The Stonemason's Test by Arthur von Boennighausen


In 1996 we bought a 1640 acre property called the Sierra Mojada Ranch and moved to Westcliffe from Boulder, Colorado. A few weeks after our arrival, local Stonemason: Michael Oswald called us on the phone and made an appointment to meet us at the "Elf Haus", our new log home.

Right on time, we saw Michael's flatbed pickup truck pull into the Ranch roads that had already been constructed by our new Friend Charlie Tomsick and the rest of the folks at the road construction company owned by Mary & Jerry Seifert. The curves of the roads and the circles at the ends are similar to a meandering stream of water. The principles of Chinese Feng-Shui in a practical application. According to the principals of Taoism, negative energy which they call "Sha" can not follow a curving line. The Seifert's are a generous and hard working family. Mary Seifert recently used her own money to build an athletic club with swimming pool for the Westcliffe community called "Club America".

After years of talking to Mister Tomsick I became convinced he had "Phonographic Memory" as we would go round and round on some of his favorite subjects like the best way for those of us at RE/MAX to Market the larger Ranches for sale in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Charlie & Dorothy Tomsick live on a beautiful Ranch and when Mister Tomsick is in a Good mood he lets me sit on the tailgate of my pickup truck at the entrance to his Ranch so I can wave at all the cars driving by on the weekends.

Michael pulled up next to us, shut off the engine and shook hands as we introduced ourselves. On the bed of the truck were a few tools and a moderate sized dog attached to the truck with a really big logging chain.

"This is my dog Queen, she is attached to my truck" Michael quipped as we wondered at the size of that logging chain for such a small dog.

"I have to let you know, I'm not here to start the stonework on your fireplace today; this is only an interview to see if you are Good people to work for" Michael told us. "I have worked out a test of sorts that makes the decision an easy one for me. The test has four parts and you have to pass three of the four parts of the test or I don't work for you as a Stonemason."

My wife Marty and I looked at each other and mentally shrugged, we did not really seem to have any choice but to take the "Stonemason's Test".

The first part of the test, Michael told us was a test of hand strength. From years of working with stone, a Stonemason develops an incredibly strong hand. The test was whether I could shake hands with Oswald and not pull away while Michael did his best to crush my hand in his grip.

Our hands joined and our eyes locked together as we both squeezed for all we were worth. After about five minutes of effort, Oswald relaxed his grip and told me I had passed the first part of the test.

"That's a Good grip" Oswald commented. "What have you been doing to make your hands so strong?"

"I squeeze the mouse extra hard when I am using my computer" I told Michael. "I also press on the keys of the keyboard as hard as I can as I type these stories"

"If you say so" Michael replied with doubt in his voice. "Time for part two of the test."

The second part of the test Michael explained was to touch your nose to the nose of his dog Queen without getting your nose bitten off. Michael explained that Queen was very sensitive to aggression and would bite anyone who had the slightest bit of aggression in them.

I looked over at the Dog who was standing quietly on the back of the flat bed pickup truck. Old Queen did not look mean, but I was conscious of that huge chain attached to her collar. The links of the chain must have each been two inches long!

I knew if I hesitated the Dog would sense my fear and bite me so I quickly walked over to Queen and touched my nose to hers while I cringed inside.

I felt Queen's cold wet nose touch mine. Queen sniffed hard a couple of times, hesitated, then sniffed again and to my great relief licked me on the nose and started wagging her tail. I reached over and petted her on the head while she wagged her tail even harder, then she rolled over on her back for a "Belly Rub".

"Good job!" Oswald told us. "You have passed the Dog test with flying colors. No hidden aggression in you folks. Time for part three of the Stonemason's Test"

Michael explained that the third part of the test was to see if you could read Michael's mind. If we could read his mind, it would be easier for us to know what Michael was planning to work on each day and when he would be finished with the work on our fireplace. Then we wouldn't always be calling Michael and asking him questions about our project.

"I have a number between one and ten in my mind." Michael told us. "I want you to tell me what that number is by reading my mind."

I relaxed and looked Michael right in the eyes. After concentrating for a minute I told Michael that the number was six.

"Nope!" Michael announced. "The number was two."

I hung my head, disappointed that I had failed the test when I heard Michael's voice. "I will give you a second chance" Michael told me. "What is the number I am thinking of?"

Eager to pass the test I concentrated as hard as I could and guessed that the number was nine. "Nope!" Michael announced. "I told you the number was two!"

Michael really enjoyed his little joke on us and we had to wait a few minutes until he quit laughing. We could tell he really enjoyed giving potential customers the Stonemason's Test. I was wondering if I could do the stonework myself instead of hiring someone when Michael started to explain the fourth and last part of the test.

"The last part of the test is to read this book I brought for you." Michael explained. "The book is from the year 1795 and was written by a Friend of Benjamin Franklin whose name was Count Rumford. The book is Count Rumford's ideas on how to design and construct fireplaces and you have until 8:00 o'clock tomorrow morning to read the book and show up back here at the house where I will ask you a single question from the book"

We thanked Michael Oswald for his time and took the slim volume back to Paul Zeller's Hermit Basin Lodge where we were staying. The title of the book was "The Forgotten Art of Building a Good Fireplace" by Vrest Orton. According to Orton's book, the colonists of the early United States were cold and their attempts at building fireplaces in their log cabins not only produced little heat but the fireplaces put most of the smoke into the room and not much up the chimney. The fireplaces did not "draw" very well.

Some of the colonists approached a Physicist at Harvard named Rumford to help them design and construct better fireplaces. The colonists were impressed by the equations all over the chalk boards but they asked Count Rumford if he could pause from his study of "Theoretical Physics" and help them with one of the practical challenges of everyday life in the year 1795. The colonists were cold and they were tired of breathing all the smoke that refused to go up the chimney.

Well, Count Rumford was a good "Listener" and started to study fireplace design and construction; a study whose findings were documented and are still in use by modern day Stonemasons like those who work at Michael Oswald's Stoney Gulch Construction.

I stayed up late that night reading Orton's book. I sure wanted to pass the Stonemason's Test and get our fireplace constructed. Morning came all too soon and we drove to the Elf Haus a few minutes early and waited for 8:00am to come around.

As before, Oswald was right on time and Queen was again chained to the back of the flat bed pickup truck.

"Well, are you ready for the last question of the test?" Michael asked us.

"I suppose I am as ready as I can be." I replied. "I read that little book about four times last night."

"Ok. Here is the single question that you have to answer correctly" Michael started. "What was Count Rumford's first name!"

I could not believe the question. All through the book, Rumford had been always referred to as "Count"; I could not remember seeing a mention of his first name. My heart sank. I was going to fail the test and we would not get a stone fireplace for our new home. I felt like crying.

"Ok. Times up. What was Count Rumford's first name" Michael demanded to know.

In desperation, I grabbed at a mental straw. "His first name was Count." I half joked.

"Amazing! That is correct!" Oswald shouted. "Rumford's first name was Count. Everybody thinks he was some kind of German nobleman."

We were thrilled! We had passed the Stonemason's Test and could look forward to having Stoney Gulch Construction building our fireplace.

We thanked Michael Oswald for his time as he got back in his pickup truck. As he started the truck and began to back out of the driveway he rolled down the window and said one last thing: "Too bad you can't read my mind or you would know when I am going to start your project." Michael said with a big grin on his face. "Don't worry, it will be done when we are finished!"

Arthur von Boennighausen @ The Sierra Mojada Ranch