Vetter Stone: A Bedrock Family Tradition
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!
Limestone bluffs are a familiar sight across southern Minnesota; stacks of tan, layered rocks standing proud above riverbanks, or punctuating the rolling prairie along highway roadcuts. Geologists, always happy to embark on mental time-travel, recognize these limestones as the remnants of a warm, watery world. The rock’s ubiquity illustrates that these limestones are part of a continuous blanket of stone, painting the image of an expansive tropical sea, stretching for hundreds of miles across the region.
It can be hard to imagine how that could be possible, given that Minnesota is nowhere near a coastline and is presently a pretty chilly place. But 450 million years ago, you’d barely recognize the Midwest, nor any part of the United States, for that matter.
At that time, the North American continent was just south of the equator and most of it was underwater. It’s a bit of a mind-bender to grapple with the idea of North America sitting below the equator. Throughout geologic time, the continents have constantly been rearranging themselves, thanks to plate tectonics. During the early Ordovician Period, the overall climate was warmer than today’s and there were no glaciers or ice caps. Because no ice was stored on land, sea level was hundreds of feet higher than it is now.
Minnesota in the Ordovician was similar to the Gulf of Mexico today. Over a thousand feet of limestone, sandstone, and shale were laid down across the northern Midwest, with each layer telling the story of a particular environment. Sandy layers are the signature of dunes, beaches, or shallow shoals. Limestones formed in deeper waters where calcite and dolomite settled out of seawater.
This assortment of marine sediments is called the Prairie du Chien formation, and it stretches from Minnesota through Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. “Kasota stone” is a nickname for the Oneota Dolomite, a dolomitic limestone layer within the Prairie du Chien formation. Amid all the other layers left behind by the retreating sea, this one is particularly useful due to its higher magnesium content, making it more resistant to weathering compared to a typical limestone. Kasota stone was first quarried in 1858 and soon the limestone’s recognizable hues of cream, buff, and light grey began to appear on buildings, stone walls, and walkways across southern Minnesota.
A family rooted in stone
The origins of the Vetter Stone company may not trace quite as far back as the Ordovician Period, but the company has deep family roots in the stone industry.
Paul J. Vetter, Sr. came from generations of stone cutters in Germany. Paul’s father emigrated from Germany to Minnesota in the late 1800s and owned a monument shop. Continuing the family tradition, Paul made his career working at a stone company in Kasota. In 1954, just before his retirement, Paul sunk his life savings into a quarry of his own. He bought land and began investing in machinery as his savings would allow. These were the seeds of the company which today spans two operations, employs 130 people, and exports stone around the world. To this day, the company is largely guided by the Vetter family.
Donn Vetter is Paul’s grandson and Quarry Manager at Vetter Stone, and he’s grateful for his grandfather’s foresight. “He had four sons, so he figured someday if they wanted to get into the stone business, they were set up already,” recalls Donn. “He decided if the boys wanted to join him, they sure could, and all four of them did.”
Donn’s father Howard was one of those four boys, and “one by one the brothers got bought out, and it ended up with my dad,” says Donn. Howard Vetter ran the company until 2000, then passed the torch to the next generation. Howard’s six children all stayed in the family business. “At one time we all worked here. All at the same time,” says Donn.
Donn and three of his siblings remain active within the company today. Bob Vetter is a drafter and engineer; Mary Vetter Benedict is an estimator, and Ron Vetter is CEO.
“There’s a lot of synergy,” Donn says fondly. “It’s a lot better when we’re all here than when somebody’s missing.”
Southern Minnesota’s signature stone
Vetter limestone clads landmark buildings throughout the region, including the 57-story, art deco Wells Fargo Center, the Minnesota Senate building, and the University of St. Thomas. Target Field, home to the Minnesota Twins, may be the most iconic use of Vetter Stone. Built in 2010, it “used every color we have, and all different types of finishes inside,” says Ben Kaus, President of Vetter Stone. “It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”
“We’ve got good relationships all across Minnesota,” says Ben. “We’re able to handle each job uniquely. Truly every order is different and independent. It makes it very fun.”
The most common use of Vetter’s Minnesota limestone is exterior cladding, but the stone also finds its way indoors, as flooring, fireplaces, backsplashes, and accent walls. In the landscape, Vetter limestone is used for paving, patios, pool coping, seating, and stone walls. The stone is equally suited for homespun DIY efforts, expansive commercial installations, and everything in between.
