Chief Carver Roy Faulkner, works on the nose of General Robert E. Lee with his small finishing torch while carving the Confederate Memorial Carving at Stone Mountain Park. (Special Photo)
SNELLVILLE — Roy Faulkner has been many things.
A Porterdale native born in 1932, Faulkner married in 1950, moved to Atlanta and worked at the Cotton Exposition Mills. He was drafted into the Army, joined the Marine Corps instead and fought in Korea.
He moved to Covington, bought 10 acres of land, raised horses and grew plums. He fathered four children — Ricky, Donna, Judy, Pattie — and was a welder, machinist and correctional officer. He moved to Florida, tried and failed to launch a commercial fishing business, and moved back to Georgia. He opened a museum.
At no point did he set aside time for an art class; he was never a sculptor.
Faulkner did, however, spend eight years, five months and 19 days on the side of Stone Mountain. Roy Faulkner, somehow, became the man who completed Georgia’s, and the South’s, most famous work of art.
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Today, Roy Faulkner is with his friends at Calvin Cove, a caregiver respite program operated three days a week out of Snellville’s Westminster Presbyterian Church. Wearing a green-striped button-down shirt tucked into khakis, and deep brown boat shoes, his head still carpeted with wavy gray hair, Faulkner laughs, sings and plays checkers.
He doesn’t talk much or very clearly. During the last two decades, he’s broken a hip and had a series of strokes. Faulkner’s wife, Eunice, passed away last March.
“I’m 81 years old,” he said with a soft smile.
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In 1963, the welder-machinist incarnation of Faulkner was minding his own business at J.M. Potts and Sons, the popular little-bit-of-everything store near the even more popular Lake Jackson, when he was approached by a man named George Weiblen.
Weiblen had been hired by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association to get the ball rolling again on a long-abandoned project: a shrine to the Confederacy etched into the granite face of the organization’s namesake. It was time to revive the project that had barely begun some 50 years prior, and Weiblen needed someone to build the elevator and scaffolding necessary to get workers up and down the face of the mountain.
Faulkner was his man.
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It quickly became apparent that the man hired to carve the horseback likenesses of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into Stone Mountain wasn’t up to the task. Like those who tried in the 1910s and ’20s — including the sculptor who went on to create Mount Rushmore — Walker Kirkland Hancock just couldn’t picture such gigantic carvings so close up.
Once 400 feet up on the mountain, there was no stepping back for perspective. The figures were crude. The work was frustrating.
Faulkner wasn’t any kind of artist, but he had an eye for it. More than once he had directed Weiblen’s attention toward a misdirected lapel on General Lee’s uniform. He had a scientific approach and knew working from a scale model (a foot on the mountain for every inch on the model) would be the best way to tackle such a massive task.
When Hancock gave up, Faulkner got a shot to carve his name into history.
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“For six years I worried that I might make a mistake,” Faulkner once told a writer named Willard Neal. “After coming down in the evenings I checked over the day’s figures in the studio to make sure they were right. Then I drove home with them in my head, ate with them, and often slept with them. The worst dream I ever had was the time I saw General Lee’s head lying in the ditch at the base of the mountain.”
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Stone Mountain’s Confederate Memorial carving was created with a specially designed torch, one rigged with separate hoses shooting water, oxygen and kerosene through a long tube. The kerosene and oxygen heated the granite and carved it away; the water cooled it back down to prevent cracking.
Faulkner’s predecessors used 10- to 12-foot tubes, but he used 3- and 4-foot versions for better control and improved attention to the detail.
“Things went so much faster, as far as the detail and being able to see it happening,” Suzanne Lunsford said.
Starting in 1970, Lunsford spent several teenage summers working at Stone Mountain Park, putting herself through college while Faulkner and his crew, never more than three or four folks at a time, worked high above.
Lunsford is now a secretary at Westminster Presbyterian Church, the same place that Faulkner visits several times a week.
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“Faster” can be a relative term. Eight years, five months and 19 days — the tally Faulkner still rattles off without blinking — were spent on that mountain, including the time setting up elevators and scaffolding. Lunches were eaten perched under the noses of Confederate heroes and Christmas trees were placed in granite enclaves. The side of the mountain doubled as a bathroom.
The loud, hot work was, at first, almost nonstop: seven days and 80-plus hours a week. That was until nearby churches complained about the noise.
“So we started working 10-hour days and took off Sunday,” Faulkner said.
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Donna Barron was about 10 years old when her father began his life’s biggest work.
“Daddy was, and he still kind of is, a selfish man,” she said. “But if he wasn’t selfish, had a job to do and put that first, it wouldn’t have gotten done. The family was put on the back burner a lot, but you’ve got to look at what he accomplished. It takes certain characteristics to make that person to do that job.”
Vice President Spiro Agnew attended the carving’s dedication on May 9, 1970, two full years before the “finishing touches” were completed.
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Two men died while Roy Faulkner was working on the mountain.
On Aug. 1, 1966, Howard Williams fell from the scaffolding, bounced off Stonewall Jackson’s head and crashed all the way to the bottom. The whole crew, minus Faulkner and Weiblen, quit. One of the replacements, Nelson Wilborn, fell and died five years later as the scaffolding was being removed.
In between, Faulkner almost joined them.
One day in ’67 or ’68 — neither he nor his daughter remember the exact date — Faulkner asked a colleague if he had nailed down a new plank, as requested. The unnamed colleague said yes.
Faulkner made the mistake of stepping on that plank.
The wood flew up and Faulkner began to fall, but managed to spin around in midair. This is the topic Faulkner, the 2013 stroke-hindered one, makes the biggest effort to speak about.
“I grabbed the carving hose and it saved me,” he said.
When he got back up the mountain?
“I slapped him good.”
Did his crew member come back to work?
“No, no. I fired him.”
Was he scared to go back to work himself, after tempting death?
It was a stupid question.