Mistake Puts Alma Couple on Stony Road to Success
|Mike and Teresa Brown can be reached at 785-564-1317, toll-free at 888-807-8103, or by e-mail at stone1cs(at)gmail.com. They're located just off I-70 and Highway 99 at 29710 SW Hwy 99 Frontage Road, Alma, Kansas. Also be sure to check their web site .
Upon entering the showroom of Stone 1 there's so much to take in that my eyes get crossed. Small stones, big stones, oddly shaped stones, stones on shelves, on the floor and spaced along the walls, stones with Wildcats and Jayhawks, stones engraved with names, designs, company logos, flags, insects, mammals, cowboys: the variety is not only unexpected but tantalizing.
Stone 1, owned by Mike and Teresa Brown, is a home-based stone-carving business specializing in custom commercial and residential signs, memorial stones, stone fence posts, collegiate collectibles and artistic sculptures. Located just north of Alma, the "City of Native Stone," it seems an appropriate place for a company whose product is crafted from the native limestone beds underlying the Flint Hills.
My wife points out a small limestone block showing the outline of a dragonfly. I point to a stone with a colorful tree frog scaling its face. She shows me a rabbit (sure to get my attention), and I stop everything to study the rabbit's posture. It's absolutely perfect, as I can attest to because our rabbit sits like that when she wants a treat. There's a carving of a fly-fisherman with his line looping gracefully in the air-also a perfect representation, I can feel the backcast loading the rod. But it's the whale that stops me cold. Teresa is saying something but my attention has short-circuited. In a moment of classic tunnel vision, I'm drawn across the room as if summoned.
Where we stand was once an inland sea, and Teresa has masterfully pulled a sinuous leviathan from the sedimentary rock left behind when the waters fled. The base is rough and uncut, almost ash white except for amber highlights, but the body of the whale is a gunmetal gray and freckled with tiny fossils. Its back is gently arced as if swimming through sun-dappled waters, and so smooth that I cannot stop from running a hand over the surface. Though the room is hot, the stone feels cool to the touch.
I turn to see Teresa and my wife watching me. "I can't help but touch it," I say. "It's okay," Teresa laughs. "Everybody has to touch it."
Something about stone captures the imagination. Whether from a sense of permanency, durability or drama, there's a mystique surrounding objects created from the bones of the earth. Perhaps it's because so few products are made from stone; few people have the ability and the equipment to work it like wood...or the passion, for that matter.
It takes a steady hand and a discerning eye to take one of the hardest substances on earth and mold it to your will. But Mike has been blessed with those attributes. Coupled with Teresa's design and computer expertise, plus their innate artistic abilities, and you have a husband/wife combo that can do everything from six-ton commercial signs measuring 16 'x 9' to a tiny chess piece, a replacement part for an antique English chess set. Everything in between is just that much easier. And yet everything in between is handled with the same exacting craftsmanship and detail as the largest or smallest pieces.
"If he sees something, or sees it in his mind, he can make it," Teresa says. "I can draw about anything, so we compliment each other." Mike puts it another way. "Failure is not an option."
Which basically explains how Stone 1 went from a part-time lark to a full-time business with so many customers they can barely keep up. Prior to 2001, both worked for another stone company, doing the hand work—the precision cutting, or "money cuts," Teresa says. She graduated to the office where she was an assistant drafter, and worked there four years, picking up knowledge and experience in computer assisted drafting, or CAD. When approached to create a commercial sign for a local business, they decided to give it a shot.
"We hooked the stone to the back of our Monte Carlo and drug it through a farmer's pasture and took it to his garage," Mike says. While he recounts the genesis of their business he and Teresa glance at each other with a look of fond amazement, as if they still can't believe it. Of course this was before the heavy trucks and skid steers and the other specialized equipment, when it was just Mike and Teresa, an old Monte Carlo, the glimmer of an idea and a wealth of experience. They bought a sandblaster and carved the name of the place, Three Pines Farm, adding three pines in ascending rank and the foundation date.
"It was very simple compared to what we do now," Teresa says. "I loved the stone. It was so natural, so raw, it wasn't shaped at all, just knocked out of the quarry, drill holes in it, pieces of barbed wire sticking out of it."
Once the neighbors saw it, Mike says, that was all it took. "Before we knew it we were smothered in work," he says.
But that was fairly straightforward, if one considers normal business practices as using a personal vehicle for a skid steer and the habit of purchasing equipment on the fly. But it was a challenge that set the Browns on the road to successful entrepreneurship—a challenge that another stone company refused to accept.
"I guess the real turning point of our going commercial with our business was Colbert Hills Golf Course," Mike says. The golf course went to an established stone company asking for 150 brick-sized stones to be handed out for participants in a tournament just two weeks away. Impossible, said the company, given the deadline. When they turned to Mike and Teresa, they got a more favorable response. Again, they didn't have the proper equipment needed for such a task, so they took their credit card and bought a stencil cutter. "We had a couple of friends come over," Mike says, but he's immediately interrupted by Teresa. "A couple of friends!" she laughs. "We had everybody at work over at our house." "Eight of our coworkers," Mike admits sheepishly. "We pretty much stayed up round the clock for the last four days, and we gave them their 150 stones one day ahead of schedule."
