Ghosts of Main Street: Eugene Kirby, Stonemason

June 6, 2019

Part One: Fountains and Stone Baskets A Specialty

By Julie Traynor


Among the carpenters, laborers and masons who literally built Marion, stonemason J.E. Kirby created more than foundations, chimneys and porches. Evidence of Kirby’s ‘fancy work’ and his lasting local legacy are several large cobblestone basket planters, scattered about town. His widely acclaimed fountains have long disappeared.

 The first mention we find of Gene Kirby was in a 1903 Marion Dispatch-Leader, noting that J.E. Kirby had been in town while checking on his “farming interests” east of town. The Kirby farm property was located on Kirby Avenue, northeast of Marion in Clare County’s Winterfield Twp. On the 1906 township plat, only one half mile of Kirby Avenue existed. By 1910, Kirby it appears that he had made the Marion area his home.  

This photo postcard of Jesse and Inez Wolford and Jim Courter standing by the new cobblestone fountain at the Marion Depot in 1914 was tremendously popular. To the left and beyond the tracks, a stone basket planter may be seen next to LaGoe’s Confectionery. Both were the work of Gene Kirby.

In the spring of 1914 the Dispatch reported that Kirby finished putting a cobblestone tank around “the fountain… is very artistic and in keeping with the surroundings.” We believe this fountain was located within what was Elm Grove Driving Park.

Kirby’s most prominent local drinking fountain was undoubtedly the public drinking fountain in front of the railroad depot on East Main. Kirby put the finishing touches on his original cobblestone work on August 6, 1914, just in time for the annual August 7th Homecoming celebration.

In September of that year, Kirby began laying locally made cement blocks for the Rixom Building, which is still standing. Remembered commonly and fondly today as “the dime store” it currently seeks new owners. Not much is known of RG Rixom, other than on the building that bears his name and his family plot, both cast in stone. The building has been covered since ca 1960.

Five years later, it was noted in the Dispatch that the Rixom family plot in Greenwood Cemetery had recently been graced by a one of Kirby’s cobblestone basket planters. In July, it will have been in place for 100 years.

Another Kirby basket not far away marks the resting place of early Marion physician Dr. Donald Johnson.

In the 1920’s Kirby shipped via railroad flatcar, 250 of his cobblestone basket planters, fulfilling an order in downstate Michigan. That must have been a sight to see, all along the route.

Kirby’s work as a builder and artisan was in much demand in this rocky region and as if to advertise his craft, Kirby made several very noteworthy improvements to his home on East Main St. It was noted again in the Dispatch that he had finished painting his home and had started building a cobblestone porch which “when completed will be one of the finest in town.”

It must have worked for in October 1916 Gene Kirby began building a cobblestone house for Fred Moored in Highland Twp., which still stands. This was a worthy project, which took time to complete. On July 1, 1920, Kirby began the building of a “large cobblestone porch for Mr. Duvall of McBain.” That lovely stone porch also remains.   

Next week we’ll tell you a few more interesting facts that speak for this silent stonemason who never signed his work, not so much as one basket.

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