If the people of the Ozarks are to be best defined by a single totem it would have to be the Ozark rock masonry architecture left across their native landscape. The style is defined by the decorative use of rocks as features in cemented walls or mortared together as a veneer. Two distinct forms of Ozark rock masonry emerged in the early 20th Century and are today known by a variety of names such as field-rock, rubble-rock, giraffe-rock or cobblestone buildings. The structures they define stand as beautiful examples of local craftsmanship and epitomize the Ozark spirit of turning something seemingly worthless into a uniquely beautiful work of art.
Architectural Historian Debbie Sheals’ 2006 article “Ozark Rock Masonry in Springfield, 1910-1955” is one of the most authoritative on the subject. She writes that rock is perhaps the Ozarks’ central feature. It doesn’t simply exist as a hard layer beneath the soil but creeps to the surface in great outcroppings and boulders of limestone, sandstone, dolomite and chert. It is this reality which has blessed the region with the beauty of lichen-covered stony hills, but also cursed its inhabitants with infertile soil and narrow agricultural opportunities.
Sheals recounts in frontier days Ozark rocks were mostly only useful as stacked-stone fences or as property markers once cleared from fields. She details this was due to the local rocks limited utility as a building material. As a result, Ozark buildings either came in the form of brick or log cabins during 19th Century settlement by the United States. A surviving example of this practice can be found in the Sligo community of Dent County. Stacked stones still line the old property lines from before the village was mostly abandoned and border the old roadway north into Crawford County.
It was the proliferation of Portland cement which made Ozark rock masonry possible. Sheals reports earlier forms of cement lacked strength and didn’t dry fast enough to be an effective mortar. However, Portland cement became widely available in the early 20th Century and could be used to fuse native rocks together. For the first time the excessive amount of surface rocks in the Ozarks could be used as a cheap building material to erect walls or veneers. It didn’t just save money either, utilizing native rocks for masonry created buildings that dazzled with vibrant colors and textures endemic to the Ozarks.
Sheals notes the practice became a popular choice from 1910 to 1960 due to their vast availability of rocks and how easily the construction method could be learned. This architectural movement was further aided by the dissemination of Ozark rock masonry techniques by publications such as MU Extension and other agricultural bulletins. In time, she reports two main forms of Ozark rock masonry emerged which became known as the field-rock and giraffe-rock styles.
Sheals writes that Ozark rock masonry decreased in popularity in the 1960s due to its labor cost being relatively more expensive when compared to the other modern construction methods. It was during that era that prefabrication took hold of the industry and veneers such as aluminum siding became popular choices for home builders.
As Sheals recounts, no one knows where the first Ozark rock masonry building was made but common architectural trends emerged in the 1910s which came to be called field-rock, rubble-rock or cobblestone style. The form is defined by a collage of native rocks being mortared together as either a structurally significant part of cement walls or set within a cement wall’s outward face for ornamental purposes. Sheals writes builders would harvest the rocks surrounding a building’s construction site for use or scavenge for them at nearby creeks and quarries. Local farmers were often more than happy to give rocks away in exchange for their free removal. From there the rocks were piled up and methodically used to create buildings from the ground up.
As to nomenclature, Sheals posits using the term “rock” would be most accurate to name the style as “stone” traditionally refers to rocks which are processed or cut into blocks, while the materials used in Ozark rock masonry were literally pulled right off the ground.
There are several beautiful examples of field-rock buildings and houses scattered across Salem. They are mostly found in the inner core of the city corresponding to the town’s earlier periods of expansion.
One of the finest examples of the field-rock style is located at 901 North Main Street adjacent to Salem’s Highway 19 roadside park and historical marker. Its walls are made with a composition of small boulders of rough-textured limestone and dolomite with intermitted pieces of tan Rubidoux sandstone. As a whole, the collage covers the exterior of the home’s first floor extending down to its foundation and even wraps its chimney.
Records from the Dent County Assessor’s Office indicate the house was first built in 1931, but its owner at the time is not listed on that property card. It also doesn’t include any information about the original mason who crafted the structure.
As time progressed Ozark rock masonry became more refined with innovations in artisanship and structural engineering. By the 1930s, the style adapted to being used as a veneer applied to the outside of new wood-framed buildings or applied to existing structures during a renovation.
Sandstone became a favored material for this veneer approach as it can be easily split into long, flat slabs for mortaring together. This split-slab method is popularly called “giraffe rock” due to its resemblance to that animal’s iconic spots.
The split-slab method brought extra flair to the looks of its buildings. The sandstone was sometimes painted orange or other colors to further accent the giraffe-like aesthetics. The mortar was additionally sometimes colored white or black to further accentuate this look. Sometimes the mortar itself was also raised or molded to make it stand out more, with beads even laid within the joints between rocks. In some examples, rocks with interesting shapes were arranged to create different unique patterns within the veneer.
There are many stunning examples of giraffe-rock style buildings in Salem. They are found mostly dotted in the outer ring of town with several examples on Pershing Street and MacArthur Avenue.
One of the more prominent examples of giraffe-rock style in Salem is located at 306 East Scenic Rivers Boulevard. The two-story house is today home to the Century 21 office. Records from the assessor’s office indicate the home was built in 1945 and first owned by Pearl and T.J. Butts.
The structure is wrapped in a smooth veneer which transitions between subtle earth tones. The giraffe-rock covers the first floor and includes a handsome porch around its front door. The second-floor window and area above the garage is covered by a trim of modern siding.
The cement mortar of the giraffe rock is lifted above the sandstone and molded into a smooth finish. It additionally appears to have been painted or dyed a black for stark bordering. The home’s accompanying garage also has an identical look, and several nearby homes are defined by similar giraffe rock.