A history of the Rowat Cut Stone Company should begin many years back. In fact, in 1850 a boy was born into a large family in Kilmarnock, Scotland. This boy started to learn to be a stonecutter at the age of 14 and just after he was 21 years old he left Liverpool, England to come to the United States. This boy was John Rowat, father of Thomas W. Rowat. The craftsmen of those days were quite strong for their Fraternal organizations. John was a stonemason, so he along with two other men had been taking the Masonic degrees and were all given the third degree in Masonry at Liverpool just the day before they sailed for America.
John Rowat went to Chicago when he arrived in America and worked around there for a short time. When he heard that a State Capitol building was being built in Iowa, he came to Des Moines in 1872 and got work as a stonecutter on the Capitol building. In those days they did not seem to be in such a rush as they are now, which shows up in the fact that they spent more than 12 years in building our State Capitol. This job was built before any modern machinery had been introduced in the stone business. Every stone was quarried out for a certain place in the building and brought here by freight and was cut by hand right on the job. All the stone cutting was done by piece work. They were paid so much for top or bottom beds by the square foot and so much for bevels. The whole Capitol building was built by day labor; that is, the legislature would appropriate, perhaps $400,000 or 800,000, for a two year period to proceed with the building. As soon as the legislature had made the biennial appropriation they would build up the crew on the job and then towards the end of the two year period they would be low on money and the crew would be reduced to a minimum. Then after the legislature met and appropriated more money the whole crew would go back to work. At times there were 125 stone cutters working the job. A Mr. Finkbine was the Superintendent in charge of construction and was a wonderfully capable man. There was never even the suggestion of graft at any time during the construction of this building.
After the completion of the Capitol building, John Rowat decided to go into the stone business here in Des Moines. Probably the main reason for this decision was that he had married Mary Thomas, a young school teacher about 4 years before that. She had been teaching school in the East Des Moines public schools and taught at Bryant school. Father got a lot of counsel and good advice from his father-in-law John Thomas, a pioneer blacksmith who came to Des Moines in 1859.
From the early record it is amazing to find that the first year John Rowat was in business he used 23 carloads of stone. One of his early entries in his record books represents his beginning... “Bought 2 pinch bars of cast steel $4.80”. This was his first equipment. Lots of his early work consisted of furnishing large pieces of flagstone for sidewalks, most of them 6” thick.
Some other entries are as follows:
- Hauled stone to Dr. Dickinson’s on 4th St.: $10.00
- Sand to lay flagstone, 3 loads @ 60 cts: 1.80
- Paid cash to help lay flagstone: 8.70
- Paid cash to help unload car of stone: 1.50
- Paid freight on care of stone from Joliet: 35.00
There is no question from the records that John Rowat did quite a thriving business right from the time his business started in 1882. In May 1884, one entry shows where he bought one of the early gang saws used in this part of the country. He also bought a boiler and engine to run the gang saw. The entry is as follows,
“June 1884—Bought gang saw and boiler and engine from Regan and McGorrisk for $450.00, then later bought derrick from Regan and McGorrisk”. The introduction of the boiler, steam engine and the gang saw gave him a big advantage because of the most of stone was sandstone. The stone came in large chunks and most yards just had to split them up the best way they could. With the gang saw, Father could saw the rough chunks of sandstone into slabs and it was much easier to cut the rock faced ashlar out of a slab.
After the Polk County Courthouse was finished, Father bought the derrick and one of the gang saws at our present location and sold the other gang saw to Carl Moline of Waterloo. At this time it was quite common for the general contractor to put up a derrick and some machinery and buy stone in the rough or partially finished and act as their own cut stone contractor. That old wooden derrick was used until about 1922 when we put in the present steel derrick.
Deliveries in those days were made by express-men who had stands on the street waiting for people to hire them. Lots of the items in the record books are items of delivery listed at 35 to 50 cents. Stone cutters received 37 ½ cts. per hour and laborers about 20 cts. per hour and everybody worked 10 hours a day 6 days a week. Later on Father had a horse and an underslung wagon to make his own deliveries. He would use the same horse to take the family out in the evening and the old horse would try to turn into the different places on Grand Ave where he had delivered stone in the daytime.
