Austin’s Rock Star
By Mella Rothwell Harmon
Curator of History
Nevada Historical Society
Austin has a rock star. No, it is not Britney Spears or even Elvis. It is Chuck Bispo.
Chuck is a master craftsman in several media, including stone masonry and horsehair and rawhide cowboy gear. Chuck is one of those people Americans admire most–a self-made man. Chuck started working for Benny Damele at the Dry Creek Ranch at age 15, working there off and on for ten years. It was at the Dry Creek, and with the encouragement of Benny Damele, that Chuck became interested in traditional crafts.
Chuck taught himself by listening to other artisans–old-timers, he calls them–talk about their work, and he studied on his own. He studied the work itself; he studied books and practiced, practiced, and practiced. Chuck also made his own tools, partly because it was cheaper, but also because it was part of the learning process. When he started out working with stone, he made his own punches and wedges. When one design didn*t work, he*d try another and, through trial and error, hit upon the tools and techniques that would provide the results he was seeking.
Chuck’s talent is not just a surface thing. It drives to the depth of the creation.
The same applies to the rock wall Chuck is building at St. Augustine*s Catholic Church, now known as the St. Augustine*s Cultural Center. Long before there were bricks or concrete, there were rocks. They were free, plentiful, and virtually indestructible. Almost anyone could pick them up, pile them together, and make a wall that would separate property, define courtyards, hold steep hillsides in place, or form planters in gardens. Some rock workers, or stonemasons, went on to grander things, such as castles and cathedrals.
The purest forms of stonework are mortarless or “dry-stacked” walls, which rely only on friction, weight, and the shapes of the rocks to hold them together. The best work is as thoughtfully composed as a painting. It has graceful lines and balanced proportions, and it elegantly integrates stones of differing sizes, shapes, and colors.
When St. Augustine*s Cultural Center took over ownership of the church in 2002, it was clear that repairing the wall was high on the list of repairs. Funding for the wall reconstruction was included in St. Augustine*s second Commission for Cultural Affairs (State of Nevada) grant.
Even more fortunate than getting state funding for the project is that Austin has its own master stonemason. Chuck studied the project before agreeing to take it on. The options included repairing the wall or replacing it. Chuck feared that replacing it might undermine the stability of the building, including the steeple, a risk he was not willing to take. Chuck is quick to say that his estimation of the building is that it was built on solid ground and is structurally sound. His solution for the wall problem was to build a modern wall in front of the old one. This plan allows for the original to be preserved in situ, an ideal historic preservation outcome.
The new wall is being built of similar granite from Austin Summit, using traditional quarrying and tooling techniques. Chuck*s wall is dry-stacked.
Chuck is leaving his mark on the wall. As he was learning his trade and studying the historic stonework around Austin, he was especially taken by the quality of the work at Stokes Castle. This is the level of quality to which he aspires and what he calls his stonemason*s mark. He has left his mark on numerous projects around Austin as well, including a rock barn in the valley and numerous walls around town.
Chuck admitted that he recently bought his first set of store-bought tools, and he has a new crane truck that no doubt makes hauling rock a bit easier. Individual rocks he uses in construction can weigh as much as six hundred pounds each. These modern conveniences notwithstanding, Chuck*s skill is purely old-school. He is carrying on Nevada*s traditional methods in an era of quick-and-cheap. Chuck, with the help of his son and son-in-law, has worked on St. Augustine*s wall for about a year, saving up his vacation time from his job at the school.
Chuck loves doing rock work. Although it is hard, physically-demanding work that takes patience and time, it is more rewarding than other jobs. He finds it satisfying, and the final product is a thing of beauty, in which he takes great pride. And, unlike other kinds of projects, a rock wall will last a long time and wont need to be repaired for at least a hundred years. And the best part, Chuck says, is that a rock wall never needs painting.