Rock Steady

Vermont’s quarry industry produces stone

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke

At one time upwards of 700 quarries dotted the Vermont landscape, exploiting ancient deposits of marble, slate and granite. Approximately 180 of those are operational today, and certain types of Vermont stone remain the quality standard by which others are measured across the globe.

“There’s a long history of quarrying being very important to the state’s economy,” according to state geologist Laurence R. Becker. “A lot of wealth came to Vermont through the stone industry.” Becker says the dimension stone industry — quarries that claim large blocks of stone for use in construction and memorials — has remained somewhat steady, while the market for crushed rock reflects a healthy construction environment by growing 3 percent in the last year. “That has to do with the continued demand for aggregate for road construction,” he says.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the value of Vermont’s 1997 non-fuel mineral production — dimension stone, sand, gravel and gemstones — to be $68 million. While that’s less than 0.5 percent of the total for the United States, Vermont is ranked third in the nation for production of dimension stone and talc.

Becker works in Waterbury at the Vermont Geological Survey, also known as the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s division of geology and mineral resources. Part of the survey’s purpose is to examine proposed quarries’ operational plans during the Act 250 land use permit process. “You usually see about three or four applications in the spring and a couple more in the fall,” he says. “Most of them go through.”

While there are aesthetic issues surrounding quarries, Becker says, “We try in the review to make them fit with the topography as best they can, so it minimizes the impact visually.” Other concerns are often centered around noise generated by large trucks and blasting, which are less significant issues with dimension stone quarries that tend to limit blasting to avoid shattering the stone.

Vermont’s quarry industry is concerned with three types of stone: slate, marble and granite. Slate, used for flooring, roofs, and landscaping materials, is found in the Poultney area, along Vermont’s southwestern border with New York. Marble tends to follow the so-called “marble belt” in the Vermont Valley: the area between the Taconic Mountains that lie approximately between Brandon and Bennington and the Green Mountains, a swath of mountains that bisects the state vertically. Granite tends to be found in the northeastern part of the state, centered around Barre.

Rock of Ages Corp. removes 20-ton blocks of granite from two quarries in Barre, the largest dimension granite quarries in the world. The company’s manufacturing division spans the size of two football fields. Pictured: E.L. Smith Quarry. (Photo: Rock of Ages)

The granite capital of the world

“Barre granite is known worldwide, and Bethel granite is the most famous white granite in the world, “ says Jon Gregory, president of the quarries division of Rock of Ages Corp. in Graniteville, alongside Barre. “Mineralogically it’s similar to other granites, except its composition is such that it weathers extremely well. Its color doesn’t fade. It doesn’t absorb very much water, so it doesn’t stain like some of the southern gray granites that absorb water and stain black.” Consequently, Rock of Ages guarantees its products for life. “Other granites don’t do that,” he adds.

Becker explains that when granite was formed, “rocks actually melted. Molten material rose from below, was trapped below other rocks and slowly cooled. So you had an intergrowth of crystals. If you take a piece of granite and look at it you’ll see dark flecks, light flecks and grey flecks.” He says it’s Barre gray granite’s uniform appearance that makes it so marketable.

Rock of Ages discards 85 percent of the granite it recovers from the quarry to eliminate imperfections in the stone. The scrap ends up in tremendous grout piles — Scottish for “waste” — that are occasionally moved to allow expansion of the quarry.

Gregory, who has worked for Rock of Ages for 24 years, is responsible for all the company’s quarries in North America. The company owns 40 such facilities in six states and Quebec; 13 quarries are operating, yielding a variety of granite colors including black, gray, white, pink and red.

In Vermont, the company owns a quarry in Bethel and two operating facilities in Barre. Rock of Ages became the only company to own operating quarries in Barre in 1986 when it purchased the Wells-Lamson property. “These are the largest dimension granite quarries in the world,” Gregory says of the Barre quarries, the deepest of which reaches more than 500 feet into the earth. “There were 28 or 29 operating quarries on this hillside at one time, back around the turn of the century.”

The history of the granite industry in Barre dates back to the late 1790s, less than 20 years after the city was chartered, when exposed deposits of granite were used to make fence posts, doorsteps and the like. Robert Parker and Abijah Abbott are often named as the founding fathers of the city’s stone industry. Both established quarries a few years after the end of the War of 1812, but it would be another decade or two before the industry came into its own when bids were taken to construct the Vermont Statehouse using granite.

