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Clancy the Stonewaller: The life (and work) of a stone mason in early 20th century rural Wisconsin


This story originally appeared in 
The Catholic Times, March 4, 2004 issue. 

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Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

(“If you would see his monument, look around.”)

– 17th century English architect Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph, inscribed on his tomb in his greatest work, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

ROLLING GROUND – In the young days of the 20th century, automobiles were still a novelty – and often eschewed by the older folk who saw in these horseless carriages the dawning of a new age speeding toward them.

But they probably did not fear Henry Ford’s wonderful invention – the mass-produced production-line-assembled automobile – so much as they feared the way this machine threatened their slower-paced and simpler life – especially as it was found in the rural areas of southwestern Wisconsin.

A visitor motoring in one of these new-fangled machines through the Kickapoo Valley region might have caught a glimpse of one such lover of simplicity. A stocky figure humping it along the unpaved back roads, this individual invariably would appear with a hod over his one shoulder and a bag of tools hanging from the other.

As the visitor chugged past at the dizzying speed of 30 miles an hour, perhaps this lone figure would pause in his travels, tip his hat and flash a grin which could charm a calf from its mother.

“Another of those horseless contraptions,” he might think, still grinning and shaking his head in amused disapproval as he continued on his way.

This figure strolling at an even pace along the unpaved back roads was a common sight for the people of the Kickapoo region – places like Rolling Ground, Blue River, Gays Mills, Soldiers Grove and places like Tavera (which no longer exists except as a single weathered shack sinking into the Kickapoo marshlands).

He eventually became something of a legend in the area. His name was James Clancy. He carried a hod. He was a stone mason. But it was more than his job – it was the source of the legend he built up with each stone laid.

Some say he believed in the “little people” – and wouldn’t be caught dead in a cemetery at night. But others who knew him better say it wasn’t true. He was actually less superstitious than most.

Others say he graced everything he touched with a down-to-business talent that borders on the miraculous. And to see his work is to see the miracle of rock still standing on rock almost a hundred years later, looking like it did the day he finished scraping the last of the excess mortar into a bucket. Still plumb. Still level. Still flush. Still standing.

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According to his 1924 passport, Clancy was a transplanted Irish stone mason. He sported a thatch of grey-hair, blue eyes as piercing as Galway Bay on a sunny day, and a mysterious scar sculpted along his right jaw.

What the passport fails to mention is that he had a playful wit every bit as sharp-edged as his mortar’s trowel. And more often than not, the target of the wit was his cousin, Michael Kinney, with whom he came to live.

There was the time, for example, when a traveling salesman wandered onto the Kinney farm and came across Clancy attending to some task in the front yard.

“I’m looking for Mr. Michael Kinney,” the salesman announced.

“Well, he’s in the pig barn right now,” Clancy said, looking up from his business. “But if you want to know which one is him, he’ll be the one wearin’ the hat.”

Clancy was born and raised in what was then known as King’s County, Ireland, before coming to the U.S. Located in the central region of Ireland, the county has since been renamed County Offaly after Ireland gained its independence from British rule in 1922.

He settled in rural southwest Wisconsin in 1911 (although other sources say 1912). But between the hazy distance of the dead and buried to the middle ground of the not quite dead and buried, the dates don’t matter as much maybe as the people who lived and moved through these calendar squares of days long gone.

And for St. Philip’s parishioners and cousins James Gorman and Jack Kinney, Clancy the Stonewaller is in many ways still very much alive. After all, Clancy wasn’t just a neighbor to these two cousins. He was family.

A third cousin to Jack Kinney and Gorman, Clancy was related to the Kinneys and Gormans on his mother’s side, according to Jack.

Coming for a visit, he appeared on Jack Kinney’s father’s doorstep. And true to form, he moved in with the Kinneys with less to-do than dusting lint from under a bed.

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“He just showed up one day and said, ‘We’re related,’” Jack Kinney recalled. “He moved in and began working around the area as a stone mason. That’s about it.”

“He came for a visit at first, but I guess he liked it so much around here that he decided to stay for good.”

