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Cool Things - Capitol Stonemason Tools

Plumb bob used by Nels Ferguson to build Kansas CapitolNels Ferguson used these tools to help construct the Kansas State Capitol in the 1870s.  Ferguson was a Swedish immigrant whose stonemason skills allowed him to put down roots in Kansas.

"The south side of the State House yard is filled with stone, and the stone cutters' hammers make a merry music which may be heard some distance off . . . the outlines of the structure begin to show themselves."
--Lawrence Daily Journal, 1879

Building the Kansas Capitol was a miraculous endeavor.  Towering 306 feet above the prairie, the neoclassical structure took 37 years to complete and cost $3.2 million.  Under the supervision of architect John Haskell, construction proceeded in three phases: the east wing, the west wing, and finally the central domed rotunda.  The statehouse was completed in 1903 and boasted a lavish Senate Chamber, a full library, and one of the largest capitol domes in the nation.

Masonry float used by Nels Ferguson in constructing the Kansas Capitol

Limestone was the preferred building material in Kansas during the late 19th century.  Ferguson learned this while working for Tweedale Construction on the Capitol's west wing in 1879.  Building projects of this size were complex.  Stone was quarried in Junction City and Cottonwood Falls and transported 80 miles to Topeka by wagon, riverboat, or rail.  The stone then was carved and positioned using horse-drawn cranes.  By Ferguson's time, Cottonwood Falls had become the primary source for stone, and Tweedale Construction employed whole crews at the quarry.

Crowbar used by Nels Ferguson on Kansas StatehouseFerguson's tools reflect the type of masonry at which he was skilled.  He was not a carver of delicate decorations, but rather a fixer mason who placed massive stones and applied mortar.  Ferguson would have used the level and plumb bob to ensure proper alignment, and the crowbar for leveraging stones into position.  The hand float helped with finishing work.  View a close-up of the level's vial plate.

Stanley Level used by Nels Ferguson on Kansas StatehouseAfter constructing the "People's House," Ferguson built one for himself.  Born in Sweden in 1838, he had immigrated to the United States while in his thirties, linking up with family members already living in Junction City.  He soon found work with the railroad and helped build Fort Sill in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).  In 1879, Ferguson traveled to Topeka to meet his newly arrived Swedish sweetheart, and within five days the two were married.  Ferguson soon was working on the statehouse.  Three years later, the couple and their two daughters moved to a location in Jewell County, not far from the established Swedish community of Scandia.  After years of living in a dugout, Ferguson built his own stone house.  He named it Rock Hill Farms in reference to the materials quarried in his own backyard.

Ferguson appreciated the historical significance of his work on the statehouse, passing down his story and tools through generations of family.  In 2010 two state legislators acquired the tools from a Ferguson descendant and donated them to the Kansas Historical Society, where they are in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Cool Things - Capitol Stonemason Tools

Author: Rebecca Martin

Date Created: December 2010

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.