Introduction to Historic Georgia Marble Movies

This orientation essay begins with brief summaries of the two digitized marble history movies--then subsequent sections provide additional contextual information about Georgia marble geology, the prehistoric and early historic uses of Georgia marble, the Georgia Marble Company, Georgia marble projects, Georgia marble quarrying and finishing processes, and related Vanishing Georgia images.

Producing America's Buried Treasure

Originally produced in the late 1950s as a promotional piece for the Georgia Marble Company, today this fifteen-minute movie provides intriguing historical information about the development of the marble industry in north Georgia.

The story begins with a reenactment of the traditional tale of Henry Fitzsimmon's discovery of marble in Long Swamp Valley in the 1830s and illustrates early marble carving methods. The movie then provides valuable historical footage depicting marble quarrying and finishing on the massive scale required by an industry serving the nationwide demand for this important natural resource. Note the detailed depictions of the removal of giant marble blocks from a deep quarry, their transport by railroad and forklift, making finer cuts to the blocks with circular and gang saws, surfacing and polishing the marble with massive machines, and of course marble carving--performed by skilled artisans with efficient air-powered tools. At the time this movie was made, ground marble was considered a new material, so note the enthusiastic exploration of a vast range of new and unusual uses, such as: marble chip roofing materials, rubber and paint product extenders, agricultural additives, and turf marking for athletic fields.

Interspersed throughout are shots of significant architectural and memorial projects all across the nation that used Georgia marble: the Douglas Fairbanks and Cecil B. DeMille memorials in Hollywood, the Alamo Cenotaph in San Antonio, the Pioneer Tennessean monument, and numerous treasures in the nation's capital city including Daniel Chester French's famous statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the Pan American Building, the National Gallery of Art, the Longworth House Office Building, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building.

New Face on Capitol Hill

Produced in the 1960s, this fifteen-minute promotional movie provides historically significant footage of the renovation of the East Wing of the U.S. Capitol just prior to the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. The contract for the massive project, the largest ever undertaken by the Georgia Marble Company, was signed in 1958.

The film begins with House Speaker Sam Rayburn on the Capitol steps, then zooms back to reveal the immensity of the restoration project. The Capitol's original sandstone structure had crumbled severely, so the decision was made to replicate the vast east façade in more durable marble from north Georgia. As perhaps this country's most important national architectural treasure, the Capitol required the highest possible level of accuracy and quality in the reproduction of the shapes and sizes of its original historical components.

The movie focuses on the one of largest and most difficult aspects of the overall renovation project: replicating the twenty-four massive columns that occupy such a prominent position on the Capitol's façade. This proved to be quite challenging, as each column shaft measured more than twenty-four feet long, and weighed around seventeen tons. One original column was shipped by railroad to the Georgia Marble Company in Tate, Georgia, to serve as a model. Each new column began as a thirty-five-ton block of marble, carefully cut from the quarry and installed on massive machinery to begin the shaping processes. A twenty-five-hundred-foot-long wire saw cut the rectangular block into a more cylindrical shape; carborundum wheels further refined the column profile; it was then turned on a giant lathe, where its final shape was perfected. Artisans from the Georgia Marble Company also made casts and carved new replacements for the building's smaller architectural elements that had deteriorated. Meanwhile, unfinished marble blocks were sent from north Georgia to the Capitol grounds, where they were carved on-site into large statuary and ornamental components for the pediment surmounted upon the Classical portico at the main entrance. Eventually all the replacement pieces, including the new columns, arrived at the Capitol, ready for installation.

Some of the most interesting footage covers the installation of the first new column on the Capitol building. Many statesmen, senators, and representatives gathered to watch the ceremonies: note the close-up shots of Vice President Richard Nixon, Representative Phil Landrum (from whose Georgia district the marble came), and Architect of the Capitol George Stewart. After the column shaft was maneuvered into place, the column's ornate capital was installed on top; this process was repeated for all twenty-four columns. When all the new replacement marble had been installed, the Capitol stood ready for the inauguration of new President of the United States.

