In the late 1800s, the small town of Barre, Vermont, was a bustling hub of granite quarrying and production. Known for its distinct ‘Barre Gray’ color, the stone quickly became the favored standard by craftsman and builders alike because of its strength, durability, consistency, and purity. With the addition of the railroad in 1875 connecting Barre to Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier, large blocks of granite were easily and inexpensively transported from central Vermont down to large metropolitan hubs such as Boston and New York.
Word of Barre Granite soon spread through the United States and across the sea. The stone quickly became a high valued and sought after commodity. With this surge of demand came a need for labor.
Between the years 1880 and 1910, the population of Barre expanded from a mere 2,000 people to over 12,000 because of the influx of workers to the quarries.
In 1889, the Barre Granite Association (BGA) was founded. By the year 1902 Barre had opened sixty-eight granite quarries owned by fourteen different granite firms. The most prominent of these firms, originally titled BM&V, later became Rock of Ages.
In addition to expanded granite production, tourism to Barre also increased. In the early 1900s people flocked to Vermont to view the magnificent and pure ‘Barre Gray’ quarry walls. Guided tours were mandated to keep sightseers safe and away from workers. In 1914 a “viewing room” was added to the Rock of Ages’ new machinist’s building so visitors could observe the skilled stone carvers—who hailed from Great Britain, Canada, Scotland, Sweden, the United States, and Italy—practice their art.
With this influx of new workers and their families came more opportunity for local businesses to thrive: restaurants, hotels and other storefronts on Main Street began to prosper. Spaulding High School was built out of ‘Barre Gray’ granite in 1890 to support and educate the children of the immigrants and townspeople who worked in the quarries. According to Scott McLaughlin, Executive Director of the Vermont Granite Museum, the city was known on a global scale for the impressive quality of work the industry produced.
Growing up in Northfield, Vermont, a town less than fifteen miles away, I only ever drove through Barre either to visit the quarries with out-of-town guests, or to attend performances at the Barre Opera House—an impressive granite structure located in the center of town. By this time, Barre had garnered the nickname “Scary Barre” because of neglected storefronts, empty buildings, prevalent crime, an unemployment rate over the national average, a heroin epidemic, and a growing negative reputation.
At some point, this town was thriving a hub, so what happened?
Rooted in the Depression
The start of this detrition can be traced back to the mid-1920s during the Great Depression. Although still active during this time of despair, work in the quarries was dialed back, and many granite firms consolidated and joined forces to stay open. Work was divided between small companies which mostly produced and exported industrial sized blocks of granite for construction use rather than uniquely crafted monuments, headstones or mausoleums for personal sentiment.
The driving force behind the labor cutbacks wasn’t just decreased demand; it was mostly the rise of sophisticated machines. As McLaughlin explained, “There was never a time where machines didn’t play a large role in granite production.”
Since 1870, workers had been implementing water-powered saws and polishers, but these machines needed constant monitoring, multiple men to operate, and only offered a slight advantage over manual labor. Steam-powered drills started to become used in the mid 1880s, bringing another industry to Barre.
These tools had many individual moving parts that were prone for malfunction and needed to be replaced often: thus, many manufactures opened factories adjacent to the quarries in order to combat the constant need for new drill bits and components. Coincidently, says McLaughlin, new jobs created by the tool industry balanced out with jobs that were lost in the quarries due to mechanical innovation.
By the close of the Great Depression, the BGA was able to expand its markets, producing granite tiles, countertops, and rollers found in paper mills or chocolate factories in addition to the monuments it had been known for prior to 1920.
When asked about the output of granite after 1929, Mclaughlin mused that “levels of production are larger than they ever had been in sheds and quarries. Workers are able to move bigger blocks at a faster pace” thanks to advanced machinery. Because of growing technological advances, says Doug Grahn of the BGA, the majority of men employed by the Barre Granite industry at this time were craftsmen or stone carvers.
By the 1950s, the tool industry that had once supplied Barre with numerous jobs experienced a slump in demand. Tool manufacturers had started moving production closer to metropolitan hubs, such as Boston, cutting back fabrication in central Vermont. In their new location, McLaughlin points out, tool companies were able to tap into multiple markets and cut production costs.
