as the past.  Imerys employs more than 440 people in their Sylacauga operations; and have emerged as leaders in an ever-changing, ever-demanding world market.  Sylacauga marble producers rest on seemingly endless supplies of such beautiful stone, which provide a unique contribution toward the development of an industry and the advancement of mankind.

 

 

 

 


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