Even if you don’t like the idea of choosing your own headstone, Barre (pronounced “Barry”) is worth a visit. You will appreciate what you may have previously taken for granted or simply preferred not to contemplate, namely the tombstones. You’ll learn about their fascinating history, and the remarkable industry and craftsmanship that went into their creation. More fundamentally, you will be exposed to the geological history behind the rugged stone that sculptors use to immortalize the human ephemeral.
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Although small (population less than 10,000), Barre is easy to find, just 11 kilometers from the state capital, Montpellier. Signage for Exit 6 on Interstate 89 lets you know that’s where the “Granite Quarries” are. You can then take Quarry Street or Stone Road to a place called Graniteville. Along the way, you may pass the Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen, spot granite fence posts, and spot what would otherwise be mundane business signs, such as law offices, etched into the granite.
Granite, granite, everywhere — emphasizing the city’s economic raison d’être and the stone art of its people. In front of the public library stands a stone statue of Mr. Pickwick by Charles Dickens. Another statue — of the poet Robert Burns, next to the Vermont History Center – was erected by 19th century Scottish masons who brought their stonemasonry skills to Barre. On the other side of the city, another equally imposing statue personifies the Italian stonemasons who also brought their know-how to Barre.
European immigrants brought with them a tradition of organized labor and Barre became the headquarters of the Quarry Workers’ International Union of North America. Still standing on Granite Street is the old Socialist Labor Party Halllisted on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
Rock of Ages – not the anthem but a career venture with a reception center of the same name – is perhaps Barre’s biggest tourist draw, typically attracting over 100,000 visitors a year. In the fall, when the leaves turn colorful, attendance peaks. But in mid-May, the very first day it opened for the summer season, my wife, Pat, and I were delighted to find few people there. In fact, ours was one of only three cars in the trailer that Roger, the tour guide, drove from the visitor center to the massive Rock of Ages excavation site called EL Smith Quarry.
Still, Roger noted on a card the number of cars and the number of occupants in each car, so he could be sure he could account for everyone at the end of the tour – that no one had fallen and disappeared into the massive hole in the ground. Covering approximately 50 acres and nearly 600 feet deep, it claims to be the world’s largest operating deep-hole quarry for dimension stone. (Crushed stone – gravel – is the product of other quarries.)
Now retired after working most of his life in the quarry, Roger knew what he was talking about. He explained that the granite mined here – known as “Barre Grey” – is known worldwide for its fine grain, uniform texture and superior weather resistance. Its unique proportions of quartz and feldspar (main ingredients of granite) make it particularly hard while being exceptionally receptive to intricate carving and sculpting.
The granite formed as an intrusive igneous rock around 350 million years ago. Called Pluton by geologists, the Barre granite formation is four miles long, two miles wide and 10 miles deep. Based on what had been mined since the Barre quarries were commissioned in the 19th century, Roger estimated that “it would take 4,500 years to mine all the granite”.
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Perched on the edge of the quarry was a chