PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
While most of us who visit working farms are likely to return with bags full of beautiful, fresh vegetables, hand-made cheeses, meat from animals who grazed on the surrounding fields and fruit we may have even picked ourselves, Gerald Croteau III typically returns from a farm visit pulling a trailer stacked with rocks. That he picked himself. In a unique twist on the farm-to-table ethic, the 33-year old economist-turned-artisan transforms the boulders into striking, functional and original tableware in the workshop of his Lowell-based company, American Stonecraft.
In a way, Croteau’s company is an extension of a family business. His grandfather was a mason who built stone walls in the storied New England tradition, and his uncles sold masonry materials. The third-generation stone worker hand-picks fieldstones that become bowls, slabs and coasters from farms throughout New England and New York’s Hudson Valley. Each finished piece, which reflects hours of labor and meticulous craftsmanship, is stamped on the bottom with the name of the farm where it originated. American Stonecraft currently partners with 65 farms, but the founder says he hopes to expand that number. “My goal is to get fewer stones from more farms,” he says.
When he was young, Croteau built a retaining wall in his parents’ yard and edged the entire lawn with cobblestones. “I went through nine piles,” he recalls. And he gained an appreciation of the beauty and craft of stone walls through his grandfather. But after graduating from George Washington University with a degree in economics, he had no intention of going into the family business. Instead, he spent three years as an economist in Washington, D.C., followed by a year in the real estate business in the United Arab Emirates. On a business trip back to the United States, Croteau saw a fieldstone that had been sliced open for a masonry project. It was beautiful. And it changed the course of his life.
“As interesting as Dubai and Abu Dhabi sound, I was looking for my next thing to throw myself into,” he says. “I knew that to really make work meaningful, you had to really feel passionate about what it is that you’re trying to do and the community that you’re part of. To me, telling a very New England story seemed like a lot of fun.”
Initially using his uncles’ tools, Croteau taught himself to work with stone. He says he “experimented with tools and techniques, learning how to polish stones, trying to figure out what was possible.” He started small, making a few items and selling them. As he became more skilled, he began to buy his own equipment.
“The whole process was very organic,” he says of the way his business developed. At some point, he began to think about how special it would be to create serving pieces out of stone, establishing a link between his items and food grown on the farms. “That’s what captured my heart with tableware. Telling a good story, doing it in a way that connected people back to farms that provided the stones. That’s kind of what a lot of chefs try to do with their restaurants,” he says.
Croteau put an ad on Craigslist, looking for farmers willing to let him collect their stones to be turned into products for the table. The first to respond was Ugly Udder Farm in Greenfield, New Hampshire. The small, family-owned dairy farm specializes in goat’s milk and cheese and specialty products like goat’s milk-based soap and lotion. After spending time with the owner, he says, “I knew it would be an interesting journey. Every [farmer] has a story.
“Every connection I was making was building a relationship,” he continues. “The economist in me was thinking, ‘What can I do that really helps them in our relationship?’” He explains that there’s not a set market price for fieldstones, though $10 per ton can be considered a rough average. There are some farms that consider the stones a nuisance and pay to have them hauled away. American Stonecraft doesn’t pay farms for the stones it collects. “We pay them in kind,” Croteau says, by giving them free merchandise that they can resell. Some, like Volante Farms in Needham and Allandale Farm in Brookline, are already set up to do this, with well-established farm stands. Of the others that don’t, many bring the tableware to farmers markets with their other products. Or American Stonecraft lets them link to its website and sell through its online store.
In the spring and fall, Croteau makes “a couple dozen” trips to farms to gather rocks. They are buoyant, he explains, so as the ground freezes and thaws, it moves them slowly up to the surface. Every spring a new crop appears. Croteau transports his haul back to the 10,000-square foot Lowell headquarters that houses a showroom, workshop and cavernous warehouse where he stores boulders (though rarely any larger than 16 inches in diameter). He started in a smaller workshop, but explains that after one trade show he got so many orders he had to move to a larger space, in part to store all the rocks he was gathering.
A very fine layer of white dust coats the counter above the desk in the front office and the air is punctuated by a pretty constant whine that grows more insistent the closer you get to the workshop. Inside the large room a four-person team is positioned at stations that slice, grind, polish and finish the stones. Boulders are sliced in one of two machines—a masonry saw or a similar unit that Croteau and his team engineered by adapting an existing masonry saw. Depending on the rock and its mineral composition, it takes roughly 15 to 30 minutes for each one to be sliced. “It’s surprising to me how quick it happens, but it’s still slow,” he notes. Because each stone is unique, the machines have to be reset for every new one.
The process to make bowls is slightly different. After the stone is sawed, workers use a core drill bit developed by Croteau that carves out a depression but keeps the boulder’s exterior essentially intact. For all pieces, Croteau says, “I love capturing as much of the live edge as possible, so you can really tell what the piece started as. I think the genesis of the stone is one of the parts of the story I want the work to share.”
After they have been sawed, the rocks are ground with diamonds until they are completely smooth, “like a piece of glass across the top.” Then they are polished and finished with a food-safe fluoride-based product that makes them very stain-resistant. The most labor-intensive part of the process, Croteau says, is applying a resin finish to the rough edges that keeps them from crumbling.
Finally, each piece is stamped on the bottom with the name of the farm on which it was found. Small rubber feet are attached to the bottom of all products to protect tables. And they are buffed clean with wool.
By now Croteau has a pretty good sense, from looking at the outside, what a rock will look like inside and how it can be used. “Darker colors are richer. They contrast cheese really well,” he says. A spot of color on the exterior might suggest a vein that runs through the boulder, which will translate to an interesting stripe or pattern across a food slab or coaster.
All American Stonecraft pieces are used for serving, but the young company is already evolving. They are working on a new product line of heat-safe cooking slabs. They will work as pizza stones, or might be warmed in the oven then transferred to the table for cooking. At press time, Croteau was talking to the trustees of the Boston Public Market, where the company has a booth, about testing the products in its kitchen.
“We’ve been able to do things I’ve never seen anywhere else,” Croteau says. “It’s really exciting to know you’re putting something into the market that’s never existed. It’s totally fresh ground that hasn’t been cultivated.”
American Stonecraft americanstonecraft.com 133 Congress Street, Lowell Boston Public Market
Food writer Andrea Pyenson is a suburban empty nester finding creative ways to fill her extra time and closet space.