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Ohio’s Sandstone: Once the Source of the World’s Finest Grinding Stones

Updated: May 14

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 60 No. 1, March 2007

by Dana Martin Batory

In our small village of Crestline, Ohio, a friend once kept in front of his antique shop a foot-powered grinding machine made by the Richards Wilcox Manufacturing Co. of Aurora, Illinois. The origin and history of its stone had always fascinated me (Figures 1 and 2).

All the sidewalks in our village before urban renewal had been made of sandstone cut from the old John Bippus Quarry in Leesville, Ohio, about three miles west of Crestline (Figure 3). Located in the bluffs of the Sandusky River, the quarry was worked from about 1834 to 1908, and from there the fine-grained, uniform sandstone was sawn into blocks and slabs. Trained as a geologist, I knew the sidewalks and grinding stones had come from a deposit known as the Berea grit or Sand-stone. While I was watching these attractive, century-old sidewalks being taken up, broken, and dumped, the two things —the grinder and the sidewalks—suddenly clicked in my mind. The two were related.

The material that would make Ohio famous for its grinding stones was named by state geologist Professor J. S. Newberry in 1869 after what was then the village of Berea, Ohio, where the state’s largest and most important quarries and mills were located.

Northern Ohio has a clean, sharp, even-grained sandstone of medium grit, but moving southward, the sandstone grows steadily finer and less pure as a small percentage of clay becomes mixed in. Even so, the southern quarries produced large quantities of grindstones. The Berea grit of northern Ohio and the Waverly Quarry stone of southern Ohio are all part of the same vast sandstone deposit. The deposit was once a source of the finest building stone in the country, known variously as the “Amherst Stone,” and the “Independence Stone,” and in New York as the “Ohio Stone” and sometimes as the “Cleveland Stone.” It was noted for its beauty, durability, and ease in working and was shipped to New York, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Canada. In 1869, Berea grit quarries produced some $1 million in grindstones and building materials, about $25 million in today’s dollars.

The requirements for a good, natural grinding stone are that it be sharp sand, clean—free from clay or other impurities—and strongly cemented together. However, when this ideal condition is reached, any further cement is objection-able, since it reduces the grit. The coarser the stone the faster the cutting. The Berea grit is composed of about 4 percent super hard aluminum oxide (corundum) bonded with about 93 percent silicon dioxide (quartz), the remainder being iron, magnesium, and calcium oxide. Near perfect in grain, the sandstone was ideal, cutting evenly and efficiently.

Besides being used in the old-fashioned treadle grinding wheels seen on every homestead, the stone was used commercially in the centerless grinding of gun barrels, springs, and rough castings. The grindstones were also found in tool rooms in a more sophisticated form for sharpening tool bits. Lumber and furniture mills used the grindstones in machines designed to precisely put razor-sharp edges on planer knives and such.

Berea is located on the Rocky River, about twelve miles southwest of Cleveland and six miles from Lake Erie. It is in the river’s bed and bluffs, and in that of a tributary, Baldwin Creek, that the sandstone is prominently exposed. In about 1811, Jonathan Vaughn put up a sawmill on Rocky River and his brother, Ephraim, built a gristmill.

Customers from Middleburg, Strongsville, and Brunswick, soon discovered naturally split flat rocks about four inches thick covering the riverbed. The sandstone had all the qualities needed in a first-class grindstone. They broke the slabs into squares, hauled them home with their grists and lumber, trimmed off the corners, punched a square hole through the center, set up a rude frame, and used them for grinding their axes, scythes, and other tools in need of sharpening. It took time to smooth the edges, but when completed they had better stones than those being imported at great expense from Nova Scotia.

Figure 4. John Baldwin, Founder Of Ohio’s Grindstone Quarrying And Manufacturing Industry.

In 1827, John Baldwin emigrated from Branford, Connecticut, and purchased the old Vaughn farm. Baldwin quickly saw the commercial value of the grindstones (Figure 4). He began breaking up the rocks into suitable sizes, trimming and perforating them with a hammer and chisel in his basement, and selling them in the surrounding townships.

