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John Earl Herschberger, the man who carved the lions

Article by Dick Dixon

Local Artists – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

JOHN EARL HERSHBERGER of Salida was one of the stonecutters who prepared granite for the Mormon Battalion Monument. In addition, he carved more than 1,000 gravestones in his 58 years in the profession — but he never got around to making one for himself or his family.

But Hershberger’s skills went past carving tombstones. His most famous work was the sundial that still tells time in Cranmer Park in Denver. He also carved the pair of gargoyle-faced lions, slightly larger than life-size, that guard the entrance to Salida’s Alpine Park.

Born July 15, 1903, in Cripple Creek during its heyday, Hershberger moved to Salida with his family soon after. His father worked at a granite quarry in Ute Trail country, and John began helping him at the age of nine. In 1918 he was hired full time and within two years, convinced his boss he was old enough to become an apprentice stonecutter. During the next three years, Hershberger learned the basics of the trade, and it became his life’s work.

Stonecutting was a skill much in demand in the early 1900s — it was an individualized art form of which men could be proud. Besides, the pay was good. As an apprentice, Hershberger earned $3 per day and as a journeyman the scale rose to $9 per day. Miners then earned $3-$3.50 per day.

When he retired in 1970, Hershberger was one of the last American practitioners of granite carving.

Fame of Salida’s dense, dark granite spread fast. In January 1917, Fred L. Tomlin, a local agent handling granite from Federal Quarry in the Ute Trail country took an order from the Cripple Creek Masonic Order for 100 grave markers. The Salida Record noted the order totaled $1,000 and that the Salida Blue Granite was selected in competition with all kinds of eastern granite and marble.

Stone arrived at the Salida Granite Company via wagons and later by truck. It usually left via the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad which extended a siding from its Monarch Branch to service the plant.

Salida Granite Company employed about 13 stonecutters at its works in 1918, and Hershberger was among them. At that time, one man worked on one piece, making the entire stone uniquely his creation and art work.

Eleven years after his semi-retirement in 1969, Hershberger remembered he created more than 1,000 gravestones during his years as a stonecutter. They were shipped all over the United States.

A couple of more interesting stones he created included one for the Dickmann family of Salida. It included a reproduction of the family cattle brand — one of the first registered in Colorado. The stone today is in the old Cleora Cemetery east of Salida.

Another stone was for the daughter of a Wyoming Indian. The inscription he was instructed to carve read, “Buried in white man’s coffin.”

November 18, 1963, Hershberger leased the Salida Granite Company shed on West Fifth Street in Salida. Papers filed in the courthouse show he was president of Colorado Granite Company. He continued to turn out carved stones until heart trouble forced his retirement in 1969. He could find no one interested in continuing the operation, so it was shut down.

Hershberger came out of retirement in 1970 when G&L Granite Company of Denver needed a stonecutter to complete orders before Memorial Day. By then, the art had become an assembly line process where stones arrived on a conveyor belt for him to letter. Work such as scrolls, angels and trumpets was done by machine.

“The art was gone out of it,” he said. “There wasn’t any need for stonecutters any more.” Those were the last stones Hershberger carved. He died Feb. 26, 1984 and was buried in Salida’s Fairview Cemetery — without one of his own tombstones to memorialize his artistry.

For a time the huge granite shed beside the Denver and Rio Grande Monarch Branch spur remained empty. It again became home to unique art creations when Carl Wagner, a Salida artist used the shed as a foundry turning out bronze sculptures.

Picie Hylton bought the granite works building during the 1970s. Before his death Jan. 6, 1997, Hylton — a lifetime art lover — said, “In a way, it’s still a place where art is created. There’s a mill in there that turns out fancy molding and picture frames. And, it’s a warehouse for all kinds of building materials for homes. I guess these are a kind of art form also.”

The huge overhead gantry crane is still in place on its huge supporting timbers that run the full length of the building. Hylton said when he began using the building as a warehouse, the crane was pushed back out of the way and blocked to stay where it was. “I guess it would still operate today if someone wanted to hook it up,” he said.