Updated: Jul 9, 2019
The early history of Vermont’s granite industry was shaped by hardworking, talented, and enterprising people, who recognized high-quality granite; learned effective methods of quarrying and shaping granite; and developed local and regional markets. Farmers conducted most of this early work, as they came across granite outcrops often while clearing their land for agricultural use. In their spare time, these men took advantage of the local granite resources to supplement their income and to serve a community need. In many cases their products directly competed with the softer, easily quarried and shaped marble and limestone of Vermont’s Champlain Valley.
To view this full story with all featured photos, visit our online magazine. Jump directly to this story from the table of contents on page 3.
It is unclear who first quarried granite in Vermont during the late Colonial era. Whether found as a boulder carried by the glaciers or cut from exposed granite bedrock using simple and ancient hillside quarrying techniques, many of Vermont’s gristmills, constructed after Bennington’s in 1762, took advantage of the granite found on the eastern side of the Green Mountains for their millstones. At the same time, builders of the earliest homes and businesses for Vermont’s wealthy began using the locally available granite for foundations, steps, and other architectural elements.
In the early 1800’s, the Parker, Abbott, and Wheaton families of Barre were the earliest granite quarriers and manufacturers in Vermont, making granite their livelihood. Robert Parker and Thomas Courser started the first extensive commercial granite quarry on Cobble Hill in Barre in the 1810s.
They began a systematic process known as sheet quarrying, which involved removing granite blocks in layers from shallow pit quarries with simple tools, including hammers, drill bits, and iron wedges. During the late 1820s, Robert’s son John and his son-in-law Eliphalet Hewitt joined the company.
In 1834, the newly formed partnership of Hewitt & Parker took out the first paid newspaper advertisement for Vermont’s granite industry, promoting their quarries and granite works in Barre and Marshfield. The products listed in the ad included “underpinning; door steps; sills; caps; pillars and circles; window caps and sills; hearth and step stones; mantletree pieces and tombstones; posts, caps and balls; jet stone, grist and oil mill stones, cut to any pattern, at short notice.”
Advertising certainly increased business for Vermont’s small emerging granite companies, but the construction of the state capitol building in Montpelier (1832–1836), the first commercial building in Vermont constructed of granite brought the greatest amount of attention to the industry. Oren Wheaton furnished the granite. He learned the stonecutting trade from John Parker, the son of Vermont’s first commercial quarrier and manufacturer. Oren and his father Pliny Wheaton (1778–1869) purchased the quarry holdings of John Parker and Eliphalet Hewitt and expanded them. The Wheaton quarry on Cobble Hill provided the stone for the pillars, foundation, underpinning, window caps, sills, and cornices for the statehouse.
The granite for the walls was extracted from Abijah Abbott’s quarry on Millstone Hill in Barre. Abijah Abbott had opened a small quarry on his farm on Millstone Hill in Barre in the 1810s, but Abijah died before he could witness the quarry’s full potential or his granite’s use in the Vermont State House. Abijah’s son Richard Flagg Abbott took over his father’s business and developed it into one of the largest early quarrying and manufacturing operations, where he fabricated probably the first large memorial in 1842 for Reverend James Marsh, the fifth president of the University of Vermont. The granite obelisk is 20 feet tall, weighs about 15 tons, and required 30 pair of horses and oxen to draw it the 50 miles from Barre to Burlington’s Elmwood Cemetery. The monument continues to demonstrate the quality of Barre gray granite and the caliber of the local craftsmanship in the early nineteenth century.
By the early 1840s, according to Zadock Thompson’s History of Vermont, Barre’s light gray granite was considered a “source of profit to those who own it” and was “eagerly sought by those who [could] afford the expense, as a most durable and ornamental article in buildings.” In 1840, Pliny Wheaton showed the possibilities of Barre granite by building himself a house from granite blocks extracted from his quarry. He also provided granite for Barre’s Greek Revival Congregational Church (1840) and for Montpelier’s Washington County Courthouse (1844).
