Howard Wolford has been involved with making monuments for the majority of his life.
He was raised around a family-owned monument business that has been operating in the Houston area since 1903: Wolford Monument Company.
His experience has given him a wealth of knowledge about the characteristics of different types of granite and he knows the states or countries in which each kind can be found. He has seen the monument industry go from being a largely manual trade to one dominated by automation and electronics.
Basically, not much in the monument world could surprise Wolford or take him out of his comfort zone.
A couple of years ago, the United States Army began planning the construction of a memorial wall in honor of fallen combat engineers (or “sappers”) who died fighting the global War on Terror. Thanks in part to the efforts of Wolford, the Sapper Memorial Wall now stands at Fort Leonard Wood.
While the average granite grave marker Wolford engraves and sells might weigh several hundred pounds, the combined weight of the Sapper Wall’s three granite sections and accompanying bases total a whopping 11 tons.
Each of the wall’s sections stands six feet high and is 4 ½ feet wide. The bases that support the wall sections are 18-inches high by 30-inches deep.
Wolford had done projects for Fort Wood in the past, so when the Army wanted someone to be in charge of engraving the wall, he got the call.
“This was a real challenge,” Wolford said. “It made me real nervous; I’d lie awake a lot of times at night thinking about how I was going to do this or that.”
The Sapper Memorial Wall is made of a coarse-grain granite, while the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., is comprised of fine black granite. The lettering used on the Vietnam wall is 1/2-inch high, whereas letters on the Sapper Memorial are 3/4-inch high.
A sapper (derived from the French term sapeur), or combat engineer, is a combatant soldier who performs a wide variety of duties, including — but not limited to — bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, general construction, and road and airfield building and repair. Wolford painstakingly etched the names of 343 sappers on the Memorial Wall, which was unveiled in a ceremony on April 7.
The Missouri red granite for the monument was quarried near Ironton and then cut and finished in Elberton, Ga.
After the wall’s parts were shipped to his shop on U.S. 63 just south of Houston, Wolford and his crew worked with them for several weeks.
In addition to engraving names in the granite and then painting the etched areas, much of that time was dedicated to proof reading. Howard’s wife, Carolyn, spent hours making sure there were no misspelled or missing names.
“I double, triple and quadruple-checked it,” she said. “We had to make sure it was right.”
Wolford said additional time was added when an Army general indicated he wanted names placed on the monument in a different order than Wolford first presented. The change-up required creation of a whole new set of stencils.
“We had to go back and re-do the whole list in the computer,” Wolford said.
Moving the huge monument required some heavy equipment and some creative thinking by Wolford and an advisor or two. The task also required some compromise by the Army.
“Their original plan was to have the three sections pushed together,” Wolford said, “but it was just so massive. We ended up putting them about an inch apart.”
Wolford Monument Company was started by Howard’s grandfather and great uncle at the site of the Newton Ranch on Highway 137. They would take their horse team and wagon to Willow Springs and pick up their supply of rock after it was delivered by railroad.
Being farmers by day, the men would work on monuments at night, one holding a lantern while the other used a mallet and chisel to carve letters.
“Things were a bit different then,” Wolford said.
Starting in the business when he was 12, Wolford recalls doing a lot of monument work without the help of computer programs for patterns, machines that cut stencils and sophisticated engraving equipment.
“I started when everything was still done by hand,” he said.
Prices of different types of granite can vary widely, primarily because of the difficulty in quarrying large pieces of some types that are worthy of use. When big chunks are cut out of a quarry, only a small amount might be without fracturing or other undesirable traits. The rest is called “waste.”
“In quarries, they strive for good rock that’s uniform in color,” Wolford said, “but a lot of rock has veins and seams running through it and has streaks and blotches or other discoloration. The more waste, the rarer a type of granite is considered to be.”
Some granite gets labeled “bad rock” due to being unusable for other reasons.
“Out west especially, you’ll find some bad rock,” Wolford said. “It’s real porous, it flakes real easy and you can take a hammer and tap it and it falls apart.”
States with quarries that provide granite used in pre-cut monuments ordered by Wolford include Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin. Most of the granite in use today is a gray-toned variety that comes from an area of North Georgia near the small town of Elberton.
“They call Elberton ‘the granite capital of the world,'” Wolford said. “The granite from there is the most common because it’s the least expensive. They have more quarries there and it runs more clear, so they have a lot less waste. They utilize probably 80 percent of their stock.”
The most expensive — and one of Wolford’s personal favorites — is a “Wassau Red” that comes from Wisconsin.
“It’s the hardest granite being quarried in the United States,” Wolford said. “But it’s very expensive; I was talking with a supplier in Minnesota who buys blocks of Wassau and he said they probably only utilize three to four percent of what is cut, because there are so many seams and silver waves running through it.”
Quarries in China provide a high-end, expensive black granite, while a popular red version comes from India.
“It’s all about taste,” Wolford said. “Not everyone buys a red car or a white car.”
One thing Wolford points out to every potential buyer of a grave monument is that the purchase doesn’t have a lot in common with most purchases. Unlike with many items on the retail market, there’s no upgrade in the future and technology isn’t going cause obsolescence every few months.
“You only do this once,” Wolford said. “So I like to help make sure people get what they really want.”