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Oakley stone: How Middle Mountain yields its treasure

The Times-News — Laurie Welch The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho

June 18--OAKLEY -- Steep clay roads wind up Middle Mountain to one of Idaho's quieter industries -- one that yields a natural product prized around the world.

At 7,000 feet, a canopy of blue envelopes Middle Mountain as large, growling machinery digs and plucks at exposed outcrops of Rocky Mountain quartzite, better known as Oakley stone.

Perched on the mountain's steep west face, Gaspar Ramirez Jr. operates an excavator in a Sawtooth Stone LLC quarry to deftly free large, sparkly slabs from earth that has hidden them for the past 620 million years. The machine scoops up the quartzite -- unmatched by any other in the world -- and places it in a waiting dump truck.

Before the stone hits Interstate 84 -- headed for destinations around the world -- crews will split, sort, stack and haul the stone to a yard, some for fabrication into uniform or custom pieces. Those stone slabs, lovely and elegant, might adorn a well-heeled customer's fireplace or pave a public plaza. But the cost is back-wrenching labor in an industry often overlooked in southern Idaho.

Ramirez operates the excavator controls to grasp chunks and yank them from the mountain. They hit the ground with a thwack, puffs of dirt billowing into the air. When the dump truck is full, he hops out of the excavator and into the truck to deliver the stone to crews waiting below.

The use of excavators revolutionized the industry in the 1980s; previously it used dynamite to blast rock loose from the mountain, creating much more broken material. But along with big machinery, it takes many hands to split the stone at the quarry and to package it for the trip to stone yards.

A loyal crew of 60 comes to work for Sawtooth Stone each April through November from central Mexico. The men live and work at the quarries -- work that locals pass by.

"Without them there would be no company," said Bruce Mitchell, one of Sawtooth Stone's owners.

Chisel in one hand, hammer in the other, they are artisans reading each stone to find the seams of soft mica where it will easily split. That ability to split cleanly into thin slabs increases the stone's value and makes it desired as a building material.

There's nothing quite like Oakley stone.

A natural stone creation

Northern Stone Supply Inc., another of the leading companies mining Rocky Mountain quartzite on Oakley's Middle Mountain, is able to mine enough material during the season to keep staff busy in the office, yards and fabrication shop all year, vice president Greg Osterhout said.

Inside the company's fabrication shop, workers run pieces of stone through saws that use computer-aided design software to create precisely sized pieces.

Some of the stone is sawed into thin veneers to side homes and other buildings. Some is custom cut into stair treads, fireplaces or other specialty pieces. And some remains as flagstone for floors, walkways and poolsides.

Each pallet, about 4,000 pounds, wholesales for about $600. The stone yards that purchase it generally mark up the cost 100 percent plus freight, Mitchell said.

Each of the quarries yields a distinctive look, and the stone patterns and colors are given catchy names like Cherokee Charcoal, Yukon Gold, Sunset Silver, White Mist and Honey.

Some quarries also produce granite, landscaping boulders and moss rock.

"I can tell where every stone came from, they are that distinct," Mitchell said.

Beauty revealed

Daniel Diaz Toboada stands beside a pile of rock at Warms Spring Quarry. Bent over a large slab of rock, he studies it intently, finding the sweet spot indicated by the deposits of mica. As he runs his chisel down it, his hammer's quick, studied blows separate the fused minerals, producing uniform slabs of quartzite.

He picks up the slabs and stacks them vertically in a wooden crate. They are sorted by color; the pieces more flecked with mica shine madly in the sun. Other pieces have subtle patterns colored in grey, red and green. The traditional-looking Oakley stone glitters with a layer of silver or gold.

For quality control, Toboada's name is written in black marker on the wooden side of the crates. He will work through 4 tons of the rock a day, clearing the large pile in two or three days.

Each company has developed its own way of boring into the mountain to harvest the stone, which can run in 400-foot-long veins.

Often the stone harvested deeper inside the mountain received more pressure, which melded it together, and it doesn't split as well.

"The best rock always seems to be at the top," Mitchell said.

But Osterhout figures there is plenty of Oakley stone left on the mountain to mine, maybe 150 years' worth.

Like many workers on the Sawtooth Stone crew, Ramirez is carrying on a tradition of men in his family who worked at the quarry. His father began working for Sawtooth when it was started; an excavator operator, he retired just last year.

For many of the seasonal employees, work began at an early age in Mexico, where they spent their days bent over to plant a seed at a time in farm fields.

Working at the quarry, Toboada is guaranteed to make $10.43 an hour with a 40-hour work week. But because the company pays him by the piece, he can double his guarantee and often takes home $3,000 a month. At home, he can earn only about $200 a month.

Ramirez recently got married and is building a house in Oaxaca, Mexico.

"That's a big deal to be able to build a house where they live," said Mitchell, who once traveled to central Mexico to visit his crew. "I wanted to see where they lived. The only poverty that I've seen that was worse was in Africa."

Mitchell provides travel trailers for his crew, parked in camps at the quarries along with portable toilets, and he brings fresh water up to the camp.

The men come here only to work, Mitchell said. Once a week his company provides transportation so they can shop and do laundry in town.

A mountain in control

The work, Mitchell said, takes its toll on a human body, his own included.

Mitchell went into the mining business in 2003 with Carl Borgstrom after three years of 50-cents-a-sack potatoes brought him to his knees.

Although the stone mining business is tough, both Mitchell and Osterhout say they love their jobs.

The business has a steep learning curve.

"Just like the mountain," Mitchell said.

In 2008, when the stock market tumbled on Wall Street, it was like someone shut off a key.

"We didn't sell a stone for six months," he said.

But the industry rebounded, and for the most part it has been good to Mitchell.

Large boulders weighing several hundred pounds unearthed from above sit in the roadway -- a not-so-gentle reminder that a quarry is a dangerous place.

"The mountain can hurt you pretty bad," Mitchell said, guiding his pickup around them.

Over the years, injuries to workers' thumbs required his company to develop new methods of picking up the stones. Crew members also don safety glasses to keep flying shards of stone out of their eyes and steel-toed boots to prevent crushed bones if a stone should slip. When the crew arrives at the quarry, a safety meeting is the first order of business.

"All the rock in the world is not worth someone getting hurt," Mitchell said.

Most of his workers have been at the quarry long enough to know what needs to be done and just do it without being told.

But the mountain dictates the work for the day, and the mountain remains in control. Rain will shut down the quarries by rendering the clay roads impassable for trucks that haul the quartzite to the yards.

Mitchell's workday consists of driving the steep mountain roads from quarry to quarry, checking on each crew and admiring the view from his office window -- a pickup windshield at 7,000 feet. The stunning scene is a colorful tapestry of springtime fields in the valley.

"You can't beat it."

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