One day as we were lifting a large block of stone to put it on the gang saw, the old wooden derrick came crashing down. No one was hurt, but we had to set up 3 gin poles to life the mast and the 2 stiff legs in order to get it in operation again.
About 1886 Father heard about a large granite boulder some 12 miles east of Des Moines on a farm owned by Sagers. This was a large boulder that had been brought down by a glacier as was about 25-0 long and 14-0 thick in the middle. Father took a crew of men out there two different winters to break it up and bring the granite in to make monuments out of it. Several people had tried to break the boulder and those in the neighborhood sort of laughed when Father undertook the job. Father took John Thomas, the blacksmith, to sharpen the tools and also John Benson, who was later a general contractor, as an expert blaster. He drilled three holes in the center of the boulder and filled them black powder and the boulder cracked at the first blast. Out of the boulder, Father brought 28 carloads of red granite into the yard and left about that much out on the farm where it was used for foundations under the houses and barns. Lots of this granite with into monuments and there was also some used as a base course in the Historical Building. There is some of it in the Rowat home at 1101 Walker St. I do not think it was a profitable operation. About all Father got out of it was a lot of hard work.
Around 1900, there were two other stone yards started up in Des Moines, One was Francis and Loveridge at E. 4th St. And Grand Ave., and the other was Arthur Watsonat, W. 9th and Tuttle Streets. Things were tough due to competition and Father had a lean year. It was about 1900 when brothers James and Harry started to College; Harry going to the State University of Iowa in Iowa City and James to the Iowa State University at Ames. For the next 12 years there were 2 or 3 of us boys in college. We all helped to earn our way to some extent, but many a time our folks would give up their last $5.00 bill when we went back to school from a trip back home.
Father was always a good man to his family and he and his wife were blessed with six boys. All of us thought it quite a treat to play around the stone yard and all of us worked some of our vacations in the yard. Father’s ambition was to give us all a good education so we would not have to work as hard as he had, but of the six boys, one went to Iowa City and became a doctor, and the other five went to Ames (Iowa State University) resulting in one AG, one Electrical Engineer and three Civil Engineers. I was the youngest of the six boys and in my third year at Ames decided that the stone business could be operated without working as hard as Father had worked, so I planned to go into the stone business when I finished school. That year I tried to find something in the Library about stone machinery. I found nothing, so I got the Stone magazine and wrote to all the firms making stone machinery. For a week or so I received an arm-load of mail most every day.
Father owned the property where the stone yard stood from 1882 until 1904 at E. 2nd and Vine when he sold these lots and moved his small operation to E. 6th and Vine Sts. He used money from the lots (about $6,000.00) to help build the family home at 1101 Walker St. Business seemed to be very slack so he spent that whole year building the house. He has a lot of stone hauled over to the site from the Polk County Courthouse, which they were just finishing at the time. Also he had a lot of granite which he used in the basement of the house and also some Lake Superior Brown stone, which he used in the upper part of the house. The trim on the house is cut from stone that comes from Joliet, IL. The basement walls are 17” thick and above the first floor they are 13” thick with 2” furring and lath and plaster on that. All of us boys had a hand in carrying bricks and mortor and lumber when this house was built.
Just after the house was finished Father must have had a little money left. He had wanted to make a trip to his old home in Kilmarnock, Scotland, so he and Mother spent about three months on a trip back to Scotland.
I finished school in 1912 and went right to the stone yard. The operation was very small, the crew consisting of Father, Henry Hartman and myself. I had the benefit of Father’s training only about a year and a half as he died in January 1914. However, as soon as he knew I was going to work with him, he was willing to expand the operation and at the time of his death we had plans for installing a new planner. I was only 24 years old and had had very little experience running a business, so plenty of anxious moments in the first few years. For several years I would do all the drafting and the correspondence at night so I could after the men in the daytime.
After Father died in 1914 the business started to grow and by 1917 and 1918 we were getting into some larger jobs. We took the stone work on the Armory at Iowa City and on that job Edinger of Cedar Rapids and Carl Moline of Waterloo worked with us. For the next ten years, from 1918 to 1928 it seemed like we were putting in new machinery about all the time . . . . . bought the present derrick, 2 new planners, 2 diamond saws, the multiplex and the milling.