For these projects and others, a sizable amount of Barre granite was shipped during the winter at great expense and effort using teams of horses and oxen pulling heavy sleds.
An 1844 report to the board of directors of the Vermont Central Railroad noted that more than 600 tons of granite went to Burlington each year. Despite this fact, the Vermont Central Railroad constructed its route along the Dog River rather than through Barre along the tevens Branch, so for the next two decades teams pulled Barre granite 15 miles to the nearest railroad station in Northfield. Despite the transportation barrier, the granite industry in Barre continued to expand in the 1840s and 1850s, by training local men and attracting experienced stoneworkers from throughout New England. Ira Harrington, a locally trained granite worker (whose grandfather Nathan Holden had owned a Barre granite quarry from 1811 to 1813,) learned the trade from Richard Abbott of Barre and then purchased Richard’s busi- ness and continued to expand upon its success. In 1857, Ira won a contract to erect in Burlington’s Green Mount Cemetery a monument to Ethan Allen, a Vermont Revolutionary War hero and one of the founders of Vermont. That same year Ira received a contract to provide granite for the reconstruction of the Vermont State House, which had been gutted by fire. According to Arthur W. Brayley, in his History of the Granite Industry of New England (1913), the granite of Vermont’s State House “received a most trying test by the burning of the interior, but with the exception of a few window caps and other pieces exposed to the most intense heat, no part of the walls required to be replaced by new material.” The remarkable durability of Barre’s granite increased demand for the stone, requiring the development of additional quarries.
In the late 1840s, the railroads in Vermont not only helped in the expansion of Barre’s granite industry, but it also encouraged the opening of other commercial granite quarries across the state. The cheaper and easier transport of granite by rail allowed stoneworkers to take advantage of their local granite resources and to market them at competitive rates. In 1848 for example, the granite company Estey & McDonald established itself in Brattleboro just as rail lines connected Brattleboro to urban regions in southern New England. The number of small granite quarries and manufacturers increased throughout eastern Vermont as more railroads opened during the late nineteenth century. Public memorials became a new product line for Vermont’s growing granite industry at the close of the American Civil War (1865). Communities throughout the Northeast placed orders for com- memorative monuments (often called soldiers’ monuments), placing them on town greens and in other public places to honor those lost during the war. Seven soldiers’ monuments, using Vermont granite, were installed in Vermont between 1866 and 1876, including Derby (1866), Cornwall (1868), Rochester (1868), St. Johnsbury (1868), Peacham (1869), Williamstown (1869) and Cabot (1876). During the next 60 years, Vermont granite firms made Civil War memorials for communities and battlefield sites throughout the Eastern United States. In the 1870s, many of the employees of Vermont’s granite manufacturers started to work full time, as opposed to the early granite workers who often were farmers or laborers who worked part time in the industry. In addition to changes in labor, granite manufacturers began the transition from hand-produced products made outdoors near quarry sites to making products using water-powered cutting, shaping, and polishing machines installed in permanent granite sheds. The same mechanization that occurred in the granite sheds also took place at the quarries with the use of horse and human powered derricks. These der- ricks allowed quarrymen to extract granite blocks larger than ever before and to follow seams of high-quality granite regardless of the depth the quarry reached. In the 1870s, construction of railroad spur lines connecting gran- ite sheds and quarries to the railroad main lines became the norm as the levels of granite production increased with the growing appetite for granite products in the Northeast. By the end of the 1870’s Vermonters, as well as granite companies along the Eastern Seaboard, began to take notice of Vermont’s granite products. People recognized that Vermont’s granite industry had the potential to grow—and grow it did! Four decades later, Vermont’s thriving granite industry made Barre the “Granite Center of the World.”
Scott A. McLaughlin is the executive director of the Vermont Granite Museum in Barre, VT.
Photo courtesy of the Vermont Granite Museum
Vermont Granite Museum
Subscribe to VERMONT Magazine to get the very best of 'people, places, things to do' in Vermont delivered to your home 4x a year.
Start your subscription at vtmag.com today!