Kenyon rocks: Picking up the geological beat

As our feet tap on the surfaces we call Kenyon--keeping a beat that rises and falls with our rhythm of seasons and semesters--there are counter-rhythms measuring time in a different way, in this same place. These longer, slower rhythms surround our own, with phases and frequencies so far out of human measure, they take place invisibly or, at least, out of mind. Still, there's much to be gained by taking a geologic moment to look and listen.

From the College gates to the pea gravel of Middle Path, past the hefty red sandstone blocks of Rosse Hall to Old Kenyon, and all along Gambier Hill, we keep company with stones. Fence posts, gravestones, and rough stone walls structure our passage and document it. As attention markers, they can carry us across the present time, say the span of an afternoon walk, and off into a deeper sense of place and what preceded us here. Perhaps you have a favorite--a particular building stone or one just lying there on the ground. There are plenty of them to talk about, and plenty to say; their history lends ours a new sense of measure and can deepen our sense of the Hill.

Rock's definitive mass and texture, cut and stacked by hand, is fundamental to Kenyon's peculiar density. And, as deep as the College's history is in human terms, it's a nick in the total arc of geologic time that created the stone, sank it into the earth, made it plastic, hardened and exposed it, eroded it from granite to sand, and then pounded it down to sandstone. Passing glaciers exposed it as they came and went; Philander Chase's workers quarried it for the early Kenyon buildings; and, later, skilled masons divided stone outcrops from other spots nearby and used them to build Old Kenyon, Ascension Hall, the Church of the Holy Spirit, and Quarry Chapel.

Reconciling geologic time with our own can be difficult because we measure time by our own beats--in a human moment, not a mineral one. But it can be useful to compress geologic time into human time, if only to set things in perspective. Let's attempt the reconciliation this way: take the age of Earth, about 4.6 billion years at present, and compact it into a single human lifespan of 100 years. Each year of that compressed century thus represents 46 million actual years. Each month has 3.8 million years, and each day 127,000 years. An hour of this lifetime is 5,300 years; a minute is eighty-eight years; and each second is almost a year and a half.

By that geologic measure, each of us survives for about a minute. The sandstone beneath our feet has been hardening since a shallow inland sea receded in the Mississippian Period, almost seven dense years past. Dinosaurs disappeared three years ago. The last ice age ended yesterday in the Pleistocene epoch, and the next may well arrive with the Holocene morning. Humans have had the planet for only about seven hours, and Chase gamboled up the Hill just two minutes back.

The beat of Kenyon rock over this compressed century is slow and steady, even as its use as "dimension stone" (as in the big,simple blocks of Rosse) began within our last two minutes. The stone is quite local but from deep time--this longer arc in which soil, sea, and river are pounded down by the weight of accumulation, surface forces, and molecular heat.

"Rocks are the records of events that took place at the time they formed. They are books. . . . you learn how to read them," observes John McPhee in his geologic love-song In Suspect Terrain. Sedimentary rocks like those of the College's older buildings show color, texture, grain size, rippling, and cross bedding that document the forces that laid them down--the pulses of weather, water, and ice--and what they carried. Other rocks on the Hill came from afar; known as "erratics," they were borne here by ice from way up north. All together, they offer potential as a constricted narrative of this constructed place.

The College and the village occupy some very interesting geologic terrain. Gambier sits at an edge of late-Illinoisian and early-Wisconsinian glaciation, astride the termina of two recent ice advances (whose exact boundaries are still debated among glacial geologists). Outwash terrace and till plain surround us, along with some exposed older rock that tells a longer story. Our Black Hand sandstone is conglomerated with iron (through which lightning likes to go to ground, as you know if you've spent a summer in Gambier). Supporting younger Massillon sandstone, great sheets of the Black Hand tilt downward toward the east coast, with the surface showing younger rock as it runs eastward. To our west, the exposed bedrock is older, revealing deeper stratification. The tilting results from plate tectonics, the movement of great land masses over flowing basalt deeper down.

Recent glaciation redefined this region, scraping hillsides and valley bottoms and rerouting rivers. Waterborne glacial outwash was actively sorted, with light grains dropping from suspension whenever the outwash sat still, and larger stones and boulders falling as it moved. This outwash sorting is key to glacial topography, as moving water sorts stone quite well; the Kokosing riverbank illustrates this nicely, especially where it crosses Zion Road east of Gambier.

Glacial till, on the other hand, is unsorted; it simply drops from the ice and stays there. Till generally comprises a mix of boulders, rocks, and pebbles; this unsorted material can drain well or poorly, depending on how much boulder clay was deposited along with it. Glacial till over sandstone can be found near Gambier's Tomahawk Golf Course. Golf courses are ideally sited on glacial topography, with moraines, eskers, and gently rolling till plains characteristic of Scotland, the game's birthplace. At Tomahawk, we find upland till, now carpeted with golf grass and peppered with little white balls.

