Rock Solid Vision
by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Irvin Serrano
What Jeff Gammelin sees in stone
Sometimes that which we seek is right under our nose. This is particularly true for Jeff Gammelin, whose life has always been anchored by stone. The 59-year-old co-owner of Freshwater Stone first came to know the intricacies of stone as a child growing up in Lake Mohawk, New Jersey, a unique community of castle-like Tudor, English cottage, and German baronial homes. The distinctive architecture placed the community on the National Register of Historic Places and gave Gammelin his first taste of stonework. “Every house was different, but they were all very fanciful. It’s where I first got the idea of using these kinds of materials,” he says.
Gammelin’s appreciation of stone continued through the 1970s when he and his wife Candy moved to Ellsworth and began building their home. To save money, the couple used materials they could extract from their land, and rock happened to be one of them.
When the Gammelins built their own fireplace, little did they know that it would become the first of hundreds of stone masterpieces. As the rock-layered work of art came to life, Gammelin had one of those defining moments after which nothing is quite the same. “I just looked down at the fireplace and recognized a mosaic quality to it. I thought, ‘Here’s a form you could do some real composition and design with,’” he says. “I looked at the pattern—one stone fit with another. It had a sense of weight and balance. All of a sudden the natural forms within the stones were creating more natural forms. Masses related to each other, shapes related to each other, the joints related to each other, the massings related to each other,” he explains.
Later that year, an admirer of the fireplace commissioned Gammelin to build another, and before long he and Candy found themselves running a business. It was 1976, and formal instruction in stonework was hard to come by, so Gammelin taught himself with the occasional help of friends. Without much technical direction, he relied heavily on a good eye for design—something that Freshwater Stone still prides itself on today. “It started out as a subconscious thing and became more conscious. Some of the more conscious decisions weren’t as good as the subconscious ones at first,” he laughs, “but somewhere along the line I achieved a balance.”
When the Gammelins started Freshwater, there were only a handful of people doing stonework in the area. The possibilities for the burgeoning company were wide open. In 1989, the Gammelins opened up their shop in its current location in Orland. “We started bringing in different types of granite and as much new technology as we could,” he says. Freshwater became the first stoneworking company in Maine to create granite countertops and the first to bring in bridge and wire saws, highly efficient tools for cutting slabs of stone.
Today, the fifty-person company operates out of a 22,000-square-foot plant and showroom on a twenty-acre property in Orland. The company’s focuses are split into departments:construction, interior fabrication, and architectural stonework for commercial and civil projects across the country. Ten miles away in nearby Frankfort is the company’s 165-acre quarry—the source of its signature granite, Freshwater Pearl. Inside the quarry, 38,000-pound blocks of stone await their next life as fireplaces or countertops.
Even here, staring at a 500-foot-tall mountain of granite, Gammelin finds the unique beauty of each piece. “The granite is a real pretty gray. Not a salt-and-pepper consistency, but larger crystals with life to it. It’s a very neutral color that goes well with the landscape, not a monochrome-type look,” he says. In addition to quarried granite, Freshwater uses other kinds of stone native to the area. “The closer you get to the source, the better the project will look,” he says. Despite its sophisticated equipment, the company still relies heavily on a good eye for design—the same instinct that shaped Gammelin’s early work. “When we come up with new concepts for products, we are always influenced by our sense of what we could do with the stone,” he says.
But design is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle, according to Gammelin. “Our best projects happen when we can sit down and collaborate with a team—builder, architect, landscape architect, owner. Our best work comes when designers drive the design and we execute it. What drives us is getting architects and landscape architects to try to understand all the things we can do with the technology we have,” he says.
The wide range and reach of Freshwater’s work is a testament to its success. In addition to a huge portfolio of projects throughout Maine, the company has done stonework for the Penobscot Narrows Bridge in Bucksport, a chapel in southern France, and a courthouse restoration in Dallas, for which it won the Pinnacle Award of Excellence from the Marble Institute of America.
Though much of Gammelin’s work involves managing the dayto-day operations of Freshwater’s thriving business, he still lends his design eye to the company’s ever-expanding roster of projects. Throughout the years, his appreciation for the medium of his craft has only grown. “The reason I got into stonework,” he says, “is that it challenges you at every level. It engages your mind, and it’s creatively and physically engaging as well—you have to pick these stones up, be safe and attentive. It is rare that you have all three of these things at one time.” Beyond his sound reasoning, it is clear that Gammelin is drawn toward stone in less tangible ways as well. “There is an indescribable feeling of lifting a stone and putting it into place…and knowing you’re doing something that’s going to last a long, long time.”