SYLACAUGA, Alabama – The belt of white marble that runs beneath this central Alabama city once yielded gleaming columns, panels and other architectural elements found in monuments, government buildings, hotels and banks across the nation.
For several decades, however, creamy Alabama marble has been in short supply for high-profile commercial and government projects. A new venture spearheaded by Bessemer businessman Roy Swindal and his family, along with international backing, intends to change that.
Their plans for Sylacauga Marble Quarry would return Alabama white marble to its heritage as a prized construction material, used in the interiors of the U.S. Supreme Court, the ceiling of the Lincoln Memorial and in many other notable structures.
“We are going to bring back a stable supply of Alabama white so that it’s available to the architectural market,” said Roy Swindal, whose family operates Masonry Arts in Bessemer. “That’s not been there. When we do that, it will really be the rebirth of this material in the United States.”
The venture recently acquired a 50-acre tract in Talladega County, where recent marble production has been limited. To expand the operation, Sylacauga Marble has purchased $500,000 in specialty equipment and will add another $2 million in equipment in coming months.
The company aims to hire around a dozen workers by year’s end and bring in a quarry master from Italy to train them. The new equipment will allow the crews to remove large marble blocks – essentially, 9’x6’x5’ cubes – from the quarry. One block can be sliced into 50 or so slabs during processing.
“Our goal is to ship blocks around the world,” Roy Swindal said. “We should be able to ship our first block from the quarry before the end of the year. At the end of the first year, we plan to pull four blocks per day from the quarry and sell four blocks per day.”
His son, John, a Masonry Arts executive who will serve as operations chief for Sylacauga Marble, said the venture is setting high goals. Through partnerships already in place, the company plans to ship its marble to China, Europe and the Middle East.
“My vision is for us to become the premier white marble producer in the United States. Eventually, we would like to become one of the premier white marble producers in the world,” John Swindal said.
CELEBRATING IN SYLACAUGA
The Swindals and their financial partners in TBGS Holdings have been working for months to launch their operation at the quarry in Alabama’s “Marble City.” TBGS Holdings is led by Chairman Chang Yan Tan, a Chinese businessman.
Monday afternoon, the Swindals and their partners held a small ceremony at the site to honor the support they have received from state and local officials on the project. At the ceremony, they presented Sylacauga Mayor Doug Murphree with a classic Chinese vase on an Alabama white marble stand that will be displayed at City Hall. Murphree and Mike Landers, a Sylacauga business consultant who was involved in the project, gave Chairman Tan a marble sculpture fashioned by a local artist.
“This is our home now,” Roy Swindal said during the ceremony.
The Swindals want their venture to open a new chapter in the history of the Alabama marble industry, which dates to 1814 when Edward Gantt, a physician traveling with General Andrew Jackson, noticed large deposits around present-day Sylacauga. He returned 20 years later and began buying land for a quarry.
Numerous other operations followed, and the business began to boom.
Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti, who fashioned the cast-iron statue of Vulcan that stands over Birmingham today, loved the marble he discovered in Alabama and set up quarrying companies in Talladega County early in the 20th Century.
“At one time, marble was Sylacauga,” Roy Swindal said. “There is no telling how many hundreds of people the marble industry employed there back in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Then the operations began to change hands to different families and companies. The white marble industry in Sylacauga just basically died.”
Marble production continues in the area, but the focus changed as multinational corporations stepped in. The white marble now being pulled from the ground around Sylacauga is mostly being crushed up as calcium carbonate, a powder used in cosmetics, magazine paper, diapers and other products.
Since 1900, an estimated 30 million tons of marble have been quarried in Sylacauga, according to the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
After the 1970s, though, there was very little Alabama marble available for use in large-scale building projects. Nevertheless, Alabama white retains a solid reputation because of its strength and purity, said Jacob Swindal, another son involved in Masonry Arts and Sylacauga Marble.
“Everybody in the stone business knows Alabama white marble,” Jacob Swindal said. “They know it in China, they know it Europe, they know it everywhere. There just hasn’t been enough supply.”
At Monday’s ceremony, Roy Swindal said the venture is targeting global markets with its Alabama marble.
“We are going to sell Alabama marble worldwide — I don’t think that has ever been done,” he said. “They sell Italian marble worldwide. We are going to sell Alabama marble from Sylacauga worldwide.”
The Swindals believe pent-up demand for Alabama white is substantial.
For one thing, prices for high-quality white marble has in the past six years, indicating the product is enjoying a resurgence. The Swindals have surveyed potential customers to gauge their interest in Alabama white. An Italian geologist, hired to assess the quarry, told them that its production potential appears strong.
Though their property spans only 50 acres, their surveys indicate significant reserves – enough for decades of production. Core samples show marble present at 150 feet below the surface, and drilling performed by others in the area show deposits at 400 feet, they said.
“Many years will pass before there will be any cause to worry about the material running out,” Roy Swindal said.
While past attempts to revive architectural interest in Alabama white have faltered, Roy Swindal believes Sylacauga Marble has the funding, capabilities and international partnerships to accomplish their goals. His extensive experience with Masonry Arts is another plus. He’s been involved in the stone industry for more than three decades and has am extensive industry in Italy, China, Spain and many other countries around the globe.
“The type of projects we’re going to be looking for are those from major architectural firms,” he said. “We want to be in the government structures. We want to be back in the buildings in D.C., Chicago and New York.
“You can go to hotels in New York today and a lot of the rooms and hallways are filled with Alabama white. Go to D.C, and many of the government office buildings have Alabama white. We want that image back.”