Georgia Marble Geology

The substantial marble industry of Pickens County arose from the high quality marble deposits of the Murphy Marble Belt, a strip of metamorphosed sedimentary rock found in the western section of the Blue Ridge geologic province of north Georgia. This predominantly calcitic marble, probably four-to-five hundred million years old, consists almost entirely of calcium carbonate originally secreted by early marine creatures, subsequently transformed into limestone, and eventually altered by complex geological events into crystalline marble. This high-quality marble proved ideal for architectural uses due to its low moisture absorption, its relative purity, and the fact that it was hard-wearing but still workable.

From Prehistoric Georgia Marble Use to the Historic Georgia Marble Industry

Native Americans carved marble effigies as early as 1400-1450, as indicated by archaeological discoveries in this area of north Georgia. Cherokees lived there when Europeans arrived, but increasing pressure from the new immigrants gradually forced the Cherokees from their homeland during the 1830s (eventually culminating in the tragic "Trail of Tears" forced march to Oklahoma in the bitter winter of 1838-1839, during which at least four thousand Cherokees died). The former Cherokee lands with their marble deposits were redistributed through lotteries to new arrivals in Cherokee County (established in 1832, the area becoming Pickens County in 1853). Arriving farmers settled in the fertile valley of Long Swamp Creek, where future marble industry development would take place.

In the mid 1830s, Irish emigrant and stonecutter Henry T. Fitzsimmons recognized the potential of the high quality marble he discovered there, and by 1840 he had established a productive marble works--Long Swamp Marble--including a mill with gang saws, at a location now known as Marble Hill (later he built another mill near Jasper). Several memorial tombstones and other marble projects produced by Fitzsimmons and his sons and other colleagues survive. Unfortunately Fitzsimmons was murdered in 1844, and his sons proved unable to maintain the marble business, so his lands and marble interests were eventually sold. Among the buyers was Samuel Tate (1797-1866), whose family was to play a large role in the subsequent history of Georgia marble.

Although others engaged in marble production in the remaining years before the Civil War and the two decades afterwards, their efforts were met with only modest success. Difficult transportation of heavy marble products, among other factors, limited expansion to the small local market, so agricultural pursuits remained the dominant economic activity. For example, Samuel Tate, whose family had amassed vast land holdings by this time, was listed as a farmer in period censuses, although he was also a partner in Tate and Atkinson and Company, which opened a marble quarry around 1850. In 1852, that company was succeeded by Rankin, Sumney, and Hurlick, although that firm was apparently defunct by 1880. Despite their limitations, these small-scale efforts eventually paid off, after word of Georgia's large marble deposits spread to the North.

The Georgia Marble Company

Northern entrepreneurs, including O. F. Bane (who had served in the Tate area during the Civil War), Henry C. Clement, Frank H. Siddall, and J. A. Dewar, heard about Georgia's marble and engaged professional geologists to evaluate the potential of this locally abundant natural resource. Responding to the geologists' highly favorable findings and recognizing the vastly improved access to larger markets made possible by the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad (then under development), they decided to apply their considerable capital wealth to the Georgia marble business.

The Georgia Marble Company, headquartered in Tate, was chartered on 11 May 1884, with Clement as first president, and initially capitalized at one million dollars, an enormous sum at the time. The company began arranging mineral leases (including vast acreage owned by the Tate family), buying machinery and developing physical facilities. A particularly important step was the construction of a branch line to the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad, originally completed as a narrow gauge line by 1885 but converted to standard gauge by 1890. During the 1880s and 1890s, a number of marble finishing plants developed in the area using the quarried marble, such as the Blue Ridge Marble Company in Nelson. During this period, the Tate family became increasingly involved in many aspects of the Georgia Marble Company: Stephen C. Tate and William Tate (sons of Samuel Tate) were serving on the Board of Directors by 1890. The company struggled to bring in more capital to support its growing operational needs, as indicated by Stephen Tate's motion at the 1900 stockholder's meeting to seek a new buyer for the company's assets.

At this point in time, Sam Tate (1860-1938), the son of Stephen C. Tate and grandson of Samuel Tate (later known locally as "Colonel Sam") rose to prominence in Georgia's marble history. Previously involved in the company's store operation, Sam Tate became president and general manager of Georgia Marble Company in 1905 (at the urging of his predecessor Henry C. Clement) when he succeeded in purchasing controlling stock in the company. Tate's business acumen became apparent when the company's net gain doubled during the following year, and under his leadership, the company entered a new period of rapid growth and expansion.

Georgia Marble Company soon acquired nearly all of the marble quarries and finishing plants of other firms in north Georgia. By 1917, the Georgia Marble Company had obtained the Blue Ridge Marble Company, Southern Marble Company, Amicalola Marble Company, and Kennesaw Marble Company. This left Georgia Marble Finishing Works in Canton as the only remaining independent finishing operation, until it too was purchased by Georgia Marble Company in 1941. As a result of this consolidation, Georgia Marble Company eventually became the sole producer/manufacturer of Georgia marble. Indeed, the company purchased marble interests in other states during the 1920s, thus extending its operations beyond Georgia.

Sam Tate's influence extended far beyond the actual marble operations of the company. In the town of Tate, for example, he built schools (for white and black students), contributed to churches, and hosted many cultural and educational activities. He paid for roads, installed electrical service, and built a hospital for the town. On the other hand, his benevolent paternalism sometimes turned authoritarian: he demanded that his employees abstain from alcohol, tobacco, fighting, and gambling. A photograph taken in the 1920s includes a portrait of "Colonel Sam" with his infant grandson, and can be seen in Vanishing Georgia image [pck150-82]; he is also in image [pck250-85], taken in the 1930s, where he stands alongside company workers. He is the second figure from the right.

In 1927, Tate hired J. B. Hill as principal memorial designer for the Georgia Marble Company (prior design work had been obtained from firms in New York and other large cities). The multi-talented Hill continued to serve as principal designer, as well as the Company's photographer, writer, and public relations staff, until 1962. The many skilled artisans who extracted and finished marble for the Company during its long history likewise spent many years perfecting their crafts; most were local men although a few were European immigrants with Old World stone cutting backgrounds.

Like other businesses and the public in general, the Georgia Marble Company suffered the destructive effects of the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. The company experienced its first ever losses in 1933, and futile efforts were made to sell it. Despite the difficulties, Sam Tate perservered in keeping the company operating, and struggled to retain work opportunities for his many employees. He fell ill in 1936 and became chairman of the company's board, while his brother-in-law I. P. Morton became president. Tate died in 1938.

By 1941, the board of directors developed a plan to keep the company solvent and J. R. Cowan became president. The company won a contract to produce U.S. government headstones in the 1940s, and after World War II, orders for building and structural stone increased. In 1947, the company's new calcium products division pioneered innovative new uses for ground marble (in such diverse products as paint, rubber, roofing, cast stone, athletic field markers, chewing gum, and chicken feed). Georgia Marble Company signed its biggest contract in 1958, to provide marble for the renovation of the East Wing of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. The massive restoration project was completed in time for the 1961 inauguration of President Kennedy.

Although several major structural projects--once the core of the company's business--continued through the mid 1980s, the overall trend was a significant downturn. Jim Walter Corporation bought the company in 1969, and the marble business continued to shrink; this was accompanied by deteriorating labor relationships. Later owners of the company included Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Company; Hillsborough Holding Corporation; First Chicago Corporation; and IMERYS (a French Canadian firm).

