FROM THE ASHES: The long-shuttered Phenix Marble Co. is up and running again. Freddie Flores, left, and Dave Karr prepare to send this shipment to Palm Springs, California.
Digging Out: Phenix Marble rebuilds its name as mining industry slumps
It’s a chilly Tuesday morning in Willard as workers load the diamond cutter with its next project. The crew of eight always is mindful of their fingers – you have to be when dealing with a 12-ton chunk of rock. Hard hats on and feet back, they press the big-red button and the two-story machine roars to life. It’s slow, methodical, as the chain inches closer to the 10-foot block. Water sprays in multiple directions as blade meets stone and the cut begins.
More than 100 years after the quarry’s discovery, the Phenix Marble Co. is back in business. Closed during the Great Depression as production ground to a halt, it took the Great Recession to revive the quarry and company. Now, a subsidiary of Conco Co., Phenix Marble reopened last summer in part because of the dedication of a clothing designer turned marble sculptor as well as the need for diversification.
“We saw potential here. It’s a different kind of mining, but it’s still mining,” said Conco Executive Vice President Dave Karr.
The local rebirth is critical for Conco and indicative of mining’s decline nationwide. Limestone is a staple in the Ozarks and the rolling hills house roughly a dozen quarry operations. Companies such as Conco and Leo Journagan Construction Co. Inc. deal primarily in aggregate – gravel, sand, crushed stone, etc. – mostly used for roads, bridges and parking lots.
“Simply put, we take big rocks and make them into little rocks,” said Journagan Vice President John View. “But a rock is a rock, and it’s only worth so much.”
And that worth isn’t as much as it used to be.
Journagan has five mines dotting the landscape from Hollister to Ozark, but not all currently are in operation due to slow demand. It’s a sign of the times, said View. As the economy went south, like the rest of the construction industry, so did mining work. But unlike commercial construction, View’s largest client still is hampered with a declining budget. The Missouri Department of Transportation, which is tasked with maintaining the country’s seventh-largest highway system, saw its budget shrink to $150 million, down from $1.3 billion in 2009.
“Cuts to the budget are cuts to us directly,” View said.
Nationwide, the industry also is feeling the pinch. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 397 million metric tons of crushed stone were produced in third quarter 2016, down 3 percent from the pervious year, and consumption of crushed stone decreased in six of the nine geographic divisions tracked. In Missouri, crushed stone is down 31.8 percent for the quarter.
In a matter of a few hours, the Phenix crew will produce multiple sheets of stone from the single block. For use as counter tops, steps and baseboards, the marble is destined for cites across America. Historically, it can be seen on the floors of the New York Stock Exchange and the rotunda of the Missouri Capitol. Most recently, it can be seen in Kansas City’s Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, the walls of Missouri State University’s Pummill Hall and at Dartmouth College. Outside, a shipment sitting in the gravel yard is headed to Palm Springs, California, and another drives by on flatbed truck on its way to a mock wall in Branson’s Highway 76 restoration project.
The original quarry dates back to 1884, when blasting during the construction of the Kansas City, Clinton, Springfield railroad uncovered a major limestone deposit in northern Greene County, near the town of Phenix.
For three decades, Phenix Marble was one of the largest producers of cut stone and marble in the West; its quarry employed hundreds of people and produced more than 250,000 cubic feet of stone annually, according to its website.
After World War II, America was flooded with European marble in support of rebuilding efforts across the continent. Phenix never regained its status and production stopped.
Enter designer Freddie Flores, who became interested in the mine’s leftover stone. He designed a few tables and benches before being approached by Springfield’s First & Calvary Presbyterian Church.
“They were working on expanding and needed the matching stone,” Flores said. “It sort of snowballed from there. People heard about my work and started requesting projects.”
Flores’ designs can be seen around town, including on the benches lining the Ozarks Greenways Trail.
Leasing space and utilizing the leftover stone, the 20-year stone sculptor turned to friends at Conco for help to keep the project going. The talks sparked their interest and a partnership was born. In the spring of 2015, Conco purchased the quarry for an undisclosed amount and Karr said it invested a “substantial” amount of money to get operations up and running.
“It was almost a year before we started mining new blocks,” he said. “We soon realized this was a great combination and there was tremendous local interest.”
Phenix is known for it’s Napoleon Gray marble – named because of its resemblance to a French marble popular during the Napoleonic era – which only can be found in the Ozarks. Cutting the stone against the grain produces Napoleon Gray – almost zig zag lines running the length of the stone; cutting with the grain is known as fleuri cut. Used in capitals, banks, train stations, grand hotels, museums and other public and commercial buildings nationwide, as news of Phenix’s reopening spread, Karr said interest for historical renovations has skyrocketed.
“These are old buildings they thought they would never be able to match,” he said.
With roughly 170 acres of quarry space, Flores said Phenix only has tapped into a tenth of its potential.
“We could use this mine for the next 100 years,” he said. “I get excited talking about it.
“When I look at the clothes I used to design, I shake my head. ‘Why did I make that?’ Style changes every season, but this lasts forever.”
While Phenix is climbing, the overall mining and quarry industry is riding a roller coaster. Journagan’s View said two pieces of legislation could be the biggest harm and the biggest help for the industry.
The Missouri legislature currently is debating the elimination of prevailing wage. According to the Department of Labor, prevailing wage law establishes a minimum wage rate that must be paid to workers on public works construction projects, such as bridges, roads and government buildings.
“They could adversely affect people in unions and make it harder to compete on some of these public projects, like at MSU and (Springfield Public Schools),” he said.
Journagan ended the season – which runs March through November – with 135 employees, all part of three local unions.
President Donald Trump’s proposed $1 trillion in infrastructure spending could have the opposite effect on the industry.
“That would be critical,” View said. “Not just for us, but our nation’s infrastructure is aging. It’s something that was neglected during the recession.”
A campaign promise, Trump has yet to unveil a plan. As the aggregate industry waits on politics, multiple blocks a day continued to be hauled from the Phenix quarry.
“It’s like flipping through a book with each stone,” Flores said, pointing out different fossils in the block. “Each stone has a story to tell, and it’s my job to tell it.”