Stone is such a durable and desirable building material.  We wanted to incorporate some into Underhill House.

Helen and Scott Nearing, pioneering back-to-the-landers,  who built their house and farm buildings from stone on their Vermont land, were rich in a flinty sort of igneous rock formed from cooling lava.  Unfortunately, we are sitting on some relatively soft sedimentary rock formed when layer upon layer of silt drifted to the bottom of an ancient sea.  All the stone that has surfaced on our Driftless Area land has been crumbly sandstone.

We weren’t inspired to build our house out of something we could scratch with our fingernails.

We are trying to keep the miles down on our building materials where possible, especially heavy stuff like rock, so, we visited Swiggum Quarry about 10 miles away, where the rock is a bit harder.  We found piles of rock that looked to be about the right size and a pleasing yellowish tan hue.

We ordered a truck-full.

Tom Spicer, who helped us build our slip for stone walls, was not wild about the when it was delivered.  It is not really the right size – mostly too big – and broken into chunks without  the necessary one flat side.  I found out later that the rock from Swiggum Quarry is not considered attractive enough for building or landscaping and is mostly used for road beds.

We could now see that this stone was not ideal, but because we had a massive pile of it, we decided to forge ahead.  Picking through the pile, we managed to make a reasonable job of the lower of our two stone walls, the one around the walk out part of the basement.

Now it’s time to make the next 18-inch high stone wall around the main floor of the house( to keep the straw bale off the ground).  Last Friday Tom and I made another trip to the quarry in his pick-up truck  to hand pick the best road bed stones we could find.

As he weighed our empty truck, the quarry man Rick, told us to work fast because they were setting up for an explosion.  We wound our way through mountains of gravel and rock in the lifeless, lunar-like landscape till we found the pile of rocks best suited to our task, and we began scouring the lower level for useable rocks.

Only 30 minutes later Rick roared up to us in a gigantic truck.

Time to get out of the quarry now! 

We dropped the rocks we were holding and followed him to the quarry entrance, where one of the team of explosive technicians was also waiting.

Before the blast.

Unfortunately, I only had my small snap-and-shoot camera, which is easy to carry while I’m working but has that damned delay that all little digital cameras have.  Who knew, when I hopped in Tom’s truck that morning, that I was about to witness a wall of rock be blasted to smithereens?

We heard three warning honks from the explosives  truck, a pause, and then a single crack of thunder shook the valley.


The explosives technician from Bennet Explosives, based in Manchester IA,  said that he blows something up just about every single day, moving around the Midwest to wherever his services are needed.  Swiggum Quarry is “shot” about twice a year.

The main ingredient in the explosives is acetic acid, which they transport in a tanker truck.   The technician said he mixes the explosives at the site, so as not to be driving around with a volatile load that could come to a bad end on a rail road track or highway pileup.  He didn’t tell me what he mixes in to make the acid go boom.

I asked him if he still detonates using a box with a plunger, which made him smile.  Explosions are now triggered by a little hand-held device with two yellow buttons and a red light.

Fresh, local rock.

We were allowed to return as the dust drifted away, and we curiously approached the mountain of rubble to see if it was more what we were looking for. I was excited by the idea of fresh, local rock.

Alas, it had not broken into the kind of pieces we need, but as we walked up to it, both Tom and I were struck with a faint but distinctly fishy smell coming from the rock pile, evoking a powerful sense of the sea shore.

Could we have been inhaling the scent of an ancient ocean?

After all, this is sedimentary rock built up as detritus drifted to the bottom of some long-gone sea.

I called up Richard Slaughter, the Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Geology Museum .  He assured me I could not have been smelling an ancient aroma.

The best scientific estimates put the rock in that quarry at well over 400 million years old.

The sea that this rock formed under swarmed with very different life than our present seas.  It would have been filled with coral and squid-like creatures.  And though they might have smelled a bit like fish do today, any fishy smell in that limestone has been washed with millions of years’ worth of fresh ground water flowing through it.

Though I didn’t get confirmation of my hope to have connected with the scent of an ancient sea, I am looking at our roadbed rock with more respect today.   It might not win a beauty contest, but it has been around for 400 million years.  Pioneer farmers in this area used its like to support their barns and it should easily hold up our house for hundreds more.

4 replies

  1. I love the idea that your rocks were once part of an ocean 400 million years ago. I think you did smell the ocean. Or rather, the ghost of oceans past. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Lorijo
    Frankly, I do too. That was the smell of the sea. No one ever forgets that smell, even a land-locked Midwesterner like me. When I inhaled that salty, fishy air in the bottom of a dry, lifeless quarry, I felt very sure something very rare was happening. It faded very fast, and I feel lucky to have been there at that moment.

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