Thursday, June 5, 2008

Rock of Ages

I went for a walk in the woods this past Sunday. Not just any woods, I walked to a very special place to take a couple of pictures to share with you. This is a story that I have wanted to post for a long time because it is one of the more interesting that I have to tell. I waited until now because without the photographs the story would lose its awe inspiring quality. So down the railroad tracks I traveled once more, and up the hills amongst the rocks where rattlesnakes and copperheads are rumored to be plentiful, and snapped some pictures to go with this post. I can be obsessive about an Errand post.

Obsession is what this post all about. Obsession is a preoccupation that a person develops that precludes other things. More often than not an obsession is unhealthy. If a person couples his or her obsession with compulsion you have Obsession Compulsive Disorder or OCD. This person feels an uncontrollable urge to act upon the object of their obsession, repetitively and untiringly.

OCD is typically diagnosed as a mental illness having to do with the serotonin levels in the brain. People begin to exhibit these behaviors, which leads to a diagnosis and treatment. The story I am telling now has nothing to do with serotonin levels and neurotransmitters, but with another thing rarely found in a person’s skull. A metal plate.

The subject of our story is a young schoolteacher named Douglas Stahlman who, according to legend, had a rather violent falling out with a lumberman behind a local saloon in Brookville, Pa. No one seems to have remembered what the fight was about, but one thing was for certain. Douglas lost. Lost so badly that it left a good size chunk of his skull collapsed. In a medical procedure that was quite risky in the 1890s a surgeon was able to reinforce the fracture with a metal plate.

The plate began to make Douglas act a little oddly, which did not really surprise anyone who new what had happened to him. It was not just everyday in small town America that someone had his head patched with metal. I am sure that the townsfolk pitied him to some degree, then the possibly surgically implanted case of OCD began to manifest itself. Douglas found Jesus.

About 1900 Douglas came under the influence of a Chicago based faith healer named Dr. John Dowie, founder of Zion, Ill. Douglas became enraptured by the Scriptures that he read, and did what any other self respecting man with a metal plate in his head would have done. He grabbed a hammer and chisel and started chiseling these scriptures into any sizable rock he could find. He even carved the sacred texts into trees on the hillsides. When he was finished he had chiseled over 500 individual scripture excerpts totaling nearly 15,000 individual letters into the rocks on this hillside alone. His work, although on a smaller scale, can be seen in other locations in the area.

Douglas was committed to Dixmont Hospital in Pittsburgh around 1920, where he whiled away his days serving as the inmate librarian until his death in 1937.

As you walk up into the hillside which houses Mr. Stahlman’s Magnum Opus it is very easy to walk by several of his carved stones without even noticing them. Then the light will catch one of the larger rocks at precisely the right angle and you will see a couple of words. On closer inspection you realize that the rock is literally covered with the neat, uniform, consistent letters of an artist. You will find it hard to believe that they were carved free hand, one by one with nothing more than a common chisel. Some of the words are larger script as if he was making a demonstrative point. One rock simply says 100 FOLD.

The truly humbling effect of this experience is when you step back from this room sized rock that you have discovered and take a look around you. Just like when the Munchkins came out of hiding for Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you begin to realize that all of the rocks, big and small, upright or lying flat are carved in the exact same manner. They are every where. The scale of this work is hard to imagine unless it is seen.

I hope that these photos and the ones in the cabinet of curiosities link in the left column will give you some feel for what Mr. Stahlman did. If you ever happen to be in the Brookville area and would like to see them, drop me an email and I will do my best to give you adequate directions to see them for yourself.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your blog recently, and I am enjoying reading about these interesting things in wPA.
Thanks!
DM

quemahoning said...

A book about Douglas Stahlman and the Scripture Rocks has been published by the Jefferson County Historical Society.

http://www.jchconline.org/gift-shop.html