The business increased, and in the winter of 1832, he hired two Irish stonecutters to work in his cellar preparing the stones. Cash money was scarce, and the men’s wages consisted of one-half of the grindstones plus room and board, with Baldwin furnishing the rough stone. In spring 1833, Baldwin was able to purchase the men’s shares and sold the entire lot, about two tons, to a Canadian trader, who shipped them to Cleveland and Canada. This was the very first shipment of sandstone outside the immediate area.

Baldwin realized that shaping the stones by hand took too long. In 1833 using a neighbor’s lathe, he turned out a wooden pattern for a device that would speed up production. One moonlit night, he carried it on his shoulder to Cleveland, where a foundry used it to cast an iron copy. Returning home, Baldwin fastened this mandrel to the end of a sawmill’s waterwheel. A slab of sandstone with a square hole cut through it was then slipped onto the shaft and fastened against the iron backing plate with a key. Then, the wheel was set in motion. Using a primitive tool rest, the end of a metal bar was held against the stone’s edges and sides. After a cloud of sparks and dust, a perfect grindstone appeared. This was the first grindstone ever cut by machine in the west, and the method has changed very little.

Baldwin produced about twenty tons that season, enough to supply the existing market. These first stones were roughly made, but as time passed, the quality improved and business increased. By 1869, the business employed about a thousand men with over $1 million ($25 million in today’s dollars) in invested capital.

Baldwin gave his name to Baldwin Creek and, in 1845, helped establish Baldwin Institute (later University, and subsequently Baldwin-Wallace College). To help support the institution, he donated fifty acres of land, including most of his grindstone quarries. In 1869, the town had a population of about 3,500, and the quarries were situated about in the center of the town along the bed and banks of Rocky River and Baldwin Creek. The quarries extended for three miles along the river and one mile on the creek.

An article in The Manufacturer and Builder (November 1869) described the thriving enterprise.

"At the present time there are opened eighteen different quarries, employing eighteen engines, besides three lathes run by water-power, with derricks, tramways, horses, and blacksmith-shops almost numberless. During the time from seven o’clock in the morning to six at night the quarries present a busy scene, and resound with the music of picks, hammers, sledges, and drills of the busy workmen. It is a busy, bustling scene, but one that tells of money, prosperity, and fortune. The Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati Railroad has run a branch road from the main line up the river and creek, through the quarries; which, with its extensive switches, makes about five miles of road. The amount of building stone, flagging, spalls, and grindstones carried from the quarries is immense, averaging now forty carloads per day, or 2,800 tons per week, making for the thirty weeks of business in the year a total of 84,000 tons. These figures are large and almost incredible, but as each car is weighed and registered, we think they must be correct. The business is so great that it requires two locomotives constantly employed in hauling out and arranging these cars into proper trains on the main line."

Grindstone production was estimated at over seven thousand tons in 1868, varying from 5 inches in diameter and 1-inch thick to 6 feet by 14 inches and weighing from four to three thousand pounds.

By 1915, the stone was usually being sawn to the required thickness and then broken into squares slightly larger than the required diameter. Next a hole was cut through the stone for an axle—usually with a pick (a square hole for a square shaft) or sometimes drilled (a round hole for a round shaft). The stone was then fastened to a rotating shaft for shaping and truing.

The stone was made circular by holding a soft steel bar with a sharply bent end against the side, as far from the stone’s center as possible. This cut a circular grove in the stone. The same was done to the other side. Eventually the deepening grooves met and the excess stone broke off. The sides of the stone were smoothed and trued with the same tool by resting it on a support and working it back and forth across the faces.

In making very large grindstones, the corners of the slab were first knocked off, creating a rough circle. The block was then sawn into slabs, crudely rounded, and square holes cut with a pick. They were then put through the same process.

