Mason spends 75th birthday laying stone
The gnarled fingers on Dave Merrill’s right hand are curved in a perfect fit for the trowels he has used for 63 years as a stone mason.
Merrill turned 75 on Thursday, and his trowel was busy as usual, smacking against granite and pushing cement into cracks as he built a stone wall for a client outside of Grass Valley. Although he could have been fishing, Merrill wanted to spend his birthday doing something that doesn’t equate to toil for him.
“I just like the outdoor life,” Merrill said. “I’ve never been out of work and I hope I die laying rock. I love it.”
So does his son-in-law Richard Trathen, who joined Merrill’s business in 1970 while attending Nevada Union High School.
“I married the boss’s daughter,” said Trathen, 52. “I was dating (Diana) in high school and he said as soon as I got my driver’s license, I could go to work for him. He’s very meticulous. Everything has got to be done right, and he taught me how to work hard.”
Joining Merrill and Trathen on the job was the third member of Merrill Masonry, Miles Frazier, 31, who is Trathen’s son-in-law and married Tawni, Merrill’s granddaughter.
“He can outwork most men half his age,” Frazier said of Merrill. “If it’s not raining, he’s working.
“He still lifts 94-pound bags of cement,” Frazier said. “He’s a hybrid human being.”
Merrill’s wife Joyce wasn’t surprised her husband of 54 years was out on a job site on his 75th birthday.
“He’s always had this work ethic,” she said while preparing a big birthday bash for their extended family in honor of her husband. “On a rainy day, he feels guilty about not working. I guess he stays in shape by working.”
You can feel the power of Merrill’s career when you shake his hand. You can’t really grip it before he has yours tightly enveloped in flesh with nowhere to go.
“And that’s not squeezing,” he said as he let this reporter’s hand escape.
Merrill’s fingers and toes have taken the brunt of the years, but he was never hurt enough at work to miss a day. That only came after his three heart surgeries, which included seven bypasses.
On those days when he isn’t working, Merrill still cuts rock to make jewelry. He also fishes every weekend, in between jobs.
Those jobs have included the steps of the Grass Valley Elks Lodge, where he has been a member of 49 years. He is particularly proud of the tall stone wall he built along the Yuba River at the Sierra Shangri-La Resort just outside of Downieville.
It was on a lunch break on that job in 1963 that he found out President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. While digging the footings for the job, he discovered the gold that went into his jewelry for years – until a burglar stole it.
Masonry has taken Merrill all over the northern Sierra and he built flow dams for fish on the stream that feeds Lake Tahoe above Emerald Bay. To do that work, Merrill had to ride into the Desolation Wilderness Area on horseback with all his tools and supplies.
Merrill used to find almost all of the stone he worked with in the Yuba and Bear River watersheds and at old mining sites.
“He can walk into a place and see a rock wall he built and tell you where every stone came from,” Frazier said.
These days, “I buy Bitter Root granite,” Merrill said, from the mountains in Montana that bear the stone’s name. He does it for the beauty of the white and black-fleked rock and to fit into his business, which he has never considered common construction.
“It’s art,” Merrill said.
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4237.
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