Shelton Sprouse: Building a Legacy in Stone

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Stonemason Shelton Sprouse. Photo: Diana Hale.

Three times a week, Crozet native Shelton Sprouse teaches a popular yoga class in Waynesboro. Sprouse, 67, is a stonemason and very much aware of the physical demands of his profession over time. He’s practiced yoga in some form for many years. He weaves quotes from men he admires—Jesus, Buddha, Rumi, Paul McCartney—into each class. “The best thing, the highest calling,” he said, “is to find someone unloveable and show them love.”

Some would say he’s an unconventional yogi. In most classes he demonstrates a pose, apanasana in Sanskrit, a simple side-to-side rocking and back-and-forth rolling. “Rock and roll saved the world,” he always tells the class. “Rock and roll and beer.”

Restored cabin on Buck’s Mountain. Photo: Diana Hale.

He explained it later. “People of my generation all listened to the same music, heard the same words. It made a difference in ways we don’t always know.” He does know for sure that music changed his life. Besides being a yoga teacher and a world-class stonemason, Sprouse is a bassist, a sideman who plays steadily around the region with several well-regarded bands. He also plays the stand-up bass. He started out as a guitarist, picked up electric bass at 40 and the stand-up a few years ago.

The yoga practice evolved from a very different spiritual beginning. Sprouse’s parents were Herbert and Eula Sprouse of Buck’s Mountain Road. They met while working in Crozet’s apple industry. They sent their children—Shelton and his two sisters Sheilah and Shelby—to the Crozet Church of God. “There were people talking in tongues,” he recalls, “handling snakes and shaking. Wonderful music.” On summer evenings he and his family could hear the remonstrations of the revival preacher from Maryland far into the night.

A gate column. Photo: Diana Hale.

But other forces were at work. The young people of Crozet in the 60s had a couple of unusual influences. Legendary coach Al Groh spent a year as assistant coach at Albemarle High School in 1967, and all his players were trained in a yoga-like discipline that involved focus, isometrics and slow stretching, Sprouse said. Then there were the Conley brothers, also of Buck Mountain Road, who saw to it that the children of the neighborhood—boys and girls—all learned to box. “I don’t know why and I can’t remember how it started.” Sprouse said. “It was just a thing right around there.” He began to see how concentration and discipline could move beyond the ring or the playing field and become a lifelong spiritual practice.

Sprouse read widely and still does—poetry, moral philosophy and literature—and he studies Russian, but early attempts at formal education convinced him this was not the path for him. But neither was working the third shift at Morton’s, he said. He was playing in bands around the area, but he didn’t really believe his music would pay the bills. He began to see he had the foundations of a profession in the work he’d done over the years with his father.

Sprouse’s stone work style. Photo: Diana Hale.

Herbert Sprouse was known as a man who could build and fix things, and his son was often at his side, learning the trades. When the young man first worked with a stonemason, he found himself second-guessing the journeyman. He would see a stone and immediately have his own idea of how it should be used. He wondered, “why did he put that stone there,” or “why doesn’t he just turn that around, or use that other stone over there.” He’d look at a field of stones and they’d organize themselves into a structure in his mind.

In time, he defined his own style. “I guess my style, if I have a style, would be that I like to see the stone laying like it would in nature,” he said. “I don’t like to see stones standing upright just for a design.” In 1971, he got a business license and began work for himself. He progressed from small local projects to more ambitious ones, finally landing a job rebuilding the east wall of Jefferson’s garden at Monticello in 1980, a job he identifies as his big break. More work at Monticello followed, then other high-profile jobs: at Poplar Forest, Ash Lawn and U.Va., including the victory garden at the residence of U.Va.’s president, built in collaboration with the noted architect Mead Palmer.

The young man was very aware of the historical significance of his work. Archeologists and historians looked over his shoulder, cataloguing each shard or nail that came to the surface as he retrieved the stones that had crumbled from the original wall, some pressed into service long ago for roads and pathways. Sprouse said he was also conscious that he was working in the shadow of the enslaved men who had built Monticello’s walls. In one stretch of the wall, he relied on just a few remaining fragments to guide the construction. Besides the historic restorations, he worked on long-term projects for modern country estates belonging to celebrity musicians, authors and other public figures. He won an award from the American Institute of Architects for his body of work.

Shelton Sprouse. Photo: Diana Hale.

In 1978, Sprouse was joined by Johnny Mac Apperson, his neighbor, friend and fellow musician. He likes to give Apperson, who left stonemasonry 15 or so years ago to work for the Albemarle County Schools, the credit he deserves. “I was full of ideas,” he said, “a kind of rainbow person. Johnny was optimistic, too, but he was good at figuring out what was ahead and making sure we planned so we didn’t run into problems down the road.” The two worked together for more than two decades and Sprouse said he can’t recall ever meeting anyone who made him laugh more than his old friend. “I still seek his advice if something is difficult,” he said.

Sprouse has chosen to live simply. He’s never married or owned a home, and he hauls his rocks in a nearly-30-year-old truck. There’s a legend that he eats mostly greens, drinks only coffee. He’s unlikely to take a day off because his work and his passions are the same. Every day will find him either teaching yoga, playing bass, laying stone, studying Russian, or all four.

He’s added another service to the local high-end construction industry. “Jefferson didn’t send away to a commercial quarry for his rocks, and neither do I,” he said. “I’ve been in every stony field and river valley around here and I know where they are.” He delivers hand-picked rocks for special projects and is always scouting for more.

He admits he’s driven to accomplish as much as he can for as long as he can. “I drive around here and see my work and understand that it will endure,” he said. “I’m building my legacy.”

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