The garage door gapes open on Mart Clamp’s metal prefab shop, located on a gravel driveway the same shade of gray as the overcast sky. Crammed inside are assorted hammers, knives and rollers of all sizes, an air compressor, wood fragments and chunks of granite ranging in size from a TV tray to a small child. The light from a floor lamp slices through the dusty daylight as the tall, sturdy 48-year-old prepares to do something he hasn’t done in two decades.
“All right, so I’m going to attempt to do this and not mess up,” he says, his voice pushing through the hum of the shop generator.
Mart hovers over a thick, seven-foot slab of pale sandstone laying flat on a table. Having already brushed a coat of glue onto the surface and given it time to dry, he grows quiet as he prepares to place a sheet of rubber over the slab’s surface, working to get it just so. If he stretches it, the sheet of rubber – and hours of work – will be ruined. He wears a resolute expression on his face as he carefully positions it in place.
He doesn’t mess up. His father taught him the art of granite carving well. Now Mart is using those hard-earned skills to carve a memorial for the family patriarch’s grave.
2. Granite Capital
Mart’s shop serves as the center of Clamp Sandblast, a granite engraving company in Elberton, about 100 miles east of Atlanta. He learned the trade from his father, Charlie Clamp, who learned it from his father, James Jackson Clamp. They are not unique. Granite is the family business for many of the residents of Elberton, called the “Granite Capital of the World.”
The title took eons to earn. More than 300 million years ago, a mass of molten magma beneath what would one day be Elberton pushed its way toward the surface. It cooled over the course of a million years, solidifying into a granite deposit about 35 miles long, 6 miles wide and at least 2 miles deep.
In the 1870s, Elberton began to mine its 6 million tons of granite and made its first upright monuments in 1900. Today the area produces two-thirds of all granite headstones in the United States, according to the Elberton Granite Association, which is appropriately housed in a granite building and operates a museum dedicated to the rock. More than 10 percent of the population of Elbert County works in the industry.
The heart of Elberton lies in its historic town square, lined with two-story brick buildings that house a smattering of shops and restaurants. The imposing, Tudor-style Samuel Elbert Hotel, built in 1925 to accommodate the needs of a growing city, sits on one corner of the square.
If you drive west from the square for a mile — past a 15,000-seat high school football stadium, a conference center and a church all constructed of granite — you will reach the house where Mart and his mother Carolyn live.
Travel a few miles southeast from the square on Old Middleton Road and you encounter numerous granite quarries and producers, including Clamp Sandblast. The sandblasting business has changed considerably since the days of Mart’s father and grandfather. It used to take 60 days to make a monument. Now, with computerized stenciling and robotic cutter carving, it can take less than a week.
But for Charlie’s memorial, Mart has returned to the old ways, the way his father taught him, by hand, using his father’s century-old tools.
3. ‘Simple, comfortable life’
Everyone has a part of their lives where their fondest memories live. For Mart’s dad, that was the time he lived in Alaska.
Born in Elbert County in 1927, Charlie first got acquainted with granite when he was about 13 years old and went to work for his father polishing granite slabs in preparation for carving. Toward the end of World War II, when he was old enough, he joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed in California. Along the way he married.
In 1953, Charlie and his wife, some friends and his sister all moved to Palmer, Alaska, before the territory was even a state. The marriage didn’t last, but Charlie stayed on, working in coal mines, hauling coal and serving as head mechanic.
It’s a long way from Elberton to Palmer – 4,341 miles by car. Carolyn doesn’t know the exact reason for Charlie’s move to Alaska, but she says he probably thought he could make more money than back home in Elberton.
“He was young, just wanted to do something different,” she says with a laugh.
He left after 11 years, but he would tell stories from that time until his death — tales about hunting adventures, the characters he met, the bitter cold even in July.
“That was a great part of his life, and I do miss hearing those stories,” Mart says.
One story Charlie liked to tell was about a friend from the coal camp who was a part-time prospector. The friend kept a mason jar full of gold.
“He would take it out and show it to my dad and say, ‘Here, go ahead and take what you want.’ And my dad was like, ‘No, I don’t want anything,’” Mart says. “That was that guy’s way of testing my dad to see if he’d go gold crazy. The man kept trying to get my dad to quit the job at the mine and go prospecting with him, and my dad was just not interested.”
Charlie eventually returned to Elberton to start his own sandblasting business. Carolyn was a neighbor and the two struck up a friendship. They married in 1967, and Charlie adopted Carolyn’s 3-year-old son, Ron. Mart was born two years later.
With their two sons in tow, Charlie and Carolyn traveled to cemeteries across the Southeast so Charlie could engrave names and dates on monuments. When the boys started school, Charlie traveled alone except in the summers.
