Small Towns: The fireplace builder of the Northwoods

At the age of 91, Bill Jose stopped working full-time. Two years later he still swings the hammer, sometimes.
Published: Jul. 20, 2023 at 5:40 PM CDT
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ATHELSTANE, Wis. (WBAY) - When it comes to longevity, a Marinette County man recently wrapped up a career very few could ever match.

He spent nearly 67 years as a mason, building hundreds of fireplaces all over the Northwoods and beyond.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Athelstane to see some of his beautiful work.

A few years ago, at the age of 91, Bill Jose figured it just might be time to take a step back from his full-time job.

“Starting to decide I’m getting too old for a few things,” says Bill with a chuckle.

But that doesn’t mean he still can’t conquer a fieldstone into two halves. And if one proves stubborn, his 18-pound stone hammer gets little rest.

Born in 1930, Bill grew up in nearby Silver Cliff.

At the age of 14, he decided the time and come to bag school and get to work, firing a steam engine in a sawmill. In 1949, he joined the Army, eventually ending up in the Korean War, until his brother was killed there.

“We were there for quite a while, had a lot of bullets fly around me but I never got hit, and one day a sergeant came in and says Jose, he says Jose pack your bags, I says what for, he says you’re going back to the states,” recalls Bill.

When he arrived in San Francisco, Bill learned he was headed home to honor his brother.

“My mother called the President of the United States and requested I escort his body home for the funeral and President Truman granted it, so they put me on the train with his casket,” explains Bill.

After getting married, Bill and his wife Pat moved to Milwaukee where he found work as a laborer for a construction company.

Within two years, his fortune changed.

“Supervisor come around one day and he says Bill, get yourself a trowel and a level and a brick hammer, he says we’re going to make a mason out of you,” he said. “I helped build the second McDonald’s in the state of Wisconsin, that was in 1957, they had ten-cent hamburgers and five-cent french fries.”

In 1968, after starting a family, Bill and Pat decided it was time to head home to raise their children. They bought a little store and bar in Athelstane and Bill continued his masonry.

“It just kind of came natural, but the thing is when you’re doing all that stuff you’ve got to have pride in what you do, if you don’t have pride in what you do forget it,” says Bill.

Bill takes us to a fireplace he built for a cabin on Lost Lake 46 years ago.

“Now you can see some of these stones, the colors that you get out of them when you split them,” says Bill.

And no matter how long ago Bill laid a stone, it’s as if he remembers each one. A photo album holds pictures of the 215 fireplaces Bill’s hands have created all over Wisconsin.

One couple even hired Bill to build theirs in Oregon.

Some preferred brick, but most of Bill’s masterpieces are fieldstone, his favorite material because of what they revealed.

“One time I had one, it probably was about 26-28 inches and I split it in half, and when I did, it had a ring on the inside exactly the shape of the Liberty Bell and it had a little crack right down by the bottom of that stone. I put it in somebody’s fireplace but I don’t remember where I put it,” says Bill, breaking out in laughter.

Around Athelstane and Silver Cliff, projects Bill donated his labor and materials over the years are everywhere.

Two of Bill’s sons followed in his footsteps and became masons. They say along with his passion for perfection, there’s another reason their dad loved his masonry so much.

“Because he knew it’s going to be around forever, everybody always reflects on that and look back and say Bill Jose did this, and I still run into a lot of people, they’re like your dad did our fireplace,” says Mike Jose, Bill’s son.

And for Bill Jose, making a living was always just part of the satisfaction.

“It was nice when you could stand back and look at it and be proud of what you did and the compliments that you’d get from people, it was just great, a lot of hugs. If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a good life, but I don’t expect that yet,” says Bill with a smile.

Bill says he’d give anything to continue his masonry for another 10 years, but at the age of 93, he figures it’s probably time to, as he says, slack off a little bit and just look for a few smaller jobs here and there.