Our western hillside, running from the Ohio Route 229 entrance to the slopes behind Hanna Hall and Old Kenyon, traverses the edge of an outwash terrace that falls to the Kokosing River. Slow scraping and gravel deposits from swift-moving glacial meltwaters form these kinds of terraces along valley sides. What John McPhee calls "the rhythm of glaciation in what is essentially the geologic present" scouredthe bedrock bare in places, revealing a horizontal layer-cake of fine-grained sandstone and siltstone sectioned with thin layers of brittle iron. Road cuts for Route 229 reveal more of it. The sandstone dates from the Mississippian Period (345 million to 310 million years ago, or, in our 100-year lifetime measure, six or seven years past). It formed from quartz grains sifting from the shallow sea that covered the continental interior in pre-Cambrian times, back when we geologic centenarians were still in our cribs.

Our present surface is classified as silt loam, more gravelly in some spots than others. Joining till plains and moraines, the Hill overlooks productive farmland--fields of corn, soybeans, and hay, as well as decent pasture land.

T he College's stories echo off stone. Chase took note of "the best of building stone" exposed along the hillside in his epiphanic walk up the Hill; it supported his overall satisfaction with this site for his imagined college. Beginning in 1826, hired hands cut exposed sandstone from various spots along the hillside and used it to stack foundations for early structures and then, in 1827, Old Kenyon. A century later, The American Architect would describe that building as "probably the first example of what we now proudly call 'American Architecture,' an architecture based upon a logical expression of the plan and a truthful use of local materials."

Today, you can see the faded scars of small quarry cuts along the path to Sunset Point and further south along the western hillside, overlooking Route 229. They're subtle interruptions in the terrain, small arcs and hollows where sandstone outcrops offered easy cutting. That woody hillside, now dotted with tree forts and wigwams, is also the locus of some of Kenyon's finest stone--the mossy blocks that encircle the barbecue pits and barking grounds behind Hanna. Those terrace walls include rough-cut dimension stone from early settlement buildings; some bear chisel marks like those that adorn Old Kenyon.

For Rosse, whose construction began two years after that of Old Kenyon, the early workers harvested stout stone rectangles from those same quarries along the Hill. They fished limestone from the river and crushed it to make mortar, lamenting that they had to compete for this resource with local "wicked men" raiding it for their own uses. Dimension stone of light browns, deep reds, and rose pinks give Rosse's high walls a fine luminescence in bright sunlight.

For later buildings (Ascension and the Church of the Holy Spirit, erected in 1859 and 1869), stone was cut by masons brought from Britain. (Sadly, scant record of these men exists today.) They used freestone from William Fish's quarry off Monroe Mills Road to assemble the Victorian Gothic Ascension Hall and the cruciform chapel. You can see their handiwork on the stone facings in the church's dressed corners, where the stones are edged with flat chisel marks and textured with simple chiseling. A closer look allows you to imagine the workers stooping and reaching to set courses; you feel their grunts, hearthe tink of chisels, and see progress with an upward sweep of your eyes, each particular stone organizing this place out of the material of deep time.

S toneworking has long been a highly localized craft. English stoneworking carried forward medieval European methods, including the use of local limestones and sandstones. Techniques passed from masters to assistants, for the most part orally and demonstrably rather than in writing; tools and methods developed similarly in disparate ages and places. As Peter Rockwell notes in his Art of Stoneworking, "Against this tendency to localization, there is another which brings the traditions together. Large stone buildings have always required more workers than most areas can provide. Thus stoneworkers have moved around, going where the work is. It is also worth noting that the stoneworkers who were most likely to be moving about were also the most expert. It might have been possible to find or train local workers for the more humble jobs, moving stone or squaring blocks, but [for more ambitious work] one would have had to import expert carvers and master masons, whose training required years of apprenticeship." Thus it was at Kenyon; Chase brought masons across the sea to square Kenyon College, stone by stone. Some settled and spent their lives here; others moved on to work other stone in other places.

In cutting stone from earthly deposits, quarrymen worked subtractively, in simple steps, removing material from original mass. They sized and squared stones one side at a time, and they further divided them into building blocks. Cutters can never add back to stone, so they take care at each step not to overcut. The weight of necessity is evident in the variable sizes, finishes, and geometry of older building blocks, as well as in the bedding lines of sedimentary sandstone still in the ground.

Their tools were basic. All stone-cutting civilizations have used variations of two basic tool forms, the point chisel and the flat chisel. A point chisel makes rough marks and drills holes, while a flat chisel breaks a plane and smoothes a surface. You can find ground stones on the Hill with flat-chisel impressions and pointed marks; you can see the mark of both tools on the stones of the chapel, Old Kenyon, and elsewhere. They form a fundamental record of our presence here.

