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Historical California Stone Carvers, Stone Cutters, & Monument Dealers

Interview of John Silva of Silva’s Memorials in Antioch, California April 30, 1997

By Peggy B. Perazzo

(Please note: My interview of John Silva was my first overview and introduction to the signatures carved on the predominately marble cemetery stones created in the late 1800s and the California stone quarries. Peggy B. Perazzo, 2008 )

According to John Silva, signatures carved on the cemetery stones by the stone carvers or monument companies were created for such reasons as pride in their creation, a sense of responsibility, advertising, and as a historical reference. Some of the stone carvers and companies who signed their names were appreciated and sought after because of their skill or the unique patterns they created. The signature on the stone in addition to the city in which the stone works was located provided people viewing the stones in other locales with information that they would need if they wished to order the same or similar cemetery stone for their own use from that particular carver or company. Mr. Silva indicated that monument companies of today still place signatures on their stones, but they usually first obtain permission from the purchaser.

The pulse of the economy of the time period in which the cemetery stone was created can be seen in the state of and extravagance of the stones in the cemeteries. Throughout time the price that people were willing to pay for the cemetery stones was an indication of those economic times. Sometimes during hard economic times people would postpone their purchase of a memorial stone until a later date when they might choose an extravagant stone to be used for an individual or an entire family.

In the past the carving - and sometimes the cost and quality of a stone - indicated the status of the person named on the stone. One example John Silva gave me is that of Mary F. Smith whose stone is located in the Alhambra Cemetery in Martinez, Contra Costa County, California. The carving of her name, birth and death dates have been carved in a much smaller size than those of the husband’s line - “Wife of Frank A. Smith.” According to Mr. Silva, this would indicate to society that the husband’s status was much higher than that of his wife.

In the early days the stone carving was done by hand. Eventually, the carving was improved due to the creation of the pneumatic drills and other types of power equipment.* The stone saws used in cutting stone evolved from single saws manned by workers to gang saws, which operate many blades at once and are similar to gang plows that were used on farms. As each new tool was created and perfected, there would be a decrease in the number of workmen needed either putting men out of work or necessitating that they train for different jobs in the quarry industry. (* According to About.com Inventors, “Samuel Ingersoll invented the pneumatic drill in 1871.”)

As the gangsaw traveled back and forth, the saw would cut through a block of stone with many saw blades moving in tandem. John Silva described the gang saws as pieces of metal with teeth that cut as the machine moved through the stone powered by a motor. These saws used shot, water, and steel to cut through the stone. The friction from the steel would create a smooth cut; but if the water ran out, the cut would not be as smooth.

John Silva indicated that these gang saws were used after dynamite was used to split the stone out of the mountain or boulder into manageable blocks. Unfortunately, the dynamite sometimes created problems as it could cause defects in the rock. The dynamite could also cause a wild ricochet in the stone. This ricochet in the stone could impair the soundness of the stone.

He went on to discuss the granite used for the cemetery stones. The stone used for cemetery stones had to come from “good stock” granite. The color of the granite depends upon where the stone was quarried, and the color is influenced by the minerals found in the stone. We discussed the use of Sierra White granite quarried near Raymond* by the Cold Spring Granite, Inc., of Minnesota. John Silva indicated that the Sierra White granite deposit is huge. (* You can view some of the granite quarries near Raymond in our 1998 photographic tours. Use browser back button to return to this document.)

He indicated that in California we have not had the high quality of marble available that is good enough for tombstones, so most of the marble used for the cemetery stones came from other states such as Vermont and sometimes as far away as the marble quarries in Italy.

Cold Spring Granite, Inc., also owns and operates a boulder granite quarry located near Clovis (formerly known as “Academy”). The granite from this boulder quarry is called “Black Academy Granite,” and this granite is darker than the Sierra White granite quarried near Raymond. (Another difference is that the Sierra White granite is quarried from a mountain rather than from boulders.) Both the Sierra White and Black Academy granites are used for cemetery stones today. John Silva indicated that the some of the boulders in the boulder quarry are huge - some weighing as much as 50, 100, to 300 tons.

John Silva went on to describe the quarry process used at the boulder quarry near Clovis. He said they first use tractors to expose the boulders by clearing away the surrounding dirt. They next cut blocks of granite from the boulders into sizes that can be transported to the area where they are cut into blocks by twisted wire saws embedded with diamonds. These wire saws cut through the granite blocks with the use of water. The blocks of Black Academy Granite would then be trucked to the Sierra White facility at Raymond where the granite is cut into the needed sizes according to the orders. John Silva indicated that about 30 to 40 people work at the Black Academy Granite quarry (in 1997). He went on to say that they would check their orders and compare the orders with the blocks of granite and then decide how many orders could be filled from each block. Examples of these orders would be granite slabs ¾-inch, 3-inch, or 4-inch thick pieces which is used for the walls of buildings. The granite used for cemetery stones would be cut to size and polished. Two-inch, four-inch, six-inch, and eight-inch thick stones are generally used for tombstones. Once the cemetery stones are placed outside in the cemeteries, their appearance changes due to environmental conditions and the mineral content of the stone. (* You can view blocks of granite from both the Raymond Sierra White granite quarry and the Black Academy granite quarry in our 1998 photographic tours. Use browser back button to return to this document.)

John Silva related that there were marble quarries at Columbia* in Tuolumne County and in El Dorado county, California; but the marble was not as durable as the granite. (* You can view our photographic trips of the Bell Marble Quarry and one of the old Columbia marble quarries on our web site. Use browser back button to return to this document.)

At the time of my interview of John Silva in 1998, I was looking for some granite quarries called the Crystal Lake Quarries that were reportedly in located in Placer County at Yuba Pass. These quarries were owned and operated by the Western Granite & Marble Company of San Jose, Santa Clara County, California, in the mid-1880s. I asked Mr. Silva whether he knew about any granite quarries in that area, and he indicated that the granite throughout that area of the mountains formed in sheets. He indicated that that granite would not be suitable for tombstones because it is not as solid.

He went on to discuss the monument shops that were once located in Antioch, where one of his shops is located. He indicated that the bicycle shop located at A and Ninth streets was once a tombstone shop. Another shop in Antioch was owned by a Mr. Gori. Another monument dealer in Antioch was Mr. Teranova who operated the monument shop now occupied by John Silva at 2201 East 18 th Street.* (* Eighteenth Street used to be called Victory Highway.)

Mr. Silva stated that there was very hard competition between Mr. Teranova and Mr. Gori “during the old times.” The competition got so tough, that instead of using solid granite for cemetery stones so that the monument would last longer, Mr. Teranova would mix granite and marble chips with cement and then blend the resulting chips together until the looked like granite into a product called “Terrazzo.”* If the monument was located outside, it would look nice for a while; but as it aged, the stone would start to deteriorate. (* Terrazzo is generally described as a multi-colored floor made from stone or marble chips embedded in cement.)

Update: While preparing this 1997 interview, I spoke with John Silva. He still has the shop in Antioch on Eighteenth street in Antioch. He indicated that he has sold tombstones for over 50 years.

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