“When he would pull out of the drive to leave, I’d stand there watching him until I couldn’t see the truck anymore,” Carolyn says. “I just missed him.”
Charlie grew his business over the years, eventually bringing Mart on to help him and teaching him the trade.
One of Charlie’s greatest professional accomplishments was one of Georgia’s biggest mysteries. He was part of the team that created the Georgia Guidestones, an imposing Stonehenge-like granite monument in a field in Elbert County. Erected in 1980, the Guidestones — made up of five upright stones topped by a capstone — tower nearly 20 feet high. The slabs bear 10 guidelines for an “Age of Reason,” such as: “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.” And “Unite humanity with a living new language.” The text is written in eight different languages, and some of it contains errors, says Mart, since the carvers were unfamiliar with Hebrew or Russian.
No one knows who commissioned the Guidestones or why, and conspiracy theories abound. Occasionally vandals deface the Guidestones, and the City of Elberton, which monitors the stones, sometimes calls Mart out to repair them.
Eventually, Charlie stopped traveling and started working primarily in Elberton, and Carolyn joined him, working in the office until Charlie retired in 1999.
“He worked for what he had,” says Mart’s daughter, Lauren Clamp, 20. “He may not have always been the richest man, but he worked up to being comfortable and being able to provide for his family. That was really just what he wanted in life, was to have a family and to provide for them and have a nice, simple, comfortable life.”
Eventually Charlie began displaying symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. He moved to a nursing home and died at age 88 on the day before Valentine’s Day in 2015.
4. Like father, like son
Mart wears a tattered baseball cap bearing the logo of the Elbert County High School Blue Devils, khaki pants, gray sneakers and a long-sleeved blue shirt. His white beard still contains a memory of the red his hair once was. He clutches two rubber mallets and bangs on his father’s memorial along with his sales manager, Britny Drennan, who spends so much time working with Mart, she knows that he sneezes in threes. A loud, methodical popping sound punctuates the air as rubber meets stone.
This step is crucial. The mallets help the stencil cling to the cracks and crevices in the sandstone. If the stencil doesn’t stick, it could slip when Mart sandblasts it. Sandblasting is like running a crayon over a stencil on a sheet of paper. Its powerful jet eats away anything not covered, so if the stencil shifts, the sand will carve the wrong places, ruining the stone.
Mart was 13 when he made his first memorial. It was for the family dog, Pepper — Pep for short.
“My dad found that dog in a cemetery,” he says. “He was just working one day, and the dog came up to him and looked hungry and like it had been outside, and it jumped right up in the cab of the truck, and he just brought it home.”
Almost four decades later, the memorial still stands in the backyard.
Even with all this childhood granite experience, the career didn’t come calling right away for Mart.
“It’s something that I tried to avoid,” he says.
His dad also didn’t want him to join the granite industry, instead encouraging Mart to attend college.
“My dad had a sixth-grade education, and [in] his generation, his mindset is you go to college, you’ll have a good job,” he says.
In 1989, Mart moved to Athens to study music education at the University of Georgia, playing trumpet in the school’s Redcoat Marching Band. But three years later, he quit.
“So happy that didn’t work out,” he says. “I had probably about a year and a half left, and I don’t know. I just got tired of it.”
He worked as university police officer for a while and as a bartender in downtown Atlanta. But like Charlie, Mart eventually returned to Elberton. He went to work for his dad at Clamp Memorial Service Inc., got married, had Lauren and later divorced.
Mart’s first duty in the shop was pulling stencils off granite and washing them.
“Even though I didn’t think that was too big of a position at the time, what he was teaching me was every step and every process, from beginning to end,” Mart says. “That has helped me because as a business owner, you have to be able to do everything.”
When his dad retired, Mart started his own company. He now carves granite in his Elberton shop and travels across Georgia to work on cemetery memorials and other granite pieces.
Granite suits him, he says. He likes working with his hands. In fact, Mondays are his least favorite day because it’s paperwork day.
“I get grumpy,” he says, jokingly growling like a dog.
In the evening, after the first day of working on his dad’s memorial, Mart treats himself to dinner at Richard’s Restaurant on the square, finishing his meal with a brownie. He seems to know everyone there. He still plays the trumpet at church and in community theater. He recently joined the University of Georgia alumni marching band.
“I enjoy working on monuments. It’s peaceful work, actually. None of the people talk back at you,” he quips. “If they talk back, I’m leaving.”
When his dad went to live in a nursing home, Mart and his mother talked about what type of memorial he should make. In the beginning, his dad took part in those conversations, but eventually Carolyn made the decisions.
“He would’ve wanted whatever my mother wanted,” Mart says.
