Greener Pastures: Krukowski Stone Company Began as a Wisconsin Dairy Farm
Note: This article is part of a series about American quarries. If you work for a quarry that’s a member of the Natural Stone Institute and you’d like your quarry to be featured here, contact Karin Kirk. Thank you!
Jeff Krukowski and Joanie Krukowski-Whitt grew up on a small dairy farm, owned and operated by their parents. As the farm developed new pastures, one thing stubbornly stood in the way: rocks.
“Everywhere in the fields, there were boulders,” recalls Joanie. “In order to expand the farm and get the land ready, there were all these stones.”
With the pragmatism that’s become famous in the Midwest, the family began to view the field stones as an asset rather than an obstacle.
“Our parents hand-chiseled stones for local masons” says Joanie, and in 1978 her brother Jeff “took it upon himself to get a truck and to start picking those boulders.” He found customers in Chicago, and Joanie offers fond memories of the early days. “When I was a little kid, I’d ride with him into Chicago, I thought it was the neatest thing crossing that state line,” she muses. “We’re in a rural area, so getting out of state was a big deal.”
“Jeff is my older brother…” she explains.
“Wiser, also!” Jeff adds, as they both laugh.
“And I’m very impressed with what he’s done,” Joanie says.
From hand-gathered stone to nationwide sales
Krukowski Stone Company has grown mightily since the days of a single delivery truck, but it remains a family-centered business. In all, six family members work in the company: Jeff works alongside his wife Joyce and their two sons, Brad and Chris, and sister, Joanie Whitt, and brother-in-law Ted Kijak.
Beyond the family members, the company employs an additional 25 people, and works in six quarries spanning over 1,000 acres. The company built a state-of-the-art fabrication shop and a separate splitting facility – totaling over 50,000 square feet of production space.
Jeff’s sons oversee much of the fabrication; Chris runs the saw shop and polishing department, while Brad manages the splitting shop, shipping department, and retail sales. Together they do wintertime trade shows, “which are nonexistent right now,” adds Joanie.
Stretching far beyond its humble roots of gathering field stone, the Krukowski Stone Company now ships products throughout the U.S., Canada, and beyond.
“We’ve even shipped stone to Dubai,” says Jeff. “And Hawaii,” Brad adds.
“Oh yeah, Hawaii. Yeah, all over!” replies Jeff enthusiastically. “There’s only about two states out of the 50 that we haven’t shipped to,” he adds.
Joanie credits the family’s ingenuity and persistence for their success. “If there was something that could be done with this stone, Jeff tried it,” she says. “Back 25 years ago, he went to Europe, because they’ve been doing stone forever; he found great equipment and great companies to work with. Now we have the best equipment in the industry,” she says proudly.
Krukowski Stone Company quarries two distinctly different stone types, but the quarries are only a mile apart.
Aqua Grantique is their best seller; it’s a dark grey metamorphic rock, infused with a greenish blue color and ribbons of white. “That blue color, nobody else seems to have it,” says Brad. “To me it’s really unique. When we do trade shows, it’s the first thing people look at.”
When polished, Aqua Grantique is nearly black, which sets off the lighter colored veins and lively movement. But in its unpolished state, the stone reads as soft greenish grey with a subtle sparkle – an entirely different character than the high-contrast patterns in the polished stone. It’s dense and durable, allowing it to withstand freeze-thaw cycles, saltwater, and other forms of abuse.
Thanks to the hard work of recent glaciers, boulders of Aqua Grantique dot the property. These are popular to use as landscaping elements, especially Asian-themed gardens. The unusual blue-green color lends itself to water themes, “We do lots of ponds,” says Jeff. The stone has been used in public gardens, commercial installations, and high-end private projects.
The company’s quartz-rich sandstone comes out of the quarry as either slabs or blocks. Sandstone blocks can be used in the naturally layered shapes that come out of the quarry or can be split or sawn into various products. “We grade it in the quarry for potential use: flagstones, random dry wall, veneer stone, or stair treads,” says Joanie.
The quartz sandstone is an overall cream color, with darker shades of chocolate brown, orange, and tan on the weathered faces. The natural colors are sorted into different blends, to create either uniform coloration or mixtures of different hues, depending on the aesthetic style of the project.
Krukowski’s manufacturing facility sits in between the quarries, putting everything in close proximity. “Logistically it’s a great thing,” says Joanie.
Northern Wisconsin’s old rocks
Although the quarries are only a mile apart, they’re separated by more than 1 billion years of geologic time. Aqua Grantique is one of Earth’s truly ancient stones – around 1.8 billion years old. The quartz sandstone is a relative newcomer a mere half billion years old. How did such different stones end up right next to each other?