The current owner of the Tate facility, Polycor, Inc. of Québec, Canada, calls the company "Georgia Marble Dimension Stone." Polycor utilizes blasting techniques for quarrying; they plan to quarry the marble in Tate and ship the quarried blocks elsewhere for finishing; they also produce aggregate "calcium products" comprised of marble in pulverized or crushed states. Large tanker trucks, eighteen-wheel trucks and dump trucks are utilized for transporting the finished products. Two companies, IMERYS and J.M. Huber Corporation, continue to extract calcium products from horizontal quarries in Marble Hill; IMERYS also maintains a small marble operation in the northern Pickens County town of Whitestone.

Although few rail cars leave the marble mills weekly, and the many talented artisans who worked the marble in such remarkable ways over the years are mostly gone, the remembrance of the Georgia marble industry endures--much like the stone itself.

Georgia Marble Projects

The Georgia Marble Company provided marble for a number of major architectural and memorial projects across the nation during the highly productive years before World War II, including the following:

  • Georgia State Capitol Interior, Atlanta, Ga. (ca. 1885)
  • New York Stock Exchange, New York, N.Y. (1903)
  • Municipal Building, Washington, D.C. (1905)
  • Pan American Building, Washington, D.C. (1912)
  • U.S. Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. (1921)
  • New York Stock Exchange Annex, New York, N.Y. (1922)
  • Crawford Long statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. (1925)
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1926)
  • Joseph J. Darlington Fountain in Judiciary Square, Washington, D.C. (1927)
  • Agricultural Building, Washington , D.C. (1928)
  • Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Ill. (1929)
  • Bok Singing Tower, Lake Wales, Fla. (1929)
  • Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C. (1931)
  • Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. (1932)
  • Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Ill.(1935)
  • Herbert C. Hoover Building, Washington, D.C. (1936)
  • Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building, Washington, D.C. (1936)
  • Alamo Cenotaph, San Antonio, Tex. (1938)

Thousands of memorials and mausoleums were produced using Georgia marble during this period, including the following sampling:

  • John Philip Sousa Memorial, Washington, D.C.
  • Harding Tomb, Marion, Ohio
  • Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain, Chicago, Ill.
  • Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
  • Ringling Mausoleum, Sarasota, Fla.
  • Kennedy Mausoleum, Tulsa, Okla.
  • Oak Ridge Abbey, Chicago, Ill.
  • Coulter Mausoleum, Richmond, Va.
  • Peter McGuire Memorial (Father of Labor Movement), Pennsauken, N.J.
  • Father Tabb Memorial (Chaplain of the Confederacy), Richmond, Va.
  • Robert W.Woodruff Memorial in Westview Cemetery, Atlanta, Ga.
  • George Wallace Memorial, Montgomery, Ala.
  • Massengill Memorial, Johnson City, Tenn.
  • Geiger Sarcophagus, St. Joseph, Mo.
  • Cecil B. DeMille Memorial, Hollywood, Calif.
  • Douglas Fairbanks Memorial, Hollywood, Calif.

Georgia Marble Company's largest contract ($2,783,650) was signed in 1958 for the renovation of the East Wing of the U.S. Capitol Building. This massive project involved fifteen million tons of marble, including the turning and carving of twenty-four large Classical columns. These Corinthian columns, were produced in Georgia using the company's immense machinery; the design was based on an original column brought down from Washington to ensure accuracy in the reproduced versions. The project was completed in time for the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

Structural stone projects during the 1970s included several significant locations:

  • Water Tower Place, Chicago. Ill.
  • Omni International (now Omni Hotel at CNN Center), Atlanta, Ga.
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
  • James Madison Memorial Building, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • Legislative Office and New York State Justice Buildings, Albany, N.Y.

The last major architectural project was in 1984, involving the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Georgia Marble Quarrying and Finishing Processes

Although it began on a small scale with simple hand tools, marble working in Georgia eventually evolved into a major industry, characterized by the large scale and very complex operations of the Georgia Marble Company. For more information, refer to principal memorial designer J. B. Hill's detailed description of mid-twentieth century marble quarrying and finishing practices in the April 1950 issue of the company's publication The Memorial Statesman.