The difficulties winning bidder Pliny Wheaton had in transporting granite by horse from Barre to Montpelier — the 16-hour process was so difficult and dangerous that Wheaton lost money on the Statehouse contract — were indicative of the industry. By the 1840s, the industry was in a slump. The Central Vermont Railroad nearly came to the rescue when it constructed a line from Windsor to Burlington in 1849. The decision to bypass Barre in favor of a stop in Montpelier left the Granite City out in the cold. In 1875, a line was built to connect Barre, and eight years later another was constructed to connect the quarries 1,025 feet above Barre City.

Rock of Ages began as Boutwell, Milne and Varnum. Founded by 28-year-old Scotsman George Milne in 1885, the company took on partners James Boutwell and Harvey Varnum in 1905 before changing its name to the more marketable Rock of Ages in 1925. Five years later the company added memorial manufacturing to its quarrying operation.

Rock of Ages went public in October 1997. At press time the company’s stock was trading for $13 on the NASDAQ exchange. In addition to the quarries division, which produces approximately 700,000 cubic feet of stone in Barre a year, the wholesale division manufactures memorials that it sells to retail dealers throughout the United States and Canada. The retail operation owns and operates memorial dealerships across the nation. Gregory says the corporation employs more than 1,000 people in North America.

Tourist attractions

In addition to revenue generated by quarrying operations, Vermont’s stone industry plays a role in state tourism. The Rock of Ages Visitors Center, built down the hill from the quarry in 1962, hosts thousands of visitors from around the world each year. It’s open May 1 through Oct. 31, Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Closed July 4.

In Proctor, the Vermont Marble Exhibit offers more than 100 displays, including a gallery of modern sculpture, historical photography, resident sculptures, and an open air marble market. It’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

A little more than 20 miles to the south of Proctor, the Imperial Marble quarry in Danby is considered by many to be the largest underground quarry in the world. Visitors need to do a little work to find it: The quarry is accessible by a small, private road that leads through the woods to the hillside entrance enclosed by a large overhead door.

The facility is operated by Vermont Quarries Corp., founded in 1992 by R.E.D. Graniti Group and another Italian firm, which own a 99-year lease on the 30 acres inside Dorset mountain. Quarried by the Vermont Marble Co. for 150 years, Danby marble has been used in prestigious buildings across the world, including the Jefferson Memorial (1939) and Supreme Court building (1931) in Washington, D.C.; the United Nations building (1955) in New York; and the Oregon state capital (1937) in Salem.

“More people are using marble now than they have in a long time in homes, architectural landscaping and stuff like that,” according to Oliver Danforth, owner of the Champlain Marble quarry in Proctor. Danforth has been in the marble business 40 years, and has owned the quarry, which he leases out to another quarrier, for five years.

While Vermont marble is highly touted, the products created with it come at a premium price. “The labor involved in the manufacturing” is the reason, according to Danforth. “It costs you more than it does in Europe or the Far East.”

“We discovered that you couldn’t compete in the global market selling marble from Vermont,” laments Virginia Russell, owner of Vermont Source in Brandon. “The product is just too expensive in the global marketplace.”

Russell sold Natural Elegance four months ago to establish Vermont Source and concentrate on brokering mostly imported marble products to Fortune 500 companies. “We were on a white horse trying to carry the banner for marble from Vermont,” she says of her four years at the helm of Natural Elegance, “and found out that it’s just too expensive.” Vermont Source deals mostly in small desktop items made of marble from overseas, but devotes approximately 5 percent of its business to brokering Vermont marble products. “It’s still getting the name Vermont out there. We just figure we’re doing it in the opposite direction. We are a Vermont company first, and damn proud of it,” she laughs.

Economics of stone manufacturing and marketing aside, one thing is certain: There’s more valuable rock in Vermont than is likely to be excavated anytime soon. “There’s thousands of years’ worth of stone here. We have no idea how deep it goes,” says Gregory, who’s quick to assert that Rock of Ages will “never” run out of stone.

“The rock body that they’re in is pretty large,” confirms Becker, who estimates the deposit might reach six miles deep. Although the cost of quarrying increases with depth, there’s always the option of widening the quarries to assure that operations like Rock of Ages keep on digging.