Northern Wisconsin is largely made up of rocks that are more than one billion years old, dating back to the Precambrian Era. These rocks contain geologic signatures of the comings and goings of mountain ranges, continents rifting apart, new landmasses adding on, and periodic volcanic eruptions. A lot can happen in a billion years, as it turns out.
Aqua Grantique is what geologists call a meta-volcanic rock. It once was molten magma that cooled and solidified into a dark-colored lava rock like basalt or gabbro. Later, the rock got buried, compressed, and heated, becoming a metamorphic rock through these processes. The high pressures of the subterranean environment created the stone’s wavy texture and chemical reactions gave rise to new minerals and colors.
By the end of Precambrian time, around 500,000 years ago, the tectonic action that created Wisconsin’s diverse collection of rocks had calmed down, and the landscape of Wisconsin had been eroded down to a fairly flat plain. During the Cambrian period, sea level began to rise and waves lapped onto the landscape, creating a beach. The geologic signature of encroaching seas is the same, no matter when and where it occurs: a layer of sandstone. Thus, a layer of fresh sandstone was laid down on top of the old, contorted metamorphic rocks.
This Cambrian sandstone layer is one of the most common and prominent rock types in southern Wisconsin, but in the northern part of the state, it was wiped away by erosion, once again exposing the ancient metamorphic rocks. But a few protected locations were overlooked by the erosive forces of water and glacial ice, and isolated pockets of sandstone were left behind. The Krukowski quarry is one such place.
The quarry has gained celebrity status amongst geologists, as it’s home to an extremely rare stash of jellyfish fossils. As you can imagine, a jellyfish is not an easy thing to fossilize, since it doesn’t have teeth, bones, or any durable body parts. But sure enough, certain sandstone layers in the quarry are dotted with round imprints of jellyfish that got stranded on the beach as the tide went out. The discovery made the cover of Geology, a high-profile scientific journal, and helped scientists learn more about the fauna of Cambrian seas.
It also made the quarry famous. “We get bombarded with phone calls,” says Joanie. “People are always asking, ‘Can we come see your fossils?’” Due to ongoing quarrying activity, fossil-hunting is not permitted.
In an era when so many products are made overseas, the Krukowski family prides itself on its local roots. “We are one of the few companies in the U.S. that make countertop slabs,” says Joanie. Jeff adds, “But it costs ten times as much to produce in America as it does in Brazil, or India, or China.”
The upside of American production is that the higher labor costs translate to good local jobs, and the shorter shipping distance helps offset the higher price of production compared to an imported stone. “It’s more cost effective, freight-wise,” says Joanie.
Local architects appreciate that Krukowski stone earns LEED credit for locally-sourced materials, and customers are drawn to the stone because it’s American-made. “We should all try to sell ‘Made in the USA,’” Joanie says.
The family has adopted numerous sustainability measures, not to bolster a green image for their brand, but simply out of a longstanding tradition of not being wasteful.
“We use everything, from end-to-end, once we quarry it,” says Brad. Smaller rock fragments are crushed into landscaping chips or a DOT-approved road base.
Cardboard gets reused as corner protectors for shipping stone, and shredded office paper is mixed with molding plaster to secure blocks during the sawing process. Broken pallets are repaired, and new LED lights illuminate the manufacturing and office spaces. Saws are used during off-peak hours whenever possible.
Joanie summarizes their outlook: “We were green before green was a term. We’ve always done everything we could to be very responsible with the environment.”
One thing that’s abundantly clear when talking to the Krukowski family is their ability to work hard. Even while running their stone business, they still tend the family farm. “Jeff grows corn and soybeans and raises beef cattle,” says Joanie. Undaunted by Wisconsin’s bitter climate, they quarry right through the winter, “as long as it’s above 10 degrees,” says Brad. The team appears easygoing and collaborative, though allegiance to the Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears causes an occasional intra-family dustup.
Joanie reflects on the arc of her career as a woman in the stone industry. “They look to the man to answer the question,” she says, recalling instances where her expertise was overlooked. “It’s been a big struggle at times, but it’s getting better.” She credits programs like Women in Stone to help encourage a more diverse workforce in the industry. “Plus I’m older and more confident now,” she says.
“We have a can-do, will-do attitude,” says Joanie, but the sentiment is already completely evident.
Brad and Chris both became first-time fathers in September, a happy development for everyone. “And as soon as those kids can walk I’m going to teach both of them how to do book-keeping,” Joanie laughs, “and answer the phone!”
The pandemic has driven a major upswing in sales, so it looks like the Krukowski family won’t get to rest on their laurels anytime soon. “Our retail sales went up 200% last year,” says Brad. By late January, they had already received enough orders to carry them through the end of 2021. “We just got a 15,000 square foot job ten minutes ago,” says Brad.
Joanie chimes in, “Yeah, you never know what that next call is gonna be.”