It is often difficult to find goods made in America, much less locally by hand. But in Rappahannock County, there are those who preserve techniques developed generations before industrialization. These individuals are not just helping the local economy and the environment; they are also preserving American art forms. This is the fourth in a series of articles about Rappahannock residents proud to carry on the work of artisans of bygone days by doing things “the old way.”
Some artisans may say they were born for their craft, but Boston resident Pete Bracken has proof for his claim. Years after he started carving gravestones and memorials, business signs, garden poems, sculptures and other artwork out of stone, he discovered that he was carrying on a tradition passed down through many generations of Brackens.
“I picked up a book called ‘Stone Mad’ by Irish stone carver Seamus Murphy,” Bracken said. “In the book, Murphy referred to several well-known Irish stone carving families, including the ‘Brackens from Tullamore.’ I was stunned!” Bracken’s discovery prompted the family to explore their genealogy.
“After extensive research, my mother found that, yes, my father’s family hailed from Tullamore and were, indeed, stone carvers and stone masons; so it actually is in my blood,” Bracken said, adding that although few Brackens who migrated to the United States in the 1800s continued the craft, the stone carving and stone masonry tradition among Brackens in Ireland continues to this day.
Bracken defines stone carving as “the mechanical (or physical) removal of stone in order to create a desired shape or pattern.” He said that the process can be as simple as removing small amounts of stone to create letters or as complex as removing large amounts of stone to create complex sculptures or statues. He noted that the craft has been around almost as long as humans.
“It can be traced back to ancient Egypt and beyond,” Bracken said. “Basically, when people started forming communities, stone carving became an art.”
More recently, during the 12th and 13th centuries, stone-carved structures became standard in European cathedrals, businesses and homes.
“Of course, stone carving as a building trade continues to this day, especially in parts of Europe, but there’s seldom a budget for stone ‘embellishments’ on most buildings and homes anymore,” he said.
Although stone-carved structures never became as popular in America, and modern buildings are rarely adorned with stone carvings, a number of old buildings in the United States have stone decorations.
“If you visit Culpeper and other old towns in the area, you’ll see historic buildings with carved stone doorways, statues or fireplaces,” Bracken said.
In his earlier years, while working as a geographical information specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Maryland and Virginia, and later as a tile setter in Rappahannock County, Bracken didn’t take the time to fully appreciate the stone structures of the historic buildings around him. But his life changed in the year 2000, when his family traveled to Italy.
“Everyone else wanted to visit the wineries and museums, but I was drawn to the streets and marble quarries in Carrera, where the finest marble in the world comes from . . . the same marble that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci carved,” Bracken said. “While walking the streets, I noticed that every other doorway led to a stone carving shop. I walked into one shop where workers were carving 20 beautiful statues for a villa in California. In other shops people were creating plaques, flowers, all sorts of interesting things. I was captivated and had to learn more.”
As soon as he got back to the states, Bracken researched the craft and took a class from Gary Colson, an accomplished stone carver from Culpeper. He also took seminars on English lettering and was mentored by Malcolm Harlow, the stone carver famous for creating many intricately carved structures at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Bracken also became a member of America’s only stone carver’s guild (stonecarversguild.com).
“Stone carving is my passion,” he said. “I love taking a stone from the earth and making something from it.” Bracken also continues to set tile, which is another craft that utilizes material from the land.
As a stone carver, Bracken has worked for universities, cemeteries, hospices and other public places, but he does most of his work in the private sector. The majority of his commissioned work is in Rappahannock County, where he and his wife, Twila, have made their permanent home.
“The stone here in the county is spectacular,” he said. “There’s Flint Hill gneiss, unakite (a type of altered granite), Mechums River sandstone, epidote, Old Rag granite (known for its purple quartz crystals), and, my favorite, Catoctin greenstone. There’s just so much great stone to work with. Sometimes I’ll be driving and spot magnificent stone along the road, and I’ll feel compelled to put a design in it.” He noted that if people in Rappahannock County find stones in the wild that are engraved with dragonflies, maple leaves or poems, it’s probably his work.
Although he often happens across great stones, Bracken spends a lot of time actively searching for them in the county, when working for clients.
“When a client asks me to engrave a headstone for their deceased loved one, I take that responsibility seriously,” he said. “I get as much history as I can to develop a feel of who the person was, so that I can create a memorial that is a fitting tribute.” He said that often his clients want to utilize the stones on their properties or in Rappahannock County, so he, along with family members of the deceased, search the land for the right stone.
“Families find it meaningful to have grave stones or memorials that a stone carver makes from local stone,” Bracken said, “It’s much more personal than ordering a piece of machine-carved granite from China. And the cost is actually about the same.”
Although Bracken sometimes uses some modern electric tools in the process of forming gravestones and other structures, he always utilizes the many simple tools from bygone days.
“Simple chisels are indispensable to stone carvers,” Bracken said while pointing at his large display of at least six different kinds of chisels. “No machine will give someone the detail that these old tools can.” Bracken has a large collection of antique chisels, some dating back as far as the early 1800s. Most of the tools are engraved with the former owners’ initials.
“I engrave my initials in all the tools I use, as well,” Bracken noted. “I hope a hundred years from now, a stone carver will pick up a tool that I once used, see my initials alongside the initials of all the stone carvers before me, and feel the same sense of awe that I feel.”
For more information or to contact Bracken, visit brackentileandstone.com or call 540-987-3373.