Minnesota Sounds & Voices: Dean McFarlane, last in a line of stone carversby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Dean McFarlane has a very high profile. Or his work does, anyway.
But his appearance in front of the 32-story Foshay Tower in downtown Minneapolis turns no heads.
"They'd never know who we are," he said. "We're kind of in the background when it comes to building the buildings."
McFarlane is a 10th-generation master stone carver, and the family's Foshay connection is long and deep.
"We provided all the stone work in 1927 for the original building," McFarlane said. "Since that time we've been replacing pieces as they needed to be replaced."
In the 1980s, for instance, a new set of Foshay owners decided to restore the building to its original look and remove metal plates that had been part of an earlier remodeling job.
As the plates were removed, workers uncovered holes that had been drilled to anchor the panels to the stone, he said, so the company replaced the front entrance in the early 1980s.
FAMILY BUSINESS FOUNDED IN 1916
McFarlane, a Richfield resident, marvels at his opportunity as a young master stone carver to restore a prominent edifice orginally done by his great-grandfather, who had come from Scotland.
"Quarter fluted columns and the little rosettes and the signage," he said, "was just a wonderful opportunity for my family and the stone business to restore a beautiful old building."
• Stone cutting, from buildings to the curling rink
McFarlane, 55, is a big man with a moustache and a head of thick, carefully barbered silver hair.
His great-grandfather started the Minneapolis-based family stone carving company in 1916.
McFarlane was 12 when he got his first stone carving assignment. He worked on the stone panels for the city of Minneapolis seal on the old convention center and said he "carved the rope molding that went around this whole outside of this 30-foot diameter carving. Took me all summer."
McFarlane said in the early days, the family's original south Minneapolis stone carving business hummed with activity.
"The shop was a couple of saws and 10, 15, 20 stone cutters and carvers," he said. Manual stone carving was hard, dirty, dusty work.
Machines steadily replaced the legions of master carvers. Now, McFarlane said, computers do most of the stone carving.
"Literally the guy on a computer designs where the cutting head is supposed to go," he said, "and it'll fabricate full sculptures and everything else can be done with a machine now."
Modern-day master stone carvers create decorative finishing touches for doorways and fireplaces.
In McFarlane's case, he helps architects select and install natural stone on new buildings.
There's no longer a master stone carving apprenticeship or training program in the United States.
McFarlane said he was among the last to finish and was certified in Scotland, where the first McFarlane stone carvers got their start 10 generations ago.
END OF AN ERA
The line ends with McFarlane. There are no family members waiting in the wings to become master stone carvers.
But the family business connects him to other kinds of stones, specifically at the St. Paul Curling Club, where McFarlane and his teammates can be found nearly every Thursday evening.
Visitors watch from behind a pane of glass in a warm lobby while on the other side curlers send the uniform, machine-carved 42-pound rocks down a sheet of ice.
It's a far cry, McFarlane said, from the days when his father and grandfather curled with stones they had carved.
In his great-grandfather's day, "the guys owned their own stones, so you'd go to the curling club and carry in your own two stones ... for the game," McFarlane said.