“When he first came to the area,” Gorman, a parishioner at St. Philips, Rolling Ground, added, “no one knew who he was until my uncle (Mike Kinney) took a chance on him. He built his first barn in 1912 – and after that, well after that he got lots of business.”

Among the greatest contributions Clancy made to the community was a structure practically unheard of in this region of southwestern Wisconsin – until the advent of Clancy – the stone-built silo.

“We had silos of course, but very few silos in the area were built from stone,” Gorman noted. “Clancy built one of the first.”

Silo 1

As Clancy’s godson as well as his cousin, Jack Kinney remembers with warmth the friendship that sprang up between the two men.

Like many of the men in the area, Clancy liked to play euchre and used to go down to Soldiers Grove on Sunday afternoons – which had about 10 or 12 saloons back then.

“I was 11 years old at the time, and he’d take me down to the Grove with him. Well, he’d play euchre and I’d drink strawberry pop until it came out of my ears. He’d drink some, too, mostly beer. But he’d be snoozing well before we got to town – unless he was driving, which wasn’t very often.”

According to Kinney, even after he purchased his own vehicle, he preferred to leave the driving to others.

“He was a wild driver,” Kinney remarked. “So he’d make me drive – and I was still only 11 years old at the time. When Clancy was asked if it was wise to let an 11 year old drive him, he’d reply, ‘Oh no, with Jack here I’m as safe as in my mother’s arms, I am.’”

Jim Gorman remembered exactly how poor a driver Clancy could be.

“He was constantly slipping that clutch – wouldn’t get far before the car was rocking and jerking around,” Gorman added.

“But once he got down to Madison,” Jack recalled, “and turned left on the square where the Capitol building is. Well, everyone knows you can only turn right onto the square.

“So it wasn’t long before a motorcycle cop comes along and pulls Clancy over.

“’Don’t you know this is a one way street, mister?’ the cop says to him. ‘Well then, begorrah, why don’t you have the rest of the traffic goin’ one way?’ Clancy says to him.

“And that cop – well, he just smiled – then he parked his motorcycle and came back to the car, told Clancy to shove over and asked him where he wanted to be driven. I guess he took a liking to him.”

And that was generally the way of it with Clancy, Gorman noted. “He had lots of friends, but really no enemies to speak of.”

As for the first time Clancy laid eyes on the Capitol building itself, Gorman said that Clancy’s sole comment was typical of his tendency for understatement.

“First thing he saw it and said, ‘So that’s the capitol – well, begorry, it is quite a shed…’”

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Jack pointed out that Clancy was happy just to walk before he ever bought a car – sometimes up to 15 miles – from job to job, raising silos and barns around the region.

While Jack Kinney and Gorman feel fortunate to have known this thick-set Irishman up through his time of death, they both admit that they didn’t fully appreciate the fact that a living legend had taken up residence under their own roof.

Clancy returned to his homeland in 1916 – and stayed until 1924. Some speculate that his stay was extended because of World War I – which began the year he left and would officially end with a peace treaty signed in 1919. Others say his homesickness drew him back to the Island of Saints – and only when his siblings and relatives died did he decide to strike out for America again, this time for good, as there was little else to tie him to his birthplace.

According to his cousins, Clancy had a pair of shoulders as wide as his thick arms were short. He was a man of few words, for sure –  and an engine with two speeds – full throttle or impatient idle.

“His hands were always clenched into fists,” Gorman explained. “He was always clenching and unclenching them at the dinner table.”

His tastes – at table and in the pew – ran to the simple. Potatoes. A pint of beer. Faith in God. Potatoes. The sacraments. Devotion to Our Lady. Potatoes. Satisfaction in a job well done. And more potatoes.

As a matter of fact, he enjoyed potatoes so much – he thought that when a neighbor was serving them for dinner the delectable spuds were meant for him alone.

“Hold on fellow!” said his host as he saw Clancy take the steaming bowl of potatoes and place them on his own plate. “You know we all eat potatoes around here!”

It was while at dinner table that Clancy’s hatred and fear of cats came out, as well. According to Jack Kinney, one evening while eating at the Kinney table, one unfortunate member of this species decided to sharpen its claws on Clancy’s shin. Without much of a stir, Jack reported, “Clancy took his butter knife and thumped that cat on the head. Laid it out dead. He looked down at the cat dead there on the floor and then went back to eating as if nothing had happened.”

