JFK, Falmouth’s pink granite, and a special memorial
Every year, millions of people visit John F. Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, paying respects to the late president whose office on Pennsylvania Avenue was just a few miles away, across the Potomac River.Kennedy’s grave famously features an eternal flame, which is set within a circular stone and surrounded by flat, lightly colored stones that are arranged in a simple, elegant pattern. Everyone knows that JFK and his family spent a lot of time on Cape Cod during his presidency and in their youthful lives beforehand. So too, did the stones of granite that mark the late president’s grave.
In the years following JFK’s assassination in November of 1963, John Carl Warnecke, an architect and a longtime friend of the president’s, was hired to design a memorial for the president’s final resting place, but JFK’s widow had a special request. During their time on the Cape together, Jackie Kennedy and her husband had often visited an antique shop in Falmouth—The Antiquarian—and the couple particularly enjoyed an attractive, pink granite stone that welcomed visitors to the Palmer Avenue shop’s entrance.
Falmouth’s Bill Bourne is familiar with the story. “John Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy used to go to that antique shop all the time,” Bourne says. “There was a pink stone there and John Kennedy liked that a lot. They shopped there quite a bit.”
In 1966, Jackie reached out to the owner of the shop—her friend Orville E. Garland—asking if he could find more of the stone, West Falmouth pink granite, which she planned to incorporate into her husband’s permanent gravesite. Garland spoke with folks in Falmouth who would know where to find the stone: men like Dick Baker of Baker Monument Company and Lester A. Bourne and Grover N. Bourne—Bill Bourne’s father and uncle—who worked many jobs including construction and hauling. “I think they looked for probably a month,” says Bourne, who was 10 years old at the time and recalls the men coming in and out of the family’s yard at all hours.
During the 1800s, a lot of quarrying took place in Falmouth along the West Falmouth Ridge, a hilly area that runs north to south, between today’s Routes 28 and 28A, from Route 151 to Wishing Moon Hill. What once was all fields, Bourne says, is mainly residential property today.
The granite pieces the men found had come from this area, but had been quarried and dispersed throughout the region for different uses; the men found available stones at the Oak Grove Cemetery in Bourne and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in Woods Hole (known today as the Northeast Fisheries Science Center). They also found pieces that had been part of old stone walls and some that had come from a foundation of a Falmouth home that had been destroyed some time prior—possibly by fire. “They gathered it all together,” Bourne says.
Bourne recalls that Richard Fish, another Falmouth resident, also helped out with the work. Fish knew where to find some of the stone, Bourne says, and he also had a crane and helped load the heavy pieces onto his uncle’s flatbed truck.
In the end, the men delivered well over 100 tons of the Falmouth stone to Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s estate in McLean, Virginia, where the project was being laid out. “That’s where it got re-cut and redesigned for the new gravesite,” Bourne says. The project required five or six back-and-forth trips between the Cape and the nation’s capital.
One of the benefits bestowed upon the deliverymen for this unique mission, Bourne recalls, was somewhat of a driver’s ‘cart blanche’ for the journey. Bourne says his uncle and father were given a kind of “express, get out of jail free card”—a note with the presidential seal on it—to facilitate their lengthy hauling trips. They didn’t have to pay any tolls,” he says. “They were exempt.”
One more item of note—this project was conducted, largely, under the radar. “Nobody knew about this,” Bourne says. “It was never advertised—even when it was all said and done.” While those involved kept a low profile, Bourne says he thinks some locals may have been suspicious had they viewed trucks loaded with granite continually traveling out of town and over the bridge.
Bourne says his father did not talk much about this project, and he doesn’t recall either his dad or uncle being interviewed about their involvement. Even today, Bourne says Falmouth’s connection to JFK’s memorial has not received too much attention. During recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death this past fall, he says the stone used for the late president’s gravesite was mentioned, but the specific location from whence it originated was not.