Levels of automation in quarries continued to grow throughout the 1980s, causing what had once been a large industry of around 60 granite manufacturing firms in 1950 to consolidate down to a number of just over two dozen firms today. The Times Argus, a local newspaper for the Barre-Montpelier area, reported a decrease in the granite industry “from around 1,000 workers in various jobs in the 1990s to about 550 today.”
Grahn notes that over the same period of time, cost competition from China as well as India, Brazil, and other granite producers in North America negatively impacted the Vermont granite industry.
Approved in 2009 and opened in 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial monument located in Washington, D.C. was sculpted in China using Chinese granite. After it was fully fabricated, the statue was then shipped to its location in West Potomac Park, exponentially increasing the total cost to one hundred and twenty million dollars (the statue of King stands thirty feel tall). The decision to use overseas competition stone was a huge disappointment for the BGA.
When asked about current granite production in Vermont, Grahn told me he thought that "we are currently in the upswing” after a slight falter in demand during a period over last 20 years.
Chinese and other competitors overseas did affect the global market, but quickly customers returned to the famed ‘Barre Gray’ because of its superior quality. Being a true Vermonter, Grahn related the differences between his granite and competitors stone to another well-known staple of Vermont: “Our product is second to none. It’s like comparing Aunt Jemima’s or any other syrup to real maple. If you want the best, come here.”
Over the past seventy years, Grahn continued, the focus of the BGA has shifted slightly from mass-production and exportation to skilled craftsmanship and unique design. McLaughlin adds that the company has written contracts with multiple private and military cemeteries and offers a wide range of products from simple monuments to intricate columbaria.
Despite mostly exporting small pieces, the BGA has become widely known in the Middle East since 2015 when the second tallest building in Abu Dhabi, UAE, was unveiled. This structure, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company Headquarters building, stands 1,122 feet tall and features the full exterior of the building totally encased in ‘Bethel White’ granite. This stone originates from a quarry also owned by the BGA, in a town slightly outside of Barre: Bethel, Vermont. This structure showcases that Barre Granite is still recognized worldwide as a superior commodity that impacts a global market.
Although this impressive business deal solidifies the fact that granite production at the BGA is still booming, it does not give any explanation to why the town of Barre is in economic decline. I can only assume that this situation can be attributed to the process described by Rob Nixon and Naomi Klein, in Klein’s 2017 book No Is Not Enough, as “slow violence.”
Slow violence is a term that has been chosen to describe all the small negative changes that might not cause significant harm on their own, yet when paired with many other negative factors can overwhelmingly impact a community. In Barre, the many small changes previously described began to slowly show their wear on the town.
The once-flourishing downtown community was gradually gnawed away by the impact of job loss, which dwindled the community’s income and slowly dejected local business. Because of a few controversial setbacks such as chemical explosions while blasting in the quarries, combined with the increase of silicosis caused by the inhalation of stone dust, newly unemployed laborers without health insurance were destined to experience hardship.
A leading factor in this “slow violence” phenomena can be attributed to further automated and computerized mechanical jobs which in the past had employed many workers. It seems as though the Barre Granite, determined to become the best in the industry, was too good for itself: innovation and modernization ultimately drove the town of Barre into a recession that is still being experienced. As Grahn points out, now the quarries implement machines that can start by the push of a button, are computer guided, and can turn off by themselves once the desired task has been completed.
I first wondered if labor costs had been a driving factor in the shift of employment for BGA, as minimum wage in Vermont was raised to ten dollars an hour in 2017 and had previously been one of the highest in the country. However, Grahn points out, the entry-level job of a Union craftsman working for the BGA pays much more than minimum wage and requires a unique skill set. Unfortunately, Spaulding High School has discontinued its stone trades apprentice program, which had previously exposed students to their town’s historical craft.
Grahn informed me that positions at the BGA are changing. Not many people are working in the quarry, and many of the current craftsmen are nearing retirement. In five years’ time, he is unsure where the company will stand. Until then, however, the BGA will continue to produce high-valued stone creations and will continue be known around the world as one of the leading corporations in superior granite manufacturing.