“In time the white marble of Talladega County will stop the importation of $5,000,000 worth of white marble a year from Italy to the United States because the white marble of Talladega County is the finest white marble in the world, and it is here in unlimited quantity.”—Giuseppi Moretti (1905)
Although Gantt is generally credited with the discovery of Alabama marble, records show that the Scotsman George Herd and his family conducted the earliest quarry work in the area. In the 1830s, they opened several quarries in Talladega County, perhaps one in Coosa County, and, using the old plank road from Sylacauga to Talladega, made shipments throughout central Alabama.
On May 10, 1838, Herd and his partner, Richard Miller, advertised in the Jacksonville Republican:
Miller & Herd Proprietors of Talladega Marble Quarries
Respectfully announce to the public that they have their saws in operation and are prepared to receive and execute any orders for tombstones, doors, windowsills, etc. Their charges will be moderate and their terms cash only. M.D. Simpson is an authorized agent in East Wetumpka who can give any information required and receive orders. Specimens of the marble may be seen in the graveyards at West Wetumpka and in Messrs. Duncan and Northrop's new buildings.
By the turn of the century the flourishing Sylacauga quarry was selling its product throughout the state. Although the company quarried structural marble, the most lucrative product was produced by blasting the stone, which they then sold for use in fluxing steel.
The artistic qualities of Alabama marble--its translucent beauty, its fine texture, its purity--were first realized by the Italian-born sculptor Giuseppi Moretti, who came to Alabama in 1904 to design and cast in iron the colossal statue of Vulcan that Birmingham planned to exhibit in the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Moretti, who had worked as a young man in the marble quarries in Carrara, Italy, had an eye for a fine piece of marble, and he made a practice of inquiring about local stone whenever he traveled.
When asked about Alabama marble, John H. Adams, a prominent citizen of Birmingham, informed Moretti that a deposit of beautiful white marble existed in the central part of the state. One story indicates that this conversation transpired after Moretti saw a marble Bible on Adams’ desk at Republic Steel Company. However the discussion began, Moretti insisted on seeing the marble, and for some time to follow, he and Adams explored marble deposits throughout the state.
Legend suggests that Moretti’s first sighting of Sylacauga marble occurred at Old Nix Spring, where he lost his heart to the stone that he said rivaled the quality of the famous Italian marble of Carrara. Disturbed about the dynamiting, Moretti immediately began making plans to develop the marble for artistic and building purposes.
Over the next twenty years, Moretti embarked upon several business ventures in the area, operating, at different times, two studios--one near Talladega, one near Sylacauga--and, in conjunction with businessmen, three separate quarries—Gibson-Moretti, Moretti-Harrah, and Moretti-White. In 1923 Moretti sold his interest in the last quarry, Moretti-White. By the time of his death in 1935, Moretti had completed more than eighty figures, life size or larger, as well as hundreds of smaller pieces.
Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, technology drastically changed the Sylacauga marble industry. Electricity replaced steam as power for the saws, and by 1936 diamond saws had doubled the accuracy and speed of the cutting process. Countless small operations sprang up, but competition was keen and many went out of business or were absorbed by the larger companies, Alabama Marble and Moretti-Harrah.
During this period, the reputation of Sylacauga marble producers spread across the country. Alabama Marble Company supplied marble for the translucent ceiling of Lincoln Memorial and for the Washington Monument. In fact, when the marble for the Washington Monument arrived it was so similar to its Italian counterpart, Carrara marble, that officials placed it aside until they could confirm its origin.
The Moretti-Harrah Company supplied much of the marble for the US Supreme Court Building, including thirty-six massive columns in the foyer measuring twenty-two feet high. In fact, by the 1940s, beautiful cream marble from Sylacauga could be found in hotels, banks, offices, mausoleums, memorials, and homes across the country, including the Mercedes-Benz showroom, New York; the Dime Savings Bank, New York; the Alabama State Archives and History Building, Montgomery; the Chrysler Mausoleum, New York; the AI Jolson Shrine, California; and post offices in Chicago, Tuscaloosa, Mobile, Dothan, Talladega, and Gadsden. Alabama marble was also used for the column capitals and bases in the House chamber in the US Capitol, the main entrance to the American Trust Building (now the John Hand Building), Birmingham, and the duck fountain in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, Memphis.
During the 1940s, the developers of plastics and other materials created new uses for crushed marble, especially Alabama marble which is nearly pure calcium carbonate. Calcium was needed for agricultural, pharmaceutical, and paint products; it was used in animal feed, insecticides, and joint cement materials. Today, Alabama marble is no longer quarried for sculptural or structural purposes. Instead, it is removed by explosion and then crushed for products as diverse as flour additives, road material, agricultural lime, paper coating, plastic fillers and extenders, and reportedly, kitty litter.
The quality of Alabama marble has never been disputed. One of the world’s best-known sculptors, Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, sculpted a masterpiece from Alabama marble-the bust of Lincoln, which stands today in the crypt of the nation’s capital. The fine texture of Alabama marble, said Borglum, enabled him to portray the expression of kindness on Lincoln's face that he had never been able to produce with any other stone.
This article was previously published in Alabama Heritage Issue 20, Spring 1991.
Edward Mark Dodd, assistant director of public relations (electronic media) at Louisiana State University, holds a B.A. in theatre from the University of Alabama and a M.Ed. in educational media from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. During the late 1970s, while producing a series of promotional
films for the Moretti-Harrah Marble Company, Dodd began researching the marble industry in Sylacauga. This article is based on that research and much of the information comes from his interviews with Geneva Mercer, Giuseppe Moretti's assistant. The editors wish to thank Gregory M. Guthrie for assistance in preparing this article.