Published December 14, 2005 in Trumansburg Free Press (Trumansburg, NY)

Land & People
Stonemason Greg Reynolds

by Bill Chaisson

Greg Reynolds is, among other things, a stonemason. His present, and on-going project is a retaining wall at Regional Access on Cayuga Street. The construction is regularly interrupted by the necessity for Reynolds to make a living at something else and the exhaustion of the existing piles of material.  It takes more stone than you might think to build a significant wall. As an exploratory drive around this area will tell you, not everyone knows how to build a dry stone wall. “Dry” means “without mortar”. If you don’t know what you are doing, it falls down.

Born in Oneida 32 years ago, Reynolds’ family migrated slightly westward and eventually settled in Cananadigua. Reynolds was nineteen when he began working with stone under the tutelage of Dave Haller, a Canandaigua builder and mason. He dropped out of SUNY Oswego to go skiing, and worked off and on with Haller until he was twenty-three, when he “dove in”, staying on the crew for a full year.

The back of Reynold’s house faces Trumansburg Creek. An iMac sits in one corner overlooking the wooded valley. Reynolds, wiry and quick with a thick brown beard and an unruly thatch of hair, answers the door. We settle into the kitchen table to talk about wall building. He speaks in staccato bursts, picking up speed as he gets more excited about his subject. “The Regional Access stone is coming out of a pit in Hancock, New York. It’s similar to Llenroc,” said Reynolds, referring to the near-legendary stone used to build so many buildings on the Cornell campus and in Ithaca. Geologically speaking, Llenroc is part of the Ithaca Formation, a late Devonian age (350 million year old) stack of intercalated shales and siltstones. Hancock, down on the Pennsylvania border east of Binghamton, is in the Chemung Group, slightly younger, but as Reynolds says, mostly siltstone like Llenroc.

“The wall at Access is 46 inches high, which is about has high as you make a dry stone wall … if you want it to keep standing. You have to carry your 15 and your 5 … just as a rough guide.” Seeing my confusion, Reynolds hurriedly 
explained that a retaining wall as to be 15˚ off vertical, leaning into the hill that you are holding up, and your stones should be angled into the slope at 5˚ below horizontal. “This is all ‘wild face’”. Seeing my new blank expression, he added “No saw marks”.

“When I’m working on a wall I sort all the stone by size,” he goes on. “My really big pieces are like 50 cent pieces. And then you’ve got your quarters and nickels. After a while you start to know each individual stone. You’ll be looking at the wall and think of a specific piece and go ‘Oh yeah, I need that one’ and turn around to get it. One of things you learn eventually is ‘when it’s time to get more stone’. You just don’t have the right pieces anymore.

The stone from Hancock is about an inch thick. The top and bottom of each piece is essentially a bedding plane. That is, the former bottom of the sea. The individual beds that you can see in an outcrop of sedimentary rock are visible because of slight changes in sediment grain size, caused by changes in current strength at the time of deposition. After the sediment has been compressed into rock the planes where sediment changes size are only visible, but the grains are bonded together more weakly. The vertical breaks in the stone are parallel to joints in the regional bedrock (see previous column; November 2005). The bedrock of the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions tends to break into roughly rectangular slabs, but it can also be cut into perfectly rectangular pieces, which are referred to as “flagstones”.

I asked Reynolds if he “dressed” stone, altered it with tools to get it into the appropriate shape. “Sure, sure,” he says with an impatient wave of his hand, “the more contour you can throw at stone, the more comes out. But round stone has to be cut.  You can stack round stone dry, but you can’t build it as high. And it doesn’t really look as … formal.  It’s more country looking.”
“Come on. Look at this,” he says suddenly, jumping up from the table and picking his way agilely across a living room littered with his infant daughter’s toys to the iMac in the corner. He has a long list of stonemasonry sites bookmarked on his browser and navigates to The Stone Foundation (http://www. stonefoundation.org), which publishes a magazine called Stonexus. “Where is it, where is it?” He is looking for a specific wall; one that he particularly likes. It turns out to be an impressive piece of engineering, practically sculpted. Hunched over the keyboard, his hand hovering over the mouse, he peers into the screen, a present-day member of a trade thousands of years old, admiring the work of a peer.

Hibernian Weather Channel Productions

Last revised:  January 2, 2006