Ben stresses the importance of local connections that have made the stone so recognizable. “All the families that have stayed in southern Minnesota have known Vetter Stone,” he says. “They know the quality of it, and they know the family behind it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed some larger projects while opening the door to more residential work. Ben explains that over the summer they did “more back yards and more interior projects.” Although the residential work was smaller in scope compared to Vetter’s typical work, the volume was larger, so Ben estimates their total workload increased slightly compared to last year.
The company welcomes personal involvement from homeowners. “Our doors are open for tours. We love to have visitors,” says Ben, explaining that people are naturally curious to learn more about the stone and the quarry. Regardless of the scope of the project, “we’re more than happy to spend the time with them,” he says.
The majority of Vetter’s business is in the Midwest, but Ben points out, “we have projects all over the U.S. and actually we have a lot of international projects, too.” Vetter Stone is on American embassy buildings in Moscow and Oman, and the company has multiple projects in Japan. Ben explains that the international partnerships came about as a result of developing relationships with American architects who were involved with overseas projects.
A clean and efficient business plan
The straightforward geology of Kasota stone lends itself to a simple and streamlined operation. The limestone strata are horizontal and near the surface. “It comes out in layers,” says Donn, and the layers tend to be around 2 to 5 feet thick. “They have natural seams in them so we don’t have to bottom-cut,” says Donn.
Donn and his crew drill core samples from the undeveloped parts of the quarry so they can follow the best areas of the formation. They formulate a specific quarry plan for each quarrying season, which runs from April to October.
Colors range from cream to buff to pink, explains Donn, “and then there’s many shades of those colors within all the ledges.”
The fabrication facility sits on the same 500-acre property as the quarry. “Every week we bring blocks up to the plant,” says Donn. The 80,000 square-foot facility is 600 feet long, “so it’s the natural progress from big blocks on one end to finishing on the other end,” he says.
Production can be as simple as making a flat panel, or as detailed as an intricate edge profile for a complex project. Fabrication takes shape through a combination of a skilled workforce, specialized equipment, and the all-important human touch. “We have five people that work with their hands in the finishing department, cleaning up what’s left by the saw blade.” Ben mimics the polishing work with his hands while explaining, “Smoothing it out so it’s got a really nice hone and smoothness to it.”
Donn explains that in the final product the tolerance is plus or minus 1 millimeter. Both men take evident pride in the high quality of the workmanship. “Our customers expect it from us,” says Ben.
‘Don’t mess it up now, Ben!’
Ben became Vetter Stone’s president in August 2019, overseeing operations in the company’s quarries in both Minnesota and Alabama. He’s the first president who’s not a Vetter, and he readily admits that being an outsider was intimidating. “When I was hired six years ago that definitely was on my mid quite a bit,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into.”
Donn underscores the point, “That’s a big deal for the family, to have a switch after three generations and 66 years.”
“Don’t mess it up now, Ben!” Donn jokes good-naturedly, as both enjoy a laugh.
We don’t have a big corporation to fall back on,” says Ben. “We have to continue to pay attention to all the details of the company.”
But Ben appears to be more than capable of paying attention. After several years of stability, Vetter Stone is currently in what Ben describes as “growth mode.” He ticks through the changes throughout the company: “We’ve found ways to be able to increase our capacity. We’re getting more efficient in the quarry. We’re getting more stone out of the ground.”
An increase in quarrying needs to be matched on the production line, so Ben continues: “We also hired new talent and on the fabrication side of things we’ve invested more in newer equipment that improves our accuracy and our capacity.”
And of course, all of this is contingent upon growing sales, too. “We’ve become more aggressive in growing more relationships with more architects. And we can handle that capacity,” he says.
Ben is quick to point out that the success of the company relies on their workforce. “Employees really buy into that and they work really hard,” he says. “It’s cool to see it all come together.”
“We do everything we can to make sure they have a good work environment and we give back to them as much as we can,” says Ben. “Our employee retention is one thing I’m really proud of.”
Poised to continue the legacy
Throughout the evolution of the company, two things have always been in plentiful supply at Vetter Stone: stone and Vetters. And both are here to stay.
Donn estimates there’s 200 years of limestone remaining to be quarried, and he has eight children.
“There’s definitely going to be another generation coming up,” says Ben, nodding. “Oh yeah, for sure.”
Donn adds, “There’s 20 grandkids in the next generation, so…”
Ben steps in, “We’ll find a few that want to stay involved.”
“You’d think so!” echoes Donn with a laugh.
While many unknowns may lie ahead, the company and the family are ready for the next chapters.