CARTHAGE, Mo. — If there was one final piece of stone Donald Helms was going to carve, it was going to be the headstone he started carving nearly three decades ago.
Helms, 84, is the last living stone carver who worked at Carthage Marble, and on Wednesday he finished carving the last piece of stone to ever come from the Carthage Marble monument workshop. The monument is a gravestone for Frank Dawald, a former Carthage Marble manager who died in January, and his wife, Ruth, who died in 2017.
Helms was commissioned by Dawald to complete the first part of the monument in the early 1990s and spent this week carving the death years. When Helms was first asked to carve the monument, he was one of two carvers left at Carthage Marble.
"The marble place had pretty well shut down at that point, so I guess Frank asked me out of desperation," Helms joked. "I thought this would be a challenge, and I love a good challenge."
And a challenge it was. Helms put about 100 hours into the initial carving and another 24 in the carving this week. Hand carving uses a pneumatic chisel to knock away the stone, leaving raised letters and numbers. It's a more time-consuming process than today's method of sandblasting, which takes about eight hours.
Helms did the carving this week at West Chestnut Monument, a family business owned by Pat Snyder. It was Snyder, a good friend of Dawald, who was originally asked to finish the monument.
But when the Dawald family and Snyder learned that Helms was still alive — he attended Frank's funeral — they asked him if he would finish the monument, a request he happily accepted. Helms has been a welcome addition to Snyder's shop.
"He's an artist," Snyder said. "He has a skill that can only be taught through years of experience, and it's been awesome to have him here working on it."
Helms began working at Carthage Marble in 1961 but didn't start stonecutting until 1965. He remained there for the next 40 years and was part of a crew that had its work featured on projects across the country, including at the Missouri Capitol, the University of Arkansas Medical Center and the Arkansas Justice Building.
"I started there and said, 'This will do until I find a better job,'" Helms said. "It was in '65 that a stonecutting job there came open, and boy, I just took hold of it and loved it."
Helms perfected his craft during a three-year stint remodeling the Capitol and hasn't stopped loving the work. Hand carving requires a certain finesse and care that Helms said not everyone can acquire.
"You kind of have to sneak up on the letter with the cutting tool," Helms said. "You have to use caution all the time, or you'll just pop a letter off. It's not like building a hamburger or hot dog."
After finishing the monument Wednesday, Helms left his tool bag in the shop, signaling the end of an era.
"Around here, I'm the last of the stonecutters," Helms said. "I love cutting stone, and it's been such a blessing that God has given me the talent to do this."