Historic buildings rescued one stone at a time

A Sask. stone mason finds his creative calling, hand picking rocks and slowly piecing together historical masterpieces

Growing up in the tiny farming community of Fertile, Sask., which is now a ghost town, 18-year-old Kurt McPherson’s wandering spirit took him to Alberta and to a variety of jobs including the oil patch and tile setting in million dollar homes and fancy hotels.

The jobs provided a living, but didn’t satisfy his quest for something more meaningful; something of a more creative nature. So when a friend introduced him to an Okotoks chimney builder by the name of Gordon White, he was fascinated by what he calls “paint by rock,” a term that describes masonry, which demands a creative eye and the simple, but critical intricacies of an almost forgotten trade.

“Gord was my mentor and I worked for him as his stone wrestler,” says McPherson. “I carried rocks and moved them around until he was satisfied they fit together to create the proper mosaic. I didn’t pick up a trowel for a couple of years, but I understood that he was training my eye. He shared a bit of expertise in how to properly mix a lime-based mortar, but it would be years later and much practice that I perfected the mix.

“I continued to work on the rigs in the winter months and work alongside Gordon for a few more years part time before I moved to Crowsnest Pass. One day, I made the decision to follow my passion and took a brush and painted McPherson Stone Works across the side of my truck, which became my mobile business card.”

McPherson does the final trim work and flashing on the roof repairs. | Bruce Neill photo

He says he got his first job for the new business while he was working at a burger joint when a man asked if he could do some stonework for him.

“My first job was to cover the concrete foundation of his new home with river rock. I went to the river and hand-picked all the stones and I continue to gather both rock and bricks from demolition sites, stone quarries and farmer’s rock piles.”

Over the years, McPherson amped up his masonry education, getting his journeyman brick-laying designation at SAIT college in Calgary. He says SIAST in Saskatchewan offers the same course but neither offers much for a stone mason. He says the industry is almost dead as most tradespeople prefer the “lick and stick” type of stonework, working with thin slices of rocks.

The Grand Theatre stone foundation restoration is now 90 percent complete. | Bruce Neill photo

Then a chance meeting with a Texan while on a trip to Alaska introduced McPherson to outside pizza ovens.

“This fellow asked if I could come to Texas to help him build an outside pizza, which opened up another idea for my trade,” said McPherson. “I have since built one for myself, and plan to build more.

He eventually moved his family to Indian Head, Sask., and arrived there at about the same time that the town introduced its Main Street Revitalization Project and the downtown was full of opportunities for a stone and brick mason.

The town, like many on the Prairies, proved to hold a treasure trove of promise for masonry. In the old days, there had been a brick factory and a power plant where the smoke stack still stands. So many memories were waiting to be rekindled by someone who could make the lost magic reappear.

While McPherson’s first jobs included building a fireplace, repairing the brick on the old fire hall and rebuilding the town hall war memorial, news of his expertise spread around the community and he became the go-to- guy for the Grand Theatre restoration, which is still a work in progress five years later.

He said until he came to Indian Head, all he’d heard about historical restoration was don’t touch it.

During the Grand Theatre restoration, he has worked on the stone foundation, which is about 90 percent complete, done repointing work on the exterior, fixed holes in the brick and is starting crack repair by replacing the mortar.

The Mainstreet Revitalization Project helped kickstart the Grand Theatre restoration. | Bruce Neill photo

While stone and brick masonry is as much about the creative eye, especially when using stone, it is solely based on a lime mortar. “Lime mortar was used for thousands of years but it’s not quick and it can be a dangerous product to work with,” said McPherson. “The dust isn’t good for you; it likes water but has a high pH so it is caustic. A true stone mason requires very little to work with. They need a trowel and a blacksmith hammer and the rest of materials you collect from the land.”

McPherson has a stash of rock and brick around the countryside. He gets permission from farmers in particular to raid their stone piles and the stones stay untouched until they are needed. His work is methodical and painstaking and not a cheap fix.

“In the last seven years, I’ve worked on historical buildings such as the Reynold’s Homestead (1894) in Gainsborough, the post office (1907) in Melfort, the McNaughton Block (1890s-1900) in Moosomin, the WWI War Memorial in Shaunavon and taught a short remediation class in Maple Creek, just to name a few,” he said.

“I was able to save a fellow in Indian Head thousands of dollars when he was told by a contractor he needed a new foundation on his 1892 built house. I was able to restore it for $10,000 and he got a new concrete floor, weeping tile and sumps for that price.

“Every job has similarities, but every building has its own problems. It’s like archeology to me when I take apart a building. I have journeyman papers and practiced my craft for 25 years, but still see myself as a life-long learner.”

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