By Pete Steiner
Special to The Free Press
When Paul Vetter retired in 1954, he wanted to make sure his sons had work. Both Paul and his father before him had done some quarrying of stone near Kasota, as far back as the late 1800’s. It was beautiful stone that still looks pristine today on the exteriors of buildings like the U.S. Post Office and First Presbyterian Church in downtown Mankato.
But quarrying operations on the Kasota land had gone dormant in the 1930’s. Paul had built a 100-square-foot hunting cabin off County Highway 5 between Mankato and Kasota, and knowing there was good stone in the area, he bought 700 acres of land. Then with his life savings, he acquired some used machinery to set up a quarrying operation. As it turned out, Paul Vetter’s retirement vision was 20-20.
60 years after Paul’s son, Howard Vetter, graduated from college and took the reins of the company, Vetter Stone, situated between tiny Kasota and Mankato, is world-renowned for the color, quality and strength of its product. The little stone hunting cabin became their original office building. Their very first client was in Chicago, a city where they sent a lot of stone in the early days. Today, one can find Vetter stone adorning major buildings from Mankato to Minneapolis to Washington, DC, to Tokyo to Istanbul.
This story actually begins 400-million years ago, in a time long before the dinosaurs, when an inland sea covered much of the area we now live in. Howard says the dolomitic limestone was formed as impurities in the water filtered to the bottom, with the stone created through eons of sedimentation. He says the stone in our area is of unusual quality: “A common misconception is that it’s widely available, but usually [in other places] it’s broken up.” In 1998, Vetter acquired a large quarry in Alabama. Now, says Howard, “We have two of the prime areas where nice color and strength are available in large slabs or panels.”
The Vetter stone offers unique advantages when it comes to engineering tall buildings. First it is very strong. But equally important, it has “flexural strength,” which means it can bend in the wind high up on skyscrapers. The stone provides a “skin” for those buildings that cannot tolerate more than 28 pounds per square foot.
Ron Vetter, Howard’s son, is company president. He recalls the moment the company became “world-class.” World-renowned architect Cesar Pelli had been hired to design the new Norwest Center (now Wells Fargo) in Minneapolis. He asked for stone samples for the exterior facing on what would become the city’s second-tallest building. Out of 38 panels in a blind sampling, Pelli picked the pinkish Vetter stone. “That put us on the map,” Ron says. The year was 1988, and that would be the first of numerous collaborations between Vetter and Pelli, that also includes the new Minneapolis downtown library and the Osaka National Art Museum in Japan. Ron, whose business card is printed in English and Japanese, says some of their biggest projects have been in Japan, including the Nippon Telephone and Telegraph skyscraper in Tokyo.
Vetter Stone currently has 110 fulltime employees between its Kasota and Alabama operations. Ron says they like to hire people who have worked with machinery and can work with their hands. “Ideally that would be someone who grew up on a farm.” But with fewer farms now, that type of candidate is rarer. “We look for someone who will fit the culture. We do a lot of training.”
The initial product is cut by a six-ton contraption that is basically “a chainsaw on a track.” It rolls out into the quarry, and with its diamond-studded blade, slices into the bed of stone. The slabs are then split off hydraulically, and 30,000-40,000-pound blocks are hoisted by a front-end loader onto a flatbed truck to be hauled back to the production plant. Every slab is marked to identify exactly where and when it was quarried.
Ron leads a photographer and reporter down to the hardhat zone, the production plant, where 30–40 orders may be in progress at any one time, ranging from a private home to a large skyscraper. The shop is loud, filled with a variety of saws of varying sizes, most computer-controlled, but some operated by hand. Some panels of stone have just been brought in on this winter’s day, still covered in melting snow. Just beyond, there’s $25,000 worth of custom columns, about to shipped to a house in Kansas, that were fashioned by computerized power lathes.
A four-axis wire saw can do intricate cutting on a 10,000-pound block of stone, making cuts to one-sixteenth of an inch. The 1,200-pound easy chairs on display in the main office were fashioned here. “You just have to make sure you know where you want them,” Ron smiles – they’re not very easy to move. Another station can hew Corinthian capitols, with figures simulating the look of ancient Greece. And, Ron says, depending on the desired look, sometimes they still use the old-fashioned hammer and chisel method. Multi-ton blocks of stone are lugged in canvas slings, moved to individual workstations by overhead cranes. Vetter hires people from a program at SCC that teaches computer aided design. Their CAD-drawings are programmed into the big saws by hard-hat operators.
Finally, at the far end of the plant looms the machine everyone talks about: continuously bathed in water, a massive rotary saw with an eleven-and-a-half-foot diamond-tipped blade fills up most of the room. The blade alone costs about $30,000, and the bits have to be changed about five times a year. Once programmed, that monster can push through about 120 feet of stone block over a weekend.
While much of their product these days is shipped halfway around the world, it is still very evident locally. Anyone who goes to a concert at Riverfront Park sits in the Vetter Stone Amphitheater, with tiered limestone facing the stage. Ron explains, “The city approached us, it was one of those ideas… Pat (Hentges, city manager) was about halfway through his presentation, when (Howard and I) looked at each other and nodded (that we should do it.)” It was a similar story for the stone pedestals used to mount the city sculpture walk. “Tami Paulsen and her group approached us. We knew it would be prohibitive for a non-profit to buy those. We just figured we could help. The community’s been good to us. We wanted to give something back.”
The company just hired the first member of its fourth generation: Kathryn Vetter, daughter of Ron’s sister, Ann, who also works for the family business, will be a sales rep in Los Angeles. Ron calculates there’s enough stone left in the Kasota quarry to last several hundred years, as well as maybe 2,000 years’ worth in Alabama. That should keep the family and their crews busy for a lot more generations.