When Mark Brace takes you on a tour of his quarry at Jumper’s Brook, just outside Bishop’s Falls, you immediately sense his passion for the unique black rock beneath his feet.
It’s a type of granite called black gabbro, says the quick-talking 30-year-old entrepreneur, and it’s rare to find such concentrations of it anywhere in the world.
“It’s the only place in the world you can get true black rock that is monument grade so that you you can actually do your engraving on the rock and it’ll show up very well,” he says.
Six years ago, when he was only 24, Brace purchased the Jumper’s Brook stone fabrication facility and quarry, with dreams of satisfying the big global demand for gabbro and creating hundreds of local jobs.
Dragons’ Den hype fizzles
A few years ago, it looked like Brace was on his way, following an appearance on the CBC-TV reality show Dragons’ Den. His energetic and folksy pitch to the panel of Canadian business moguls caught their attention, and they agreed to invest $2 million for a 10 per cent stake in his company, Ocean Floor Granite.
But the momentum fizzled, the deal collapsed and much-hyped contracts evaporated as Brace bickered with the provincial government over financial support and licensing roadblocks.
And there were other setbacks. On more than one occasion, thieves stripped copper wire from the site’s electrical infrastructure, and Brace found himself preoccupied with court matters and protecting his treasured asset.
Then, a year ago, government officials started snooping around again, but this time it had nothing to do with permits or mineral claims.
Preparations were underway to mark the 100th anniversary in 2024 of the Newfoundland National War Memorial in St. John’s, and planners saw a role for Brace and his black gabbro.
The centennial project includes the establishment of a tomb of the unknowns — only the second of its kind in Canada — at the base of the prominent bronze statues that overlook the harbour where soldiers departed for war more than a century ago.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has agreed to exhume the remains of a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who was killed in northern France during the First World War and return him to St. John’s.
The soldier will be selected from one of the hundreds of Newfoundland Regiment members who fell at places like Beaumont Hamel but have no known grave.
The soldier will be interred inside the new tomb in St. John’s on July 1, 2024, during the annual Memorial Day ceremony and rededication of the refurbished site.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has declined to provide details on the process of selecting a gravesite.
Honouring his forefathers
Meanwhile, after months of discussion and planning, Brace agreed to build the tomb, and not just because of the much-needed payday and prestige associated with such a project.
His great-grandfather, Tomothy Gosse, served in both world wars. In 1940, when he was an able seaman on the merchant ship SS Thorold, German bombers attacked. Of the 28 crew members aboard, 10 died, including Gosse, 53, after the Thorold caught fire and sank in the Irish Sea.
So for Brace, the contract — the first one of any substance for Ocean Floor Granite — is personal.
“It shows the respect that I have for my forefathers,” he says, standing next to a framed photo of his great-grandfather surrounded by his wartime service medals.
In recent months, Brace and his skeleton crew of employees took extraordinary measures to get the job done. The fabrication shop is not connected to the power grid, so they used generators to power the massive rock-cutting blades and polishing equipment.
Brace, who also owns a commercial roofing company, says he declined a big contract in order to focus his full attention on the tomb. And to ensure thieves did not interrupt his work, he bought a travel trailer, parked it inside his shop, and slept onsite for weeks.
“I can’t wait for everybody to see it and just know that this rock came from Newfoundland,” he says. “I think everybody’s going to become very aware of what Newfoundland holds within its ground.”
Brace tested five separate oversized blocks of gabbro before settling on the one that will form the base of the tomb.
Only a select few people have seen it, but after weeks of delicate cutting and polishing, the tomb’s base is now being engraved with the province’s coat of arms, the phrase “Known Unto God,” and other finishing touches.
The tomb’s cover, meanwhile, is being made out of famed Labradorite granite, ensuring the tomb is rooted in the soil of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The tomb will form the centrepiece of the Newfoundland National War Memorial, and Brace says he’s proud to be part of such a project.
“I’m just looking for that day when I see this project with everybody standing around it and see the remains of somebody who gave their life for our freedom, and to see them placed inside of rock that we basically handcrafted from bedrock.”
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