Quarrying: Before marble could be used for any purpose, the company faced the challenge of extracting it from the earth where it had lain for millions of years:

  • Deep in the quarry, large blocks were broken out rather than blasted to preserve structural integrity when the marble was to be used for architectural or memorial use. A channeling machine (see Vanishing Georgia image [pck256-85], taken in 1935) running along steel rails made vertical cuts, while a gadder machine (see Vanishing Georgia image [pck281-85], taken in the 1930s) drilled horizontal holes. Workers broke the block away from the quarry floor by driving wedges into the gadder holes. The block was lifted from the quarry by a massive derrick boom installed on the quarry rim, and carefully lowered onto a flatcar.
  • Handling marble created serious difficulties due to its enormous bulk and massive weight. The company operated its own railroad--originally powered by steam but later by diesel--for transporting marble from the quarry to the finishing facilities and after processing to ship finished products via connections with mainline railroads. In later years, trucks replaced some of these railroad functions.

Finishing: Although some Georgia marble was shipped elsewhere for finishing, most of the stone extracted from local quarries was finished at the sophisticated facilities of the Georgia Marble Company:

  • Within the company's finishing plants and storage areas, the marble was moved around with forklift trucks running on extensive concrete floors.
  • For really big projects, such as the U.S. Capitol columns shown in the second movie, the initial cuts might be achieved with a wire saw and steel shot, sometimes using cable running thousands of feet outside the plant buildings. More typical was the gang saw, which used multiple (as many as one hundred) straight flat blades operating together in reciprocating motion to cut the initial block into smaller slabs of marble. Smaller saws were used to cut joints.
  • Rotating rubbing bed plates, using steel shot or sand, helped square up and shape monument stock to desired dimensions (in addition to the movie footage, see Vanishing Georgia image [pck145-82] taken in 1925).
  • High-revolution carborundum wheels were used to cut bevels, setbacks, and other similar shapes. Note in the video that carborundum wheels were used extensively to shape the final profile of the replacement columns for the U.S. Capitol.
  • Turning lathes produced turned goods ranging from large columns to smaller products such as vases or balusters. Final finishes could also be applied on the lathe.
  • Carving marble to elaborate three-dimensional shapes required skilled artisans. Early artisans worked with hand tools alone, but later, carving on an industrial scale involved the use of air-powered chisels, though always with the same patient skill. Carving work was often guided by plaster molds, with points being transferred from plaster model to marble stone via a pointing device.
  • A sandblasting technique, using rubber sheet templates, was often employed for lettering and some types of low-relief ornament.
  • Mirror-like finishes, widely used in architectural interiors, were achieved with the use of polishing machines and a series of progressively smaller abrasive grits. The final sheen was obtained with putty powder and acid.

Marble History Images in Vanishing Georgia

The online collection Vanishing Georgia includes many historical images associated with the marble industry of Pickens County and the surrounding area. Some images relate specifically to the subjects depicted in the two movies, while many speak to other aspects of the wider marble story.

Several images relate specifically to the U.S. Capitol renovation, including [pck042-82], [pck043-82], [pck045-82], and [pck261-85].

You can explore the full set of more than one hundred marble-related images to gain deeper insights into the larger history of Georgia marble. Note the many shots of different quarries and finishing plants in various locations; railroad operations related to the marble industry; marble workers and their families, schools, and stores; and of course the famous pink marble mansion that "Colonel Sam" built in Tate.

Edward A. Johnson

Special thanks to Mimi Jo Hill Butler of the Marble Valley Historical Society for providing detailed information about Georgia's marble history. She is the daughter of J. B. Hill, principal memorial designer for the Georgia Marble Company from 1927 to 1962.