For several years a moderate, though steadily in-creasing, quantity of grindstones was turned out by the new process, but their fame gradually widened, and the foundation of a far larger business was laid. The grindstones eventually worked their way to New York City wholesale and retail suppliers, who soon discovered that Berea grindstones were better and cheaper than the ones they were importing.

“Grindstones,” stated the 1869 article in The Manufacturer and Builder, "are shipped to all parts of the United States, and some have been sent to England, to Siberia, and to South America. The casual observer wonders what becomes of so many stones; but his wonder may cease when he remembers the multitude of extensive manufacturing establishments requiring the use of these stones for polishing purposes. We are told that several plow factories are now using up from twenty to thirty tons per year. The demand in the fast improving West can hardly be supplied. With the opening of every new farm or shop in the wilds of the western world there is created a demand for more edge-giving material."

As their quality became known the market expanded, and other quarrying companies were formed.

The softest, most uniform, flawless material was used for making grinding stones of all sizes and varieties suitable for wet or dry grinding. The stones commanded a high price and were exported extensively— to Russia, Europe, South America, Cuba, the Philippines, and Japan. Among grinding stones made at Amherst was the “American Wickersley,” especially valued for grinding saw plates, and edged tools. In New England, the Berea grindstones competed successfully with those from Nova Scotia. The finest grained material was used in manufacturing whetstones and scythe stones.

“Within the past four years,” continued The Manufacturer and Builder article, “workmen have been imported from England and set to work making scythe stones. They are now making six different styles of these useful implements. Besides the common kind of our boyhood days, they make the Darby Creek, English round, English flat, and comminute stones.”

By 1869, the Berea whetstone business amounted to $10,000 a year. The size of the grindstones depended on the intended use. Diameters ranged from a few inches to seven feet, sometimes more, and thicknesses from two or three inches to sixteen inches, but rarely larger (Figures 5, 6, and 7). Large grinding stones were cut from the coarse sandstone while smaller ones were made from the fine-grained. The material at Berea was not as suited for large grindstones as was that at Bedford and Independence.

The sandstone was particularly fine-grained and could be split into thin slabs of any desired thickness with little or no waste. The Berea quarries and mills were the main source of the smaller grindstones and the extensive manufacture of whetstones. Large grinding stones were produced at nearly every point in northern Ohio where the sandstone was quarried.

The prosperous business did have its downside, which the article noted.

"The upturned and disturbed condition of the quarries gives to the town of Berea any thing but an attractive appearance. It is ragged and jagged, torn and rent, and strewn with stones from one end to the other. Where ten years ago good houses were standing, large quarries are now opened, and hundreds of busy hands are digging and picking and pounding, as if for dear life. The resting place of the dead is not left undisturbed. Already the graves of one cemetery have been re-moved to give place to stone interests, and now the question is being agitated of a second removal.”

By 1870, more than five hundred men were employed in and about the Berea quarries, with an annual production valued at almost $500,000. During that year, 9,945 carloads of stone were shipped. This consisted mostly of “flagging” selling at 8¢ per square foot; “clear rock” at 30¢ per cubic foot, and grindstones at $12–$15 per ton. In February 1871, the interests of Lyman Baker & Co., F. M. Stearns Co., W. R. Wood & Co., George W. Whitney Co., and C. W. Stearns Co. were consolidated, and the owners organized a joint-stock company, the Berea Stone Co., with an invested capital of $500,000. The company’s quarries covered about forty acres, with a payroll of about a hundred men. Its production included building stone, grindstones, and scythe stones.

The building stone was marketed from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, and sometimes farther. The grindstones had a still wider market; the annual three thousand ton production went worldwide. The formation long continued to be the principal source of grindstones in the United States. In 1915, about 85 percent of the country’s total production was derived from the Berea grit.

In 1873, the Baldwin interests were merged by forming the chartered Baldwin Quarry Co. with a capital of $160,000. The quarries occupied about ten acres, yielding building stone, flagging, curbing, grindstones, etc., and employed between forty and sixty men.

