Blog : Colonial Stoneworks: Granite State of Mind

By Jim Cavan | Jan 20, 2014 | in

Few regional calling cards resonate with more authority than Granite State, that steadfast New Hampshire nickname that serves as much as a reflection of the state’s people as it does the endless bounty of rock beneath them.

During the 19th century, New Hampshire boasted one of the country’s largest – if not the largest – granite industries in the country. Even today, the town of Milford (still known colloquially as “Granite Town”) houses one now-defunct quarry made famous for its part in helping construct the U.S. Treasury Building, whose New Hampshire-borne pillars can still be seen on the back of the ten dollar bill.

But while the granite mining industry has since largely fallen by the wayside, one New Hampshire company is determined to make sure that both narratives – of a people’s resourcefulness, and of a proud state’s namesake – continue to thrive.

Adam Bennett is the owner of Windham-based Colonial Stoneworks, which provides services ranging from simple walkways and stairways to elegant fireplaces. On the surface, the services and skills Bennett offers might not seem that different from others in his field. Rather, it’s how the 28-year-old does it that sets him apart from the pack.

Colonial places a heavy emphasis on reclaimed and recycled materials, many of which are local. In many cases, the project fodder will come right from a client’s back yard – literally.

“I’ve had customers who do their own yard work and just collected a pile of stones over time, and a lot of times that stuff is usable,” Bennett says. “I did a wall a couple years ago on a Windham residence that had just bought a lot behind them that led up to the water, and there was this huge piece of exposed ledge. So we picked it apart and collected everything that had broken off and used a lot of that for the project.”

For Bennett, the calculus is simple: Why pay for expensive pallets of stone from quarries as far afield as Pennsylvania – only to pay more for shipping and unloading – when plenty of high quality, native materials are there for the taking? For Bennett, not only is scavenging for local materials less expensive in general; it’s also far less energy intensive, something that goes part and parcel with his burgeoning “green” approach to stonework.

“I did a job once in Concord that required literally tons of stone,” Bennett recalls. “So instead of 40 pallets of stone, or basically 40 cubic yards, all we had were two 20-yard dumpsters filled with stones we’d reclaimed. At that point you just dump them in a pile and go to work.”
Such efforts, while requiring more heavy lifting – literally and figuratively – are not only good for cutting costs, but cutting Colonial’s environmental footprint as well. Extracting stone and rock is, by its nature, enormously energy intensive, something Bennett feels strongly can, and in many ways should, be avoided.

And that’s just the beginning of Colonial’s green initiatives. Bennett uses biodiesel – made by a neighbor using waste vegetable oil – in all his diesel machinery and trucks, making every effort to use all other gasoline-powered machinery as seldom as possible. Bennett even installed his own on-site 500-gallon storage tank to store the biodiesel, meaning fewer trips to the pump to fill up.

Additionally, Bennett performs weekly service and maintenance on all equipment and trucks to keep things operating at maximum efficiency, as well as boasting a strict "no-idling" campaign. And for his customers, Bennett recommends paperless billing and invoicing, drastically cutting down on unnecessary waste of paper. Add it all up, you’re left with a snapshot of a business setting itself squarely apart from industry brass.

“It’s definitely a competitive field, but in reality the guys who do dry stone work are a dying breed,” Bennett says, referring to stone-based projects that rely more on gravity and friction than cement or mortar to hold the pieces together. “But from my perspective the dry stone is far superior because it allows for flexibility and breathability, where a wall with a lot of mortar will eventually crack and fall apart. And that’s not even getting to the green aspect of it.”

Because of the highly specialized nature of the dry stone niche, Colonial’s one-man show has learned a lot on the fly, all to assure that whatever vision the customer has for their yard, patio or walkway can be brought to life.

Like Brian and Karen McCloskey. Tired of a yard that suffered from poor drainage and seemed aesthetically uninviting, the McCloskeys wanted nothing less than to etch their vision into stone – prettily, powerfully, and permanently. That’s when Brian McCloskey contacted Bennett, who took to reshaping, and in many ways reimagining, his client’s unique landscape.

But while the end result was as beautiful as it was creatively rendered, it certainly wasn’t easy; not only was the site composed mostly of clay – a notoriously difficult material to dig around – it also boasted a challenging slope (originally held back with railroad ties) now overgrown and beginning to erode.

“It was tough, but when everything came together, it made it that much more rewarding,” Bennett recalls.

Though the project would extend through consecutive summers, such temporal concerns seemed secondary when compared to the greater, greener achievement: Bennett was able to reclaim 85% of the stone used for the project from a nearby quarry.

The McCloskeys were particularly pleased with the zen-like placement of the materials, which Bennett says dictated much of the project’s overall direction. That direction included the placement of a stone staircase that the McCloskeys found particularly charming – just one example of how Bennett and his clients unique collaboration succeeded in serving the site’s naturally picturesque vantage points.

“The project has extended the living space, meaning we can now spend more time outside,” Brian McCloskey said. “The work reflected the land well and added interest and elevation to the landscape.”

Even when a particular project demands a more straightforward approach, Bennett’s ability to work within and speak to the surrounding property’s singular character – to add a bit of luxury to the always-fickle New England elements – inevitably finds its way to the fore.

Jim and Marilyn Donahue found them selves in just this position when, a few summers back, they first looked into adding an outdoor fireplace to their newly renovated stone patio. Indeed, few relics of summer are more beloved or imbued with nostalgia than an evening around an outdoor fire – why with the stories, songs, and S’mores infusing the crisp evening air as bountifully as embers.

Typically, the centerpiece of this seasonal rite is no more complex than a hand-dug hole or a shallow metal bowl – a rustic venue for a rustic ritual. But the Donahues were looking for something more.

“We love our property, and we love large group gatherings – that was our original motivation,” says Marilyn Donahue, recalling when she and Jim first considered augmenting their North Hampton property. “As much as we love fire pits, there’s nothing quite like the ambiance of an actual fireplace.”

Enter Adam Bennett.

“I’d done a handful of fire pits before, but nothing that was too complicated,” says Bennett of his first large-scale outdoor fireplace. “This was a different animal entirely.”

The result is a majestic yet Spartan nine-by-six structure with 15 and 20 foot seating walls on each side, respectively – perfect for gatherings large and small alike. In the course of bringing the Donohues’ vision to life, Bennett extended the house’s patio to create an airy outdoor living space, with thick woodlands beyond and the open air making for a truly New England arena.

“It was a great property to work with,” recalls Bennett. “It’s always rewarding to create something you know is going to get a lot of use, and I think this will.”

Bennett also managed to augment the rustic patio centerpiece with an internal pizza oven, complete with shelf and rack. And while the Donahues have yet to test their pie-making mettle, they’ve already succeeded in rendering their new backyard staple one for all seasons.

“We used it throughout the winter, actually,” says Donahue. “And it’s only going to get used more during the summer months.”
When all was said and done, the Donhues had a space that functioned like an outdoor living room, while taking its aesthetic cues from the original house-mounted chimney itself.

“When we first started, we asked Adam if he could make it look as much like our chimney as possible,” notes Donahue “And I think he did a pretty darn good job.”

Marilyn says she expects Bennett’s piece to get more than it’s fair share of use in the months and years ahead. Good thing, then, that the materials which make up her family’s outdoor nook are nearly as old as time already.

“Everything I do, I want it to last – just like these stones have lasted for centuries,” exclaims Adam Bennett. “Otherwise, why do it at all?"