Craftsman David Gillespie carves out slate tombstones

David Gillespie handcarves a Colonial period-piece headstone during a demonstration at the Powder Magazine in Charleston. Renee Gillespie/Provided

SUMMERVILLE — The quiet tapping is eerily authentic, the brass-headed mallet striking an old chisel to carve a slate headstone.

Sure, the cannon will boom and musket fire will pound for the Lowcountry Colonial Days re-enactment encampment at Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site on March 2.

But spend a moment with the man in the tricorn hat over by the three-century-old tombstones below the belltower of the St. George Church. David Gillespie is practicing the craft that etched those names. It’s more than a show for him; it’s his livelihood and his life.

Gillespie, 33, of Pickens, has made hand-cut period piece and modern tombstones and headstones for more than a decade, an outgrowth of a lifelong fascination with the Colonial era he calls “the Golden Age of America.”

For him it’s for real. He lives in an old tobacco barn log cabin. Renee Gillespie, his wife, spins on an antique wheel. His mallet was hand-forged in Leeds, England. The slate comes from the Virginia quarry that Thomas Jefferson used. He also makes flintrock Gillespie rifles, Colonial-era firearms named for a distant relation.

The stone carving started when family genealogy revealed that his ancestor Andrew McComb, a Scotch-Irish immigrant in the 1800s, carved slate tombstones for others in the Long Cove community, and Gillespie discovered that the man was buried without a stone of his own.

Gillespie apprenticed out to a stone cutter, then cut his forebear a headstone he would be proud of.

“I couldn’t afford to have somebody carve it,” he said. “If I wanted to do it right, I’d have to hand-carve it like it was.”

It didn’t take long for others to admire his work and want an authentic, hand-carved stone for their families.

“It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful,” said Alan Stello of Gillespie’s work. Stello is the director of the Powder Magazine in Charleston, where Gillespie has exhibited his craft. “He has this incredible passion for that era of history.”

Gillespie is a little uncomfortable with the praise. He talks about his debts to others and to God. But the passion is evident.

“There’s a sense of permanence to slate stones. Some of them are somber, some of them are beautiful. Some of them are works of art,” he said. The lines and the language “were more personable in the old days.” And the work, like the stone, endures.

“When it’s done I think I’ve made a product that should last 300 years or more,” Gillespie said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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