About 1869, John Baldwin Jr. invented a “blower” for drawing away the clouds of dust generated in grindstone making, a device of great benefit to workers. As Crisfield Johnson described in his 1879 History of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, “Formerly many died of what was called ‘grind-stone consumption’ (silicosis); their lungs being found, after death, to be filled with the fine, flour-like dust, with which the air was impregnated during the turning process. The disease has now disappeared.” The average time a turner spent on the job was only five years.

Johnson stated that it was "in the grindstone factories that a stranger sees the most interesting process carried on. The method of operation has not been materially changed in principle since John Baldwin fastened his iron shaft to the old waterwheel forty-seven years ago. The mills are operated by steam, and the shafts whirl with lightning like rapidity. A stone is placed upon one of them, and in an instant is flying around at the rate of several hundred revolutions per minute. Two sturdy men stand beside it, with heavy iron bars, which they apply to the revolving stone. Crash—crash—crash—a blaze shoots out in clouds, but is quickly borne away by the patent “blower” which is one of the principal improvements lately adopted—crash—crash—the sparks grow finer as the stone becomes smoother—and at the end of from two to five minutes, according to size, the stone is flung from the shaft, finished."

It cost about $20,000 in 1885 to outfit a modest quarrying operation—pumps, drills, derricks, steam engines, cars, track, gunpowder, lathes, and saws—too much capital for most.

Thus in 1886 the Cleveland Stone Co. was organized, and took over all the quarries in operation. A year later, the company purchased the forty-five acres of land on which Baldwin University was located, for $90,000, and the university moved to its present location. Improved quarrying methods were introduced and operations modernized. The quarries in 1915 were located east and southeast of Berea, covering some 125 acres. The sandstone quarried at Bedford, some seventeen miles east of Berea, was well adapted for large grindstones and commanded a high price. The quarries also produced a variety of stone well suited for grinding springs, which was in great demand.

Figure 8 (below). Berea sandstone in the great quarry at the Ohio Quarries Co., South Amherst, Ohio, circa 1915. The depth is two hundred feet.

South Amherst’s quarries located about two miles south of the city, were in 1915, as they had been for many years, the most important site for quarrying the Berea grit in Ohio. The Berea grit at Amherst was among the softest and most uniform textured material worked and therefore useful for all kinds of special grinding (Figure 8). Some of the finest-grained were used in making whetstones. There were various places in the Berea grit where the stone was adaptable for whetstones, but such manufacture was only economical when it was supplemental to a larger quarrying operation. Whetstones alone could not sustain quarrying expenses. Only at Berea and Amherst could whetstones be manufactured on a large scale. Barely covered by earth in places, the Amherst stone must have been known to the early pioneers as soon as they moved into the area. In 1915, George Rice, who had lived near the Amherst quarries for more than sixty years, stated that in about 1855 stone had been hauled from there to Oberlin. Doubtless it was quarried in a small and sporadic way long before then.

About 1869, Cook & Wilson Co. opened what would become the great No. 6 Quarry of the Cleveland Stone Co. After operating it for a short time they sold the property to Mr. Cromwell of New York City, who formed the Amherst Stone Co., whose principal business was manufacturing grindstones. The quarries produced 13,700 tons of grindstones in 1870 at $12 to $15 a ton about $200,000 worth, and gave employment to 650 men. In 1874, the quarries were furnishing several varieties of grindstones of all sizes both for wet and dry grinding.

The last organization to enter the field was the Ohio Quarries Co., which was organized in 1903 by John R. Walsh of Chicago (Figures 9, 10, 11, and 12). Still operating in 1915, it was a large producer of stone. Its two quarries were immediately south of those of the Cleveland Stone Co.

The plants of the Cleveland Stone Co. at Amherst employed about 550 men in 1915 and shipped an average of thirty-five train cars of stone per day all year round. One hundred and seventy-five feet of stone had been removed from Quarry No. 6 alone.