Like a rural Christopher Wren, Clancy was prolific in and around the Rolling Ground area. His work rises at strong intervals in the pitching landscape – whether it be stone silos, barn foundations, walls – or even a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes located at St. Philip cemetery.

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Indeed, at this cemetery, a visitor can see this monument to his faith – and devotion to the Blessed Virgin – but the visitor will also find a monument to his faith in square, chisel, trowel and hod.

Perhaps it was an early spring day; the sun bright as it began its climb up Clancy’s back to the high light of summer. Clancy was beginning work on a wall that would curb the advance of the cemetery’s shifting soil – part of the rolling ground of Rolling Ground.

Back then, Old Highway 171 separated the living and the dead at St. Philip’s, putting the cemetery on one side of the busy east/west road and the church on the other.

For his part, Clancy merrily began to fit stone and mortar. At high noon, perhaps he stepped back from his work for a moment. His morning labor already brought the wall up to his shins.

Clearly, he thought to himself, progress is being made.

Just then he heard the sharp clap of hooves on gravel. A neighboring farmer was coming up the road. He stopped, tipped his hat against the blazing sun and watched Clancy walling in the cemetery.

“It’ll never last,” the farmer said after a while with a horsey shake of his head. “It’ll be spilling out into the road within five years.”

As if just acknowledging the farmer’s presence, Clancy straightened up abruptly and with a grin as wide as a tombstone, he eyed the farmer for a few moments – and suddenly winked at him.

“I’ll tell you what, mister,” he began to assert with the immediate muster of his well-intoned brogue. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the cemetery. “You’ll be on that side of this wall before this wall is on that side of the road!”

And as any visitor to St. Philip’s can attest, Clancy’s words proved prophetic. No one knows for sure who the farmer was that offered his two cents only to have Clancy handing him back change. But it’s a safe bet he’s buried on the other side of Clancy’s still neatly cropped wall.

“Clancy’s probably got a lot of monuments around this area,” Gorman noted, “but that wall and grotto are probably his best.”

He built the grotto in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Bernadette, both of whose statues appear in the grotto. Clancy built the devotional site by commission. Rose Bannen, a fellow parishioner who shared in Clancy’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin, commissioned him to build the modestly majestic structure at the top of the cemetery hill.

Regarding his final visit to the cemetery, Clancy’s death was much like his life. According to Jack Kinney, he recalls him being fit and active pretty much until the end.

“He was planning to make a return to Ireland and was going to take me with him,” Jack Kinney said.

But then one day he fell ill. The doctors said it was liver cancer. But as in most things, Clancy wasn’t going to stick around long to make a fuss. Within a year of diagnosis, on August 4, 1948, Clancy was heading off for the great quarry of souls in the sky.

His funeral was well attended, Gorman related. A simple affair with his American friends and family as pallbearers, the event welcomed people from around the countryside. They all crowded into St. Philip’s to pay their last respects to a man whose tireless love for stonecraft was a permanent fixture of the landscape.

As for his worldly possessions, fittingly he left his car to his unofficial chauffeur and beloved Godson, Jack, while he spread his money among relatives – including a surviving niece back in Ireland.

Among the many mysteries that have puzzled people who knew Clancy, though, perhaps the most pressing is the question of his tools. What ever became of them? Perhaps they were secretly buried with him. Or maybe they faded into the background – hung on some forgotten hook like a cryptic epitaph in one of the barns Clancy built.

Or perhaps the tools passed into the possession of others – those who were borrowing them from Clancy at the time of his death, or those who bought them at this or that auction over the years.

But that Clancy himself lived and breathed and built and built in the Rolling Ground area is no mystery. His monuments can be seen today. But if you ask Jack Kinney and Jim Gorman, they’ll tell you there’s no rush to see the things Clancy did with stone and mortar.

Those silos and barn foundations, that wall and that grotto – they’ll all be around looking pretty much like they did when the mortar was still drying on them – and probably for long time after the last automobile breaks down.…

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