Other stonecutting tools included heavy hammers and axes, wedges, sharp roundels spun between the hands as drills, pitching tools with broad cutting edges and thick shafts hit with hammers, quarry picks, rasps of varying roughness, and saws for cutting thin slabs. Progress in tool and skill are apparent as you examine the building blocks of the College's first century in chronological order: Old Kenyon, Rosse, Ascension, and the chapel (1829-69); Hanna, Stephens, Colburn, and Ransom halls (1903-10); and Leonard, Samuel Mather, and Peirce halls (1924-29). Likewise, the source of the stone moves farther out from the campus--although it's still fairly local--coming first from the hillside, then William Fish's quarry, and then the Briar Hill and Glenmont quarries a few miles past Danville. (Indiana limestone was brought in for the mullions, moldings, and carvings on SamuelMather, and Vermont slate was imported for roofs.)

A quick inventory of Kenyon's significant stones might begin with the Marriott Park gates, which are made of dimension stone similar to that of Rosse Hall. More variable are the stones of the retaining wall beside the Red Door Cafe, facing the new Peoples Bank site on Wiggin Street. Those that required squaring and narrowing have the most chisel hits; the smaller stones have been rasped and hammered with smaller chisels to create a finished level and texture. The wall shows variable block size and degree of squaring--the stones balance with solid dissimilitude--as well as color, although not the brilliant variety seen at Rosse. For more color variety, take a close look at the foundations of the Woodland Cottages, the fine work of Roy Daubenspeck, a young local stonemason. The pink sandstone is especially nice and well-used.

The College's celebrity rock is the Beta Rock, next to Leonard Hall. It's had an exciting life in the last geologic minute, first as a competitive interfraternity trophy, later as the Beta Rock. Legend has competing fraternities rolling it down the Hill and then back up (against the clock) to settle bragging rights. Since the Betas took possession, the rock has been subject to various forms of effrontery and even kidnap. It disappeared one night, all evidence of its hiding place in an adjacent hole successfully sodded over. It emerged only after unspecified threats. Painted, adorned, turned into a large facsimile of Rubic's Cube (with poured concrete and paint), tarred and feathered, the Beta Rock has kept the beat and the faith.

At the other end of the attention spectrum we have our Middle Path pea gravel. We barely notice it crunching underfoot. Big dump trucks load up with such glacial outwash deposits--sorted sand and gravel--at Small's on Killduff Road. They rumble up Zion Road on weekdays, hauling the remains of two ice ages away to other uses and places. Kenyon's maintenance department buys the gravel by the pickup load; maintenance workers used to be very liberal in spreading it around, but over time Middle Path grew a hump. By the mid-1980s, heavy equipment was brought in to level the path, and, ever since, maintenance workers have been more conservative with the pea gravel, using it mainly to battle icy conditions.

College Park Cemetery is a garden of memorial stone, the earliest dating to the settlement years. As a document, it demands closer reading than possible here; you might do some of that on your next visit to the Hill. In 1969, Louise Adams noted in The Gambier Observer that "there are many interesting graves in this old cemetery--here is the grave of the 'African Prince,' the boy from the Gold Coast who died while studying at the Mission House; here is the grave of Little Griswold, the child prodigy who died at three and a half years." That would be little Griswold Cracraft, who rests in Plot 27 in the oldest section of the cemetery, on the western side of the Hill, under a stone whose markings have eroded. The visual anchor for the cemetery is the Lewis mausoleum, a small sandstone temple withmarble doors and graceful wrought-iron gates.

At your next opportunity, take a walk and have a look at the rocks of Kenyon. You can start on College Road and follow the Hill around to the southern edge of the campus, past the old quarry cuts. As you walk back north along Middle Path, drop by the old capital on the lawn in front of Rosse; the capital is the top of one of the building's original pillars, which collapsed following the fire of June 1897. It reckons well our actual century (our geologic moment), with edges rounded by the rub of time, tools, and hands.

Jerry Kelly, a Bulletin contributing writer, is a magna cum laude graduate of Kenyon and a resident of Gambier. He extends his thanks for assistance on this article to Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Thomas V. Lepley; Jordan Professor of Environmental Science E. Raymond Heithaus '68; Ed Redmund of the Natural Resource Conservation Service; Special Collections Librarian Jami E. Peelle; Daniel Younger of the Knox County Historical Society; Patrick J. Stoklas '98 and Dwight K. Schultheis '97 of Beta Theta Pi; Professor of History Peter Rutkoff; fellow Gambier writer Philip Brooks; and former Bulletin Associate Editor Jeffrey A. Bell.

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