Maine couple carves out a rock-solid business
Stoneyard sells hand-hewn granite
By Nathan Cobb, Globe Correspondent | August 28, 2004
ELIOT, Maine -- To come upon the A.W. Raitt Stoneyard, located alongside Route 236 between the Eliot Baptist Church and the Muddy River barbecue, is to grip your steering wheel a tad tighter. What is this place, this amalgamation of oversize hunks of granite casually laid out among sturdy trees and well-tended gardens here in the southernmost part of Maine, this man-made deposit of igneous rock that causes tourists to reach for their cameras and even an occasional artist to set up an easel?
"I guess I'm more a collector of granite than anything," says Albert William Raitt, 46, the A.W. in the company name, who's willing to admit that his wife, Carrie, is capable of wielding a mean wedge and hammer when there's stone to be split.
"Let's face it, splitting this stuff isn't a job most girls do," says Carrie Raitt, 43, who is her husband's stoneyard partner. "When people drive in here for the first time, they walk over to talk to my husband first, not to me."
But almost all of these visitors, excluding the camera pointers, the artists, and the merely curious, come for one thing: one-of-a-kind hunks of granite. Most of the more than 1,000 or so pieces are for sale, squatting in front of the small 1 1/2-story home that Albert Raitt built 11 years ago from lumber that came from trees he felled himself. Drawn by word of mouth -- "We don't advertise," Raitt points out -- folks use their purchases as steps, lampposts, benches, memorial stones, yard sculptures, and anything else they can think of. About half of the hunks are sold pretty much as they were cut from the earth, while the others have been shaped and otherwise worked by the Raitts.
Look around. There's a flat 3,000-pound piece that Raitt suggests would make a nice diving rock at the edge of a swimming pool. There's a whale-shaped vertical piece, about as tall as a person, that Raitt figures would make a nice post of some kind. Most notably, there's a kind of miniature Stonehenge, consisting of a pair of parallel 9-foot pieces topped by a third piece, the whole thing weighing about 12 tons. "I was going to split up the big pieces," says Raitt, who found the uprights 85 miles north in a Lewiston backyard and the top piece in a Wells quarry, 25 miles north. "But that seemed a shame. So I stood 'em up on end and put that piece across the top. If someone buys it, fine. If not, fine. I like it." Price: $8,500.
The Raitts' stone is all New England-found, fetched by Albert Raitt from quarries both operating and abandoned, or pulled from old foundations and occasionally even someone's yard. Individual pieces range in weight from about 125 pounds to more than five tons and in price from under $100 to several thousand dollars, plus delivery and installation. (With granite weighing about 170 pounds per cubic foot, customers tend to eschew cash-and-carry.) Raitt can tell you which pieces came from where just by glancing at them. The color is the giveaway: say, nearby Wells (pinkish) or York, Maine (greenish), or Hooksett, N.H. (brownish). In other words, this is not your typical stoneyard, not a place where you'll find the likes of perfectly cut slabs of granite, neat mounds of fieldstone and quarrystone, and tidy piles of concrete block and bricks.
I don't do formal cuts, like columns for a courthouse," Albert Raitt explains. "I focus on individual pieces, which make a statement by themselves. Or someone might look around and pick out a particular stone for a set of steps. Then I'll have to go out and find other stones to go with it. It can take a year or two to find the right pieces." Which is why, Raitt says, he is this year finishing work that was ordered last year.
Customers often want granite that looks weathered and worn, but such pieces aren't always easy to find. So the Raitts haul out their propane-and-oxygen torch, softening edges and roughing up flat surfaces until the stone looks like it's been shaped by the winds of time. They're self-taught, in no small part because when they started selling stone eight years ago there was no one who was eager to whisper trade secrets in their ears. "It was very hard to get information," Albert Raitt says.
One thing they've learned is that although granite, like wood, has a grain, it is also unpredictable when cut. "You hope it's going to cooperate and run true, but you're never sure," says Carrie Raitt. "When it doesn't, you have to rethink what you plan to do with the piece you've just split."
Albert Raitt is a former welder and land clearer who also once worked in his father's neighboring sawmill. (There are Raitts just about everywhere you look in this part of Eliot, and there have been for five generations.) In 1996, a welding customer gave him a couple of dozen pieces of granite to try to peddle in their front yard. Much to the couple's surprise -- "Everyone was surprised," Carrie Raitt says -- the stone sold quickly. It's been selling ever since.
"People are amazed you can make a living selling rocks," Albert Raitt says, sounding a bit amazed himself.
Come winter, the Raitts, who have three grown children, will take their annual vacation in Arizona, a journey that always includes visiting a gem, mineral, and fossil show. Meanwhile, they will work their hammers, chisels, wedges, and drills on pieces of granite inside their 19th-century barn, which stands next to their house and which Albert Raitt believes was built by his great-grandfather. As always, they won't have to concern themselves with leaving their merchandise unattended. Nodding toward a 6.5-ton, lichen-covered behemoth that was hauled out of a backyard in nearby South Berwick, Raitt smiles. "I don't have to worry about theft," he says.