LITTLE FALLS -- There’s a sense of permanence and shared memory in the stone monuments that document a life, including details that even tell a stranger something about the individual and the people who loved them.
The business of telling life stories in monuments in Little Falls continues a tradition going back to the 1800s and now harnesses modern technology to meld art and stone. For the people behind Little Falls Granite Works, crafting a memorial for a loved one becomes part of the healing process after a death and the granite becomes a lasting legacy.
“Both Todd and I grew up in the business,” Scott Nagel said of his brother. Their father, Ron Nagel and partners Ray Calhoun and Howard Garry purchased the Little Falls Granite Works in 1963. The business stretches back more than 100 years in the city. Now Scott and Todd Nagel and Calhoun’s son Don, who was out of town during the Dispatch visit to the business, continue the tradition established when Little Falls city streets were traversed with horse and buggy.
Central Minnesota, considered one of the main granite hubs in the nation, traces its history to 1868 with the state’s first granite quarry in the St. Cloud area. Pioneers from Europe brought their stone cutting skills to Minnesota. With four decades in the business, Scott Nagel said they have seen many changes even in a short amount of time.
“The industry has changed a lot, probably in the last 10 years with, of course, technology,” Todd Nagel said. “The types of engraving we can do now and the sculpting that we can do now is so much easier now with the equipment that is available.”
Once chiseled by hand in soft stone, memorials now incorporate technology to heat and fracture and sandblast granite, creating scenics of sunsets, adding rich color images of favorite places or etching detailed portraits into graveside memorials. “Our job is to tell stories,” Todd Nagel said, recalling “The Dash” poem by Linda Ellis and noting someone’s story is not the dates marking when their life began or ended, but is in what stretched between those dashes in between.
“That’s our job, to tell the dash, so what we do with memorialization is to try to tell that story with either designs or pictures or verbiage and incorporate all three of them -- so when someone walks up to a memorial they can know, hopefully in a very short amount of time, a little bit about that individual.”
Technology has also changed what customers see. In the past, a person wasn’t likely to see the finished memorial until it was placed in the cemetery. Now they can use 3D imaging to show people exactly what a stone or memorial will look like when finished and do a virtual walk-around. Beyond graveside monuments, the company also works on a lot of big civic projects, veterans memorials, city signs, markers for fire departments and law enforcement.
“It’s amazing what we can do nowadays,” Scott Nagel said.
All the manufacturing happens in Little Falls and the design and sales is predominantly in the company’s facility in Richmond. Todd Nagel, who lives in Little Falls and works in the Richmond office, said he is lucky to be able to see the work at both sites, including the intricate and detailed monument work. Little Falls Granite Works’ specialty is custom work. It took them time to find the technology that would fit their business. After a lot of research and patience to wait for technology to create a laser that worked well in stone, they were rewarded seven years ago. They found and bought a high definition laser and spent a week in Massachusetts to learn how to use it.
“It is an amazing piece of equipment,” Scott Nagel said. “High definition laser has taken us to the next level of what we can offer the families.”
High definition laser technology creates photographic images in precise detail, capturing portraits, the family farm, a nature scene, a lakeside view, or Duluth’s lift bridge -- or a combination of images vividly. Little Falls Granite Works describes it as a “fusion of photos, art and stone” as black granite serves as a canvas.
“I think we were kind of pioneers in some of the things that were done,” Todd Nagel said of engraving processes they used in the 1990s importing techniques used in other industries and design programs not typically used on gravestones. They went out to look for graduates and hired people with backgrounds in architecture, mechanical and graphic arts.
“They were so much better at producing these really nice designs,” Todd Nagel said, adding he walks through the yard and is amazed at what the staff is making. “They produce some beautiful stuff. … I’m very proud of what our people are able to do.”
Every individual is different, so every memorial should be different, he said.
Thirteen years ago when the Nagels lost their mother, they felt the value of the work they do for memorialization on a personal level. Her monument, an angel sculpted in her image, stands as tall as she did.
“Our story is the mother was always the fabric that held our family together, now she’ll be able to do it eternally,” Scott Nagel said.
They’ve created a monument with a sculpted muskie on top. Turn the corner on a rounded stone to find it carved to show two individuals riding a motorcycle. An angel with detailed feathers rests next to one monument, another kneels in prayer. And a sculpted full-size tiger climbs along the side of a polished headstone. Others have color scenes, like a waterfall. The brilliant and durable colors of the scene are created on metal covered in porcelain. Another trend brings a place to reflect when visiting a loved one as benches gained in popularity in the last 10 years.
The timelessness of their work is something that stands out in a time when nearly everything else seems made to be thrown away, replaced, upgraded.
Recently, Todd Nagel said he drove through a city with his kids and when they passed a veterans memorial he was able to point that out as something their business created. They’ve also engraved name markers for the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii.
What works best for lettering, engraving or graphics on a particular memorial or stone depends on multiple factors, including color and whether the stone is upright or flat. The Nagels said they can accommodate any budget and can work with families to get their loved one’s story in stone. In central Minnesota, a monument for parents, a mom and dad stone, is about $3,500, including granite foundations for the memorial, engraving and installation.