About 1920 brother Fred came into the business and together we struggled through this period of growing pains and finally came out with quite a stone plant. We also had a fine crew of about 50 men. From 1919 to 1929 things were booming and we went along working practically every day during this period. In 1917 we had the Cottage Grove Church, in 1918 the Northwestern Hotel and the Savery Hotel. Then we got into the big school program with Roosevelt and Lincoln High going at the same time. On those jobs I remember we had over a mile of certain moulding to plane out. Then we had a bunch of churches like Plymouth Congregational and Grace Methodist. Both of these jobs have some fine stone work on the entrances. Also, the Monastery, which has recently been torn down for the Merle Hay Plaza Shopping Center, on which we had considerable work, the Insurance Exchange Building, the Scottish Rite Consistory Building and the Federal Court Building. About that time the stock market crash came along and sales dropped off until they were 92% off of a 10 year average. Our crew disappeared and even our key men had to go on unemployment compensation.
Around 1940 we had work on the Bankers Life Building and the addition in 1959, the Iowa Power and Light Building later on, as well as the Central Life Assurance Building and the First Baptist Church.
Quite an eventful thing happened in the period from 1920-1930. About 1922 we did the stone work on the Carl Weeks residence. Carl and his wife Edith, were world travelers. They wanted to build a home in Des Moines and in all their travels they finally picked out a home in Salisbury, England that they wanted to duplicate. Carl had talked to me about it and had shown me pictures. I had gathered up samples of different kinds of stone that they might use, but we could not figure out exactly what stone to use to get the effect he wanted. He always said from the start “ If this house doesn’t look 100 years old the day it is finished we have failed”. On his next trip to Europe, as he was thinking over his plans, he said to his wife “I think if Tom Rowat could see Salisbury Place he might be able to tell us what stone we could use to get the effect we want”. He wired back to the
Armand Company, his place of business, “Have Tom meet us in Salisbury on December 28th". They called me from the Armand Co. on a Thursday and I was on the train Monday starting for England. They gave me $500.00 for my expenses, but before I was back home I had spent about $500.00 more on the trip. I got my passport started in Des Moines and went to the State Department in Washington, DC to finish it up to save time. Then I went to New York and while there called on Mr. Rasmussen who was the New York architect on the job. Carl sent Mr. Rasmussen over to Salisbury to measure up the job and make preliminary sketches on the house a couple of years before this. Just the year before, he had sent Ben Boyd of the firm of Boyd & Moore over to look over the job. They were the Des Moines architects. I met Mr. & Mrs. Weeks in Salisbury on December 28th and spent several days going over the house and also going around with them and his antique dealer gathering up things for the house. Mr. Weeks arranged with the dealer to buy a lot of antiques out of a house that was being used as a youth center for a church. Mr. Weeks virtually bought the house and then removed the old wide board floors, the wood paneling, the plaster paneled ceilings and several old fireplaces. These parts were replaced with modern flooring, ceiling, and modern fireplaces, and the building sold back to the church folk. In the end, they had a good usable building and considerable money and Mr. Weeks had a lot of very rare authentic antiques. All of the items he retrieved from this Youth Center in Salisbury were shipped over and later incorporated in Salisbury House in Des Moines.
The main reason he wanted me to see the house in Salisbury was to help him decide what stone to use in his house. As I looked all over the house I noticed that everything was covered with a green moss. When I took my knife and scraped this moss off the stone, it looked just like Indiana Limestone and the more I scraped the more it looked like the stone we worked with in Des Moines, I reported this to Mr. Weeks and also went over it with Mr. Rasmussen on the way home, so it was settled that we would use Indiana Limestone.
Some of the fringe benefits of the trip:- When I told Mother of the trip, she said I had better write to the folk in Scotland and tell them you will be over to see them. I got to New York pretty fast and got a fast boat and arrived in London on a Friday evening. I thought it would take a long time to get up to Kilmarnock, Scotland, but when I looked up the schedule I found that I would arrive in Kilmarnock at 6 o’clock in the morning. So I wired the folk that I would arrive at 6 A.M., signed “Tom Rowat”.