At Independence, about eleven miles east of Berea, a stone possessing many characteristics of the Amherst stone was quarried, especially for grindstones. One layer yielded large grindstones best suited for dry grinding and reputedly did not glaze when used so. The stone was especially valued for grinding wood pulp for paper manufacture.

Quarrying became Independence’s main industry after 1840 when M. Sherman opened a quarry and remained so until the turn of the century. Cleveland industrialist J. R. Hurst had extensive quarry holdings in Independence and most of the “Mom and Pop” quarries were eventually bought out by him. All his properties became part of the Cleveland Stone Co. when Hurst and the other giants merged their workings. In 1850 some 332,150 pounds of sandstone was shipped out of Independence. Horses hauled grindstones weighing from 300 to 8,000 pounds over land to the nearby Erie Canal.

Quarry No. 2 of the Middleburg Stone Co., a few miles east of Amherst, was opened in 1911. The buff stone was used for making large grindstones from 4 feet in diameter and 4 inches thick to 7 feet in diameter and 16 inches thick! Though the stone was perfectly suitable for building purposes it was more profitable when turned into grindstones.

The demand for Ohio grindstones and building materials began to fall off at the turn of the last century. Sandstone was excellent for rough grinding, but by the 1880s and 1890s, the mass production of hardened alloy steel parts brought about the development of precision grinding machines. These precise machines required equally precise grinding wheels with abrasives of uniform and controllable characteristics. Their introduction led to the abandonment of naturally occurring grindstones and to the manufacturing wheels using natural and artificial abrasives.

Solid emery grinding wheels of several types were made from 1867 to 1872. Vitrified bonded emery wheels, which date to 1842, were commercially avail-able as early as 1872. The silicate-bonded wheel began in the United States in 1872. In 1877, F. B. Norton patented Swen Pulson’s process for making vitrified emery wheels and was in production by 1880.

In 1891 Edward G. Acheson invented a silicon carbide abrasive, which he called “carborundum.” By 1895 the newly formed Carborundum Co. had begun manufacturing the abrasive commercially and by 1896 carborundum grinding wheels were being marketed.

In 1897 Charles B. Jacobs discovered how to produce artificial corundum “alundum.” In 1901, the Norton Emery Wheel Co. purchased the process rights and opened the world’s first corundum factory at Niagara Falls, N.Y. By 1906 alundum had replaced emery and naturally occurring corundum in the company’s grinding wheels.

Figure 9 (top). Berea sandstone at Berea, Ohio, circa 1915. Figure 11 (middle). Sawing Berea sandstone, circa 1915. Figure 12 (bottom). Turning a grindstone from the Berea sandstone at Ohio Quarries Co., circa 1915.

Figure 10. Channeling machine used in quarrying Berea sandstone, circa 1915.

These man-made wheels of emery, corundum, and and carborundum met the needs of the new production grinders and quickly replaced natural grindstones even for sharpening. Concrete and cement were cheaper alternatives to stone sidewalks, curbs, and foundations.

The 1902 Sears & Roebuck Catalog listed several sizes of natural grinding stones ranging from 6 inches in diameter and 1 to 11⁄2 inches thick for 50¢ to 12 inches in diameter and 1-1⁄4 to 2 inches thick for 75¢. The catalog described them as “fine even grit, free from gravel or hard spots. Every one turned true; far better than an emery wheel for putting a cutting edge on tools.”

Today, the Cleveland Quarries Co. is reportedly Ohio’s only producer of natural grindstones, which the company obtains from its Berea sandstone quarry near Amherst.

Author Dana Batory, regular contributor to The Chronicle, is a geologist-turned-cabinetmaker who operates a small one-man shop using several antique machines in Crestline, Ohio. He is also author of the books Vintage Woodworking Machinery Volumes One & Two (Mendham, N.J.: Astragal Press). Volume One also provides information on buying and restoring machinery.

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