Little Falls Granite Works also creates custom sculpted stones like a replica of the family dog in the center space between two connected monuments. Clay models are created first for customers then a lot of the sculpting is done overseas.
More people are also pre-planning their own monument, which removes the guesswork for loved ones. Even though they were in the industry, the Nagels said they hadn’t talked to their mother about it. Todd Nagel said some people may also need more time before they make a decision on what they do want. He said the biggest thing is not to rush it and regret it later.
Todd Nagel didn’t expect to be part of the family business. He went to school for mechanical engineering/drafting and started the company’s computer design department, which grew to employ multiple designers. The work grew and he stayed with it. Part of the company’s process is so unique with the precision graphics developed, Scott Nagel said other people ship product to Little Falls so they can carve it.
As they look at trends and the future, the move to more cremations looms large.
“There was a major concern it would affect our business in a negative way,” Todd Nagel said.
With cremation rates rising and the National Funeral Directors Association predicting 70% of American will choose cremation over burial by 2030, Little Falls Granite Works looked at options as well. Todd Nagel said the cremation rate in Minnesota is getting into the 60-65% in the metro area, but is not as high in rural areas.
The Nagels said while some states do have a high number of cremations, and may not provide a burial or a place for cremains, Minnesotans still value a burial. Scott Nagel said there was the concern that cremation would turn into a disposal instead of a burial, but here the final resting place is still predominantly the cemetery.
“That way entire generations are not lost,” Scott Nagel said. “Here in Minnesota we have that value system where everybody matters and that’s a great thing to have. We should all be proud of that.”
Multiple checks and balances in the creation of monuments are all designed to try to catch any errors before they are literally carved in granite.
Raven Hokus, graphic designer/monument designer, said she enjoys working with the families and personalizing the monument. She never thought she’d be putting her graphic design skills to work in this industry.
“I like that I get to help people,” Hokus said.
Tim Hanson, laser operator, is from Little Falls and said he never realized how many people or how much work the business did until he came across the technology job. He’s been able to bring innovations to the work to better the business and said he enjoys the challenge and ability to integrate technology.
Charis Rudolph works as a quality/administrative assistant, working in many departments.
“I love my job,” she said. “It’s very busy and very rewarding -- start to finish.”
Hunter Siltman, plant coordinator, said the Little Falls Granite Works does more in a day than some other monument businesses do in a month’s time. The process includes regular shipments of stones that are stacked and scheduled for work. A conveyor belt carries the stones from the yard into the plant for the engraving process. The laser engraving heats the stone and makes tiny fractures to produce the image. Paint can then be used to make the image more prominent such as the lasered image of a sunset through the clouds on a black stone.
Stencils of a rubberized material made by 3M are placed on stones and then staff members like Ken Bergren cut out parts of the stencil. The sandblaster etches out the stone not covered and protected by the stencil to make letters stand out from the background. With carvings, such as flowers, paint can be used with stencils again protecting part of the image to heighten the shadow and thus enhance the 3D effect.
While monuments make up the bulk of the Little Falls Granite Works business, the company also creates and engraves benches, picnic tables, memorials for pets, bird baths, cornhole stone boards, granite paths and fire pits, custom markers, wall clocks, plaques and awards, a lazy Susan, reflection stones, teddy bears and turtles. They’ve engraved guns and windshields and do items for weddings and special events. Reflection stones are now a huge part of the business for memorials, homes, pets and anniversaries. In addition, in lieu of flowers, some have a reflection stone at the service, while the gravestone typically can take three to five months to place on site.
“We feel we could go in a hundred different directions, but we try to stay true at what we are the best at, which is memorialization, but we know we can do a lot of other things,” Todd Nagel said. “We are always looking for new things.”
The Nagels said there is not a day when they dread coming to work and the ability to help families through the grieving process with a lasting memorial is what makes it worthwhile.
“I love coming to work, what we do here is so amazing. If I take a day off, I feel guilty,” Scott Nagel said. “I enjoy what I do. The people here, there is something special here. It’s such a huge team it’s great to be part of it. I’m proud to be part of it. We’ve been given the gift to enjoy what we do and there are not a lot of people that can say that and it gives meaning to so many people as well as us.”
Leaving a lasting mark
30 -- the number of monuments Little Falls Granite Works typically makes in a day. At any given time there are 1,200 to 1,500 memorials in the works with the company creating 4,000 to 5,000 a year.
37 -- employees, including part time staff and five designers.
The company, established in 1898, has memorials going all over the United States and did lettering and engraving for the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii.
A granite man, called the Traveler and based on the nomadic Inuit people’s signposts of stones to mark the way in the Arctic, marks the company’s site along Highway 10 near Little Falls. A sign at the base of the figure provides the story. The company invites people to stop there for a selfie before the figure who serves as a lesson that people need others to improve their lives. “We’ve been given the gift of being able to guide people,” Scott Nagel said, adding that is what a traveler does.
Granite, a stone with a visible grain, resists weathering, can be polished to a mirror-like shine, comes in a variety of colors and its permanence to stand the test of time makes it a popular choice for memorials. Imported granite comes from all over the globe, with India a main supplier.