This was in 2003. Until then they had been part-time, but the equipment, and their growing reputation, was the boost they needed. That same year they formed a partnership. "Once we got the stencil machine life was so much easier," Teresa says. Before they had cut stencils and patterns using Exacto blades, a time-consuming process. "We wanted to focus more on carving or cutting specialty pieces, but we knew we'd want to do some sandblasting anyway, and so we went ahead and bought this stuff," Teresa says. "And it just kept rolling."
It was a mistake that brought Mike and Teresa together seven and a half years ago. Mike was the best hand-carver in the business, the one they gave projects no one else could figure out, the go-to guy, and this girl from the office walks up to him and tells him he's reading a shop drawing wrong. "And I said, 'really?' in disbelief," Mike laughs. "Sure enough, I was looking at the print backwards."
"I think something was wrong with the drawing," Teresa says, though she's clearly trying to downplay the moment. "No," he says, "I was looking at it backwards."
"I would have had to work on the stone after he worked on it, so if he did it wrong we would have had to remove the piece," Teresa says. "And I can't stand waste. It wasn't anything out of malice."
At first they lived in Manhattan, in the student section. They tried to be polite to their neighbors by not sawing stone until after 10 a.m. Even so, they created enough dust that it grew apparent that change was needed. "We were able to get away with that for a few years," Mike says. "We were growing too much," Teresa says. "Our whole living room and dining room were always full of stones. You couldn't walk through the house without stepping on them."
Mike Brown with Stone Guitar
After renting and remodeling a barn outside Wamego, they started looking for a place where they could both live and work. It took a year and a half but they were patient, and when the right place came along they snatched it. It had highway access, critical for shipping and receiving heavy freight, ten acres of land, only one close neighbor and a large Morton building for a shop. "This place was perfect for us," Mike says. Since then, Teresa says, it's been nonstop. She adds, "And now we're at the point where everything we do will hopefully get us closer to sculpting all our lives."
Mike leaves to retrieve something from the living room. When he returns he's holding a miniature version of a small guitar, about the size of a fiddle. Made out of stone, of course. It's remarkable how thin it is. An inch or so. That long thin neck surely must have been a challenge. He tells me this was his first stone sculpture. "I had the master carvers taking bets on whether I'd crack this neck off when I carved it out," he says. It was done in 2004 at a carving symposium in Lawrence. The symposium is held three times a year and attracts novices, professionals and everybody in between for three days of carving, networking, inspiration and learning tools and techniques on a variety of stones. It's a chance to step away from the day-to-day aspect of carving for a living and to let the creative juices flow. Mike says he would love to get out of carving standard stone markers and focus on the artistic side of sculpting. "That's my dream," he says, and Teresa nods along. "I'd love to do that. I could do it all day long."
"But," Teresa says—and there's always a "but"—"this pays the bills."
Even so, carving stones is hardly routine. While many of Stone 1's customers know exactly what they want, many more don't, or only have a vague idea. And most have no idea of what can be done with stone. It's here that the artistic side of the business comes into play. "Finding or creating the design our customer wants is of the utmost importance," Teresa says. "We get ultimate satisfaction when our customers are completely blown away by their new custom-engraved stone."
To assist customers in deciding, they provide several design options to choose from-or to spark ideas. After a design is chosen, Teresa gets busy at the keyboard. "All the graphics are done on the computer, even if have to draw them and scan them into the computer, or draw from a photo," she says. "Everything on the computer is then sent to the stencil cutter." The stencil is then glued to the stone and the stone sandblasted. When the stencil is pulled off, the residue is removed.
"It's like CAD in that everything has to be done to scale in a vector program, but it doesn't control the sandblasting or the cutter, like a C&C machine or a laser machine, where you just plug it in and it does it all," Teresa says.
If larger stencils are needed, they're made in parts and put together.
Most of their stone comes from a company in Herrington, who in turn gets it from the Cottonwood Falls area. And not only is it a specific type of stone-Cottonwood limestone-it's also site-specific, meaning their stone is found only in a limited area.
"We buy known quarried, consistent rock," Mike says. "That way we know what we're getting."
They make it sound so simple.
But if you're like me, you'll find something you like in their showroom, something that not only appeals to your interest but resonates on some subliminal level. And you'll pick it up and feel the heft, the weight of it, you'll see how the design expertly matches the contour of the stone, and you'll wonder how they did it. Not just the sawing and stenciling and sandblasting, but the overall completeness of the stone and its engraving, its integrity. Make no mistake, it's an art. The hardest part is deciding which one to take home.
I return to the whale and study it. I can't help but run a hand lightly over its undulant back, entranced by its almost sensuous form and shape and the contrast of smooth body to unfinished stone, like waves breaking across its flanks. "How much?" I choke out, but Teresa shakes her head. Like all great art, it's priceless.
If you plan on visiting the showroom, Teresa suggests calling ahead. And, by all means, rub the whale.