The folk in Kilmarnock had not yet received Mother’s letter and wondered who Tom Rowat was and what was he doing over there. They thought there must be some mistake. However, they met the train and took me to the Ferguson’s at 5 Charles St. Mrs. Ferguson was Father’s sister. I had a very nice 5 days in Scotland. About 6 hours after I arrived in Scotland two of my uncles took me to see a big national soccer game, which was very interesting. Uncle Jimmie and Uncle Andrew took me to Edinburgh one day to see the sights there, which included the Castle and also the beautiful Princess street, which is very often called the most beautiful street in the world. I also went to Glasgow, where we saw the ship building on the river Clyde and also the great bridge over the river Clyde with a heavy polished granite balustrade. Father came from a large family and by the time I had gotten around to visit all the Aunts and Uncles I has seen about 40 cousins I had never seen before.
I knew we wanted to use the Indiana limestone, but it would have to be selected so as to produce a lot of old Gothic and crows feet to get the proper effect. I made a trip to the quarries in Bedford, Indiana with Herb Moore of the firm of Boyd and Moore and we picked out 5 cars of the worst blocks we could find. When we got the stone to Des Moines, there was only about half of it that had the proper characteristics to use in this job. We would select the stone that the crows feet and great course places in it; always trying to get material that would have give an old weathered effect. We tried to get this effect by different finishes on the stones. I had studied this job in New York City while I was there and when I got home I had Gus Kucharo, our best stone cutter out at the Weeks job telling him how to finish different pieces of stone in different ways. Mr. Weeks watched for a while and pretty soon he said, “Tom can you arrange to send Gus to New York for a few days”? “I want to make an artist out of him instead of just a stone cutter”. I told him we could arrange that and soon Gus was on his way to New York. Mr. Weeks said he wanted Gus to spend his first day at the Metropolitan Art Museum, the next day climbing over St. Thomas Cathedral and then take 2 days looking over the rest of the city. Fred also wanted to see New York City and went along with Gus, but paid his own expenses.
The stone work on the Weeks job lasted just about a year and while lots of it was not very complicated, there is one feature which is very outstanding. The vaulted ceiling in the north entrance is a very fine piece of stone work. Fred spent many hours on the layout for this work and McKillop, our old carver, did some very nice carving on it. Salisbury House is now occupied by the offices of the Iowa State Educational Association, but the main portion of the old English house has been preserved in its original beauty.
There was a period during World War II when the making of all automobiles and practically all building of any kind of stopped. Everyone was working on some sort of war effort and we tried to convert our machines and also our men over the metal work. We got in some metal work, cutting band saws and some metal lathes. The biggest job was to get our men converted to working fine tolerances. Fortunately, we were able to get Louis Delli to come with us for 2 years. He was a wonderful man to set up production jobs and lead off in this kind of work. We did quite an operation with Woods Brothers, planing armour plate for tanks; considerable work with the Globe Hoist in lathe work and some close tolerance metal planing on Diesel Engine crank cases for the Clinton Engineering Co. During these years we bought a lot of used metal working machinery rather blindly. We would gather up some of this machinery and then go out and look for work to do to keep busy. We used some of it very briefly and then would sell it out. All in all we made some money and at the end of the period disposed of all the machines rather profitably. When I look back and realize how blissfully ignorant we were, it is surprising that we did so well in converting our machines and men over to metal work. We actually made many improvements during that period, kept our men busy and made a little money.
After the war we got back into some stone work again and, while the competition was pretty rough, we managed to get along pretty good. Along about 1950 we felt the need of rebuilding the shop and putting in some new machinery. We had Ben Burgess around for nearly a year and installed a new gang saw and a new Ty-Sa-Man rip saw. The foundations and installation of these machines were a major project. We then rebuilt the whole building by holding up the roof and constructing new posts and double siding and new windows all around the shop. Now we can heat the whole shop and be very comfortable in the winter.
Our business has changed considerably in the last 10 or 20 years in that we do not have cornices or thick stones in our modern buildings. The stone used now is much thinner and very plain with practically no carving, so we need very few stone cutters. In the last 10 years we have supplemented our cut stone work with 12-15 kinds of split faced material from Indiana, Minnesota, Tennessee, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Arkansas and California.
After serving in World War II, around 1945 our sons John and Robert decided to come into the business. This was very gratifying to their Mother and me. They have been with the firm for about 15 years now and have become such a part of it that for the last several years it has been possible for us to be away from the shop as long as we choose. They have this year added to the business the stone shop in Mason City, Iowa and our hope is that all will go well with this new venture and their future well being.