Since JFK’s permanent memorial was opened to the public in March of 1967, millions have visited the gravesite, which also includes markers for two of the couple’s children—Patrick, and a nameless stillborn daughter—as well as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who died in 1994.
Looking back, Bourne says his father and uncle always liked President
Kennedy and the family is proud to have been involved in this work. “I feel honored,” Bourne says. “I’ve always looked at this pink granite in a different way because of that. It’s more than a stone. It is a piece of history from West Falmouth.”
Despite his family’s personal involvement, though, Bourne has yet to visit the memorial—he says he does not like the D.C. congestion—but one day he would like to. “We’re true Cape Codders,” he says. “We don’t move too much.”
Bourne, who owns William C. Bourne Company, a landscape construction firm, says working with West Falmouth pink granite is easy. “It splits nice,” he says. “It handles nice. It has nice square corners. It’s a real pleasure to work with. The color is nice, too.”
Pink granite can be found in other areas on the Cape, says Bourne—including in the town that shares his surname—but those regions’ varieties lack West Falmouth’s lustrous pink. “It has the best density,” he says, “and the best color.”
Bourne takes on various projects including the construction of stonewalls, and he fields many requests for West Falmouth pink. “It’s a very high-demand item,” he says. “It’s a beautiful stone, it really is. It’s in a class by itself. But the problem is there’s no supply. I’ll do a few things for a few people, but as far as this older stuff that’s a few hundred years old, it’s just unavailable.”
Bourne says he has a few acres in West Falmouth where he still quarries the stone today, finding larger pieces that he breaks down for use in various projects. When he takes on a project, though, he says one of his requirements is to keep the stone local. “I have a rule that if [the stone] comes out in West or North Falmouth, it goes back to West or North Falmouth,” he says. “I like it to stay within the area.”
Another craftsman who works with West Falmouth pink granite is Steve Fielding of Wareham. Fielding does landscape, construction, and excavation work and enjoys the process of building retainer walls by piecing together large stones.
Fielding says he can tell where a stone comes from just by looking at it. West Falmouth pink granite, he says, is different from that found in Wareham, which is different from that of Marion. “The Falmouth pink granite has got more of a color to it,” he says. “It’s more pink. It’s a beautiful color, a very nice, comfortable color.” The colorful specks found in West Falmouth pink are larger, he says, while Mattapoisett granite has smaller flakes; the granite of Marlboro, he adds, features specks of green.
North Falmouth resident Bob Taft is a big fan of West Falmouth pink, so much so that he has hired Fielding to complete some large-scale landscaping projects at his home, incorporating the granite into retaining walls, a cozy fire pit, and more.
What draws Taft—a descendant of former president and occasional Cape Cod summertime resident, William Howard Taft—to this stone? “I feel connected with pink granite,” he says, “because of the intriguing history of its geologic origins from the last glaciers, the brilliant blue, crystal and pink colors, and the diversity of the grains and texture.”
Taft does not have to go far for his inspiration. Just across the water from his home lies Amrita Island in Squeteague Harbor, the former residence and estate of entrepreneur, Thomas A. Baxendale. The property features a sturdy stone bridge, beautiful homes, and a mausoleum within which Baxendale, his wife, Esther, and their minister are buried. The property features many examples of the lightly hued pink granite, and construction that is breathtaking to behold.
In addition to Baxendale, one of Taft’s heroes is Manuel Brazil, the Portuguese mason Baxendale hired just over a century ago to complete much of the design and construction on the island. Taft is impressed by Brazil and by other stonemasons—past and present—who work with West Falmouth granite to make beautiful creations in light pink.
Lastly, there’s the stone’s connection to Camelot. “The story of Jackie’s appreciation of pink granite,” Taft says, “and her selection of it for JFK’s memorial grave speaks to its artistic appeal and its link to JFK’s beloved Cape Cod.”
Thanks to Bob Taft of Falmouth for bringing this story to our attention and providing great insights, sources and photography.