Stone crushers: Quarry work has come a long way since the Town of Bedrock

From the pages of In Business magazine.

In Dodge County, on a rural road just four miles west of U.S. Highway 151, a puff of smoke suddenly wafts into the afternoon sky. It is the only clue that a quarry is operating nearby, hidden from view by acres of farmland.

Driving down into the subterranean rockscape, it is clear that Waunakee-based Yahara Materials Inc. is no Fred-and-Barney operation. Quarrying is a high-tech undertaking involving extraction and crushing. Stone harvested by the company is used for roads, bridges, parking lots, airport runways, homes, bedding for farm animals, and — believe it or not — even toilets, TVs, and toothpaste! 

No Stone Unturned 

Grant Kelsey, a crushing plant foreman, supervises as his younger brother, Casey, shovels rock with an end loader. “He just has to feed [rock], and I just have to watch everything to make sure things go well,” says the 32-year-old Grant, who has worked for the company for 13 years. 

The Kelsey brothers represent their family’s second generation at Yahara Materials Inc. Their recently retired father worked for the company for 33 years.

Yahara operates primarily in south central Wisconsin, including 15 different locations throughout Dane County. Depending on the project, Kelsey might spend two weeks at one quarry, or a year at another, as was the case last year when an ongoing Beltline project had him working in Middleton. 

In contrast, this operation is fairly small, but communication and safety procedures are always critical. “We have a policy that we don’t start any machine until you see the other person because you never know what someone is doing,” says the elder Kelsey. You’re always watching for each other to make sure everyone goes home at night.” 

He admits the job attracts a certain type of person. “You don’t really talk to anyone,” he says, “you just do your own thing.” 

He started doing his thing at 6 a.m. and will work until about 4:30 p.m. Sometimes he works 12-hour days or six days a week, depending on demand.  

Kelsey, who lives in Poynette, expects the work here to last about a month. “This quarry will be providing rock for Highway C in Fox Lake, just down the road,” he says. The harvested limestone must meet strict specifications and pass a minimum freeze-thaw test to ensure it won’t crumble. “We actually have a full-time lab that tests the material,” he adds, because limestone can vary in hardness from quarry to quarry. The state conducts its own tests, as well.

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Crushing Blows 

Before Kelsey arrived, a licensed, third-party blasting company visited the site, blasting sections of limestone walls into large slabs about 3 feet by 3 feet or smaller in size. Kelsey then spends a day or two setting up the crushing machinery. Despite their enormity, the machines, collectively known as “the plant,” are portable and can be moved as needed. 

Crushing is a two-man operation. Brother Casey scoops the limestone slabs into the end loader’s bucket and dumps them into the “jaw crusher,” which begins the pummeling process. Load after load, he keeps feeding the machine. Slabs that are too large get smashed to the ground in the hope they break. 

The quarry pulsates with a loud and persistent thump-thump-thump from the machines as stone is crushed and moved along a series of conveyor belts. “We take it down to about six inches,” Kelsey explains. “Then it goes to a secondary cone and we take it down to the size we need.”  

If needed, they can create sand, but on this project, the desired result is a 1.25-inch-diameter aggregate that will be used on the new road.  

Finally, the nuggets travel up a 120-foot conveyor belt, or stacker, and fall to the ground below, creating a huge mountain of stone. 

When road crews arrive, Kelsey will use a second end loader to load the stone into the waiting dump trucks.  

“Every load has to be weighed on its way out of the quarry,” he explains. “Seventy-three thousand pounds per dump truck load is state DOT [Department of Transportation] law. We have scales in some loaders so we can estimate as we work.” 

The job has its stressful moments, Kelsey says. “Management watches our production numbers. They expect us to do a certain amount, and we try to reach those goals every day. If there is a specific demand and you don’t want to work Saturday, you try to get it all done as fast as you can. 

“My job is to make everything as quickly as possible,” he says. “Production is money, and things change. Sometimes you run into clay or water or snow in winter. Everything has factors.” On this day, everything is operating smoothly. 

Work stops if the excavation reaches sandstone, which is too soft for roads. “Certain quarries have 100 feet of limestone, and some have 15,” Kelsey notes. “This one is pretty deep, probably at least 50 feet. Right now, the facing is only at 16 feet, so this quarry could be here for a long time and they could just keep digging further down.” 

Just steps away from the crushing operation, a reservoir shimmers in the sunlight, providing visual relief from the parched surroundings. Water from the pond is pumped to the machines and used to wash the stone and keep dust out of the air.  

On a good day, Kelsey will crush up to 5,000 tons of rock. A bad day is when equipment breaks down. “We throw in tons at a time with the end loader, and it all comes out on the conveyor. If the conveyor stops, it piles up, and we have to spend the day shoveling and repairing.”  

Weather, particularly rain and cold, is tough, too. Luckily, crushing is not a year-round activity. It usually begins in April and ends in November. In winter, Kelsey moves to the company’s Waunakee location, where he repairs equipment that was bashed all summer long. 

A Hot Job 

“A lot of my training was on the job,” Kelsey says. “Previous operators taught me all the safety aspects. You have to go through so many hours of training when you first start. If you just listen, watch, and ask questions, you also can learn a lot from the older guys who’ve done this for a long time. If you don’t ask, you don’t learn. That’s my philosophy.” 

He admits the dust and noise can sometimes wear on him, but he enjoys the work and being outdoors. “It’s a hot occupation, but [Yahara] compensates for that. They pay well and keep you busy.” He guesses that about half of the company’s employees belong to a union, though he does not. 

He also knows quarrying can be controversial. “A lot of people don’t like what we do, but there are new standards set in place that make things better for everyone, including myself. Technology is coming along, everything’s getting better, quieter, with lower emissions, and we keep dust down by adding water. 

“Some people don’t like the blasting, but they’re using different methods now to minimize vibrations.” 

Kelsey said he was looking for a job after high school when he joined Yahara. He started at the bottom and worked his way up, and he hopes he can continue doing so. It’s been in his blood for a long time. 

“I always played in the sandbox when I was little. Now I’m just in a really big one.”

Stone-Cold Statistics​

  • More than 50,000 tons of crushed stone is needed to build one mile of four-lane highway.
  • An average of 200 tons of crushed stone is used in the construction of a single home.
  • Every person in the United States uses an average of 10 tons of rocks and minerals every year.
    Source: Yahara Materials Inc.

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