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Stone Yard

Arnulfo "Cowboy" Cisneros, left, watches as Elias Flores uses a hammer and chisel to split a slab of sandstone Friday at the Dunbar Stone Company in Ash fork. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

ASH FORK - Stone.

Stones of elephantine weight that would require Herculean strength to move stand like rock trees in a forest all across the town. Their presence signifies the passage of eons of time and, more recently, commerce.

The stones start out big, strong and hard to vanquish. Then, a man armed with a chisel and a hammer steps up, finds a seam, places chisel, lifts hammer, strikes, and within no time, vanquishes.

Several businesses in this town of about 400 souls, and their workers, devote their days in labor and toil with sediments and soils that took incomprehensible swaths of time to form. They hone and cut the stone into new forms to be sold and shipped all across the globe.

Welcome to a day in the life of a stonecutting town, dubbed the "Flagstone Capital of the U.S.A."

SHALE, SANDSTONE AND TRAVERTINE

"If it weren't for flagstones, there wouldn't be much here," said Leslie Dunbar, of Dunbar Stone Company. The company was started by her grandfather, Robert Dunbar, in 1945. Her father, Jerry, still owns the business.

She joined in 1991, and is the manager.

Like most of the other stone businesses in Ash Fork, the yard of Dunbar Stone Company is filled to the brim with Bright Angel shale, sandstone and travertine. Pallets of stone slabs standing on end wait to be loaded onto semis to be transported across the country.

All along historic Route 66, stone businesses operate, the sound of stonecutting saws traveling into the Arizona sky. Men wearing smocks and masks, covered in dust, mill about the businesses. Rocks vary in size from beasts the size of trucks to rock piles with pebbles. The landscape is littered with stones of all sizes and shapes on the west side of the town.

Dunbar said most of the stone at the business comes from a quarry north of the town. Her company also specializes in chocolate quartzite quarried in Nevada.

On a warm day in mid-July, Dunbar hustled about the business making sure that the truckers were getting the loads specified on their inventory sheets. By 9 a.m., the semis had begun lining up along the road in preparation for their loads of stone.

Arnulfo "Cowboy" -- or "Boy" -- Cisneros, the yard foreman, scooted a forklift to and fro, getting the orders filled. But he and stonecutter Elias Flores took a moment for to give a quick demonstration of stone cutting. The chisel is made with leaf springs from a vehicle. Flores spent a few moments running his hand along the edges of a hefty piece of stone. After conferring with Cisneros, he places the chisel, spends a few minutes hammering, and in no time has split off a chunk of stone along a seam.

Voila, just like that.

Dunbar said a good stonecutter has the experience of knowing the rock, of looking for fractures and knowing where to cut for the best result. Most of the major cutting takes place at the quarries. At the yard, the brunt of the cutting is made with a machine.

"That's where the true art is, in my opinion," Dunbar said.

As for the scope of the business, Dunbar said it is secret, and many of the stone businesses keep their clients and their bottom lines close to the vest.

But she did say that business slowed when the economy hit hard times.

"We used to have trucks line up out the driveway, but not anymore," she said, adding that back in the good days, Dunbar had clients as far away as Hawaii.

And whereas the business had 85 employees in the good times, it is now down to 35. She called the economic downturn a time for "character building."

"But I think I've had enough of that," she said, laughing.

Business is improving, but it still has a way to go, she added.

Larry Hendricks can be reached at 556-2262 or lhendricks@azdailysun.com.

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