Bluestone rocks: Quarry restarts Valley gray

A number of things make the Shenandoah Valley the Shenandoah Valley. The mountains, the rolling plains, the caverns. Also bluestone.

As skyscrapers mark Manhattan, so bluestone marks the architecture of the Shenandoah Valley.

The use of bluestone in Valley homes and structures dates to the 1730s and '40s when the first settlers made their way to the Virginia mountains from Maryland and Pennsylvania.

"Basically, people had two choices of what to build their homes out of, stone or wood," says Bibb Frazier, co-owner of the Harrisonburg-based Frazier Quarry. He recently invested $500,000 in a new StoneWall division to jumpstart production of newly cut Shenandoah Valley bluestone under the trade name StoneWall Grey.

It has been more than three decades since bluestone was produced in the Valley of Virginia. And it might have taken longer if Frazier hadn't begun a home improvement project a few years back. While trying to preserve the historic character of an 1890s-era bluestone home he was renovating in the Port Republic area, he checked what he had available at the family quarry. Frazier says he got a rude awakening.

"It's heavy, manual, hard work, and takes lots of time," he says. "Until now, it has been cost prohibitive" to do such work by hand.

So with the purchase of a hydraulic stone splitter and packaging and palletizing equipment, Frazier Quarry entered the high-tech world of stone-cutting.

"We focused many of the strengths of our crushed-stone business into developing a modern, cost-effective and safe way to quarry quality slabs of bluestone," Frazier says.

Bluestone is common throughout the Shenandoah Valley, including at JMU, VMI, as well as in residences here, there, and everywhere.

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a construction-industry standard, eclipsed only in the 1940s and 1950s by widespread use of ready-mix concrete, which was far less expensive to produce.

Now things are coming full circle as folks like Frazier seek the real thing for renovations. And architects and home builders looking for inspiration from the past see what's possible with the stone.

Frazier also hopes to tap into the burgeoning home-improvement market by making bluestone available to for landscaping projects.

"One way to differentiate your home from others on the market is to do something special, and landscaping is certainly one way to do that," Frazier says. "Get a couple of pallets of bluestone for $500 or $600 and build a wall to the front entrance. That's something that can make your home stand out from the others."