Despite the family’s history in Elberton granite, Mart chose Tennessee sandstone for his dad’s memorial. He liked it because the swirls of color make it stand out among all the gray granite in Elberton.
“I just wanted something to be unique like he was,” Mart says. “I wanted something that when people go by, they would just automatically know that it was his monument. They wouldn’t even need to see the name. They would already know whose monument it was.”
5. Preserving memory
What almost became landfill fodder decorates the back of Mart’s shop.
A painting by Lauren of a tree in a forest, washed in bright blue, yellow and green, hangs on the wall above Mart’s worktable. He scooped it out of the trash after she threw it away.
Lauren is away in Dahlonega at the University of North Georgia, but her presence is felt in her drawings and paintings that hang throughout the tidy home that Carolyn and Mart share with a stout black mutt named Jovi.
Lauren’s artwork also appears on Charlie’s memorial. Mart took a cluster of daisies she drew in her ninth-grade art class and incorporated them into the design. She doesn’t think it’s her best work, but she feels proud to have a hand in her grandfather’s memorial.
A junior majoring in history and minoring in art, Lauren created her own memorial to Charlie. In February, she got a tattoo on her wrist of forget-me-nots, the state flower of Alaska and a symbol for Alzheimer’s.
“He was such an influence in my life and such an inspiration to me. We had such a close relationship. Even after he got dementia, he always seemed to remember me and continue to love me,” Lauren says. “I just wanted something to show the world how much he meant to me and how much I missed him and loved him.”
In light of Charlie’s love of Alaska, it’s fitting that the memorial carries a design inspired by the state’s animals. Lauren conceived of the image incorporating an elk, puma, bear, wolf and eagle, along with the name of the town, Palmer.
The towering memorial also bears the family name and a cross cast in bronze on the front. Mart started the memorial in March and plans to finish it by September.
After adhering the sheet of rubber to the sandstone, Mart will transfer the memorial design to the surface by laying a pattern printed on carbon-backed paper over the stone and gently rubbing it. Then he will carefully cut the rubber into a stencil with a knife. Once that’s done, he’ll etch the design into the stone using a sandblaster.
As he discusses the process, Mart turns reflective.
“My dad and I were a lot alike. He was very headstrong. My dad had a way of doing things, and it didn’t matter if you thought you knew a better way. He knew the best way. That’s just the way he was,” says Mart. “Now, as I’ve gotten a little older, I appreciate that. It’s like, if the wheel ain’t broken, don’t fix it. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Cemetery monuments don’t just exist to mark the location of a person’s remains. They also ensure the memory of that person lives on.
Carolyn knows this first-hand. She recently went on Ancestry.com to learn about the family history, and she traced Charlie’s roots back to the Netherlands. Whenever she discovered a family member was buried near Elberton, she took a road trip to see the grave site.
“If people did not mark their graves, then you’d never know where they were buried or a little about them,” she says.
Elberton’s Elmhurst Cemetery serves as the resting place for Mart’s aunts, uncles and many more family members than he can name. He occasionally drives his pick-up truck there to visit his dad’s grave. A wooden cross, a piece of granite and artificial flowers in shades of purple, white and red mark the space for now.
But after he finishes the memorial, Mart will rent a 40-ton crane to set it on his dad’s plot.
“This is my way of making sure that he’s well-remembered,” Mart says.
Remembering – that’s why Mart makes the memorial. That’s why he uses a custom-made stencil and will sandblast the surface by hand. Creating the memorial allows Mart the time to reflect on the craft his father taught him. It gives him a reason to handle his father’s vintage tools and pay homage to the traditional ways of carving stone. And it gives him the mental space to mourn the man who helped shape him. It’s simply the most fitting way to honor the beloved father, grandfather and husband.
“I wish we still made monuments like this because things move too fast sometimes and a lot of the artwork kind of goes out the window,” Mart says. “If we could take it back a few notches and put that customization back into it, that would be nice.”
ABOUT THE STORY
Every year since its inception, Personal Journeys has won journalism awards for its in-depth narrative stories about extraordinary people living in or from Georgia. This year is no different. Last month, the Society of Professional Journalists bestowed a second-place Green Eyeshade Award on Personal Journeys for Best Features Writing. Among the stories recognized by the prize was “A Place to Call Home” by Helena Oliviero and “Dishwasher to Doctor” by Jeremy Redmon. And just last week, the Society for Features Journalism awarded its third-place prize for Best Sports Feature to “Knock-out” by Max Blau. Congratulations to everyone who contributed to the winning entries.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She writes about a range of topics — everything from business to culture to death to city design and beyond. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Atlantic’s CityLab, The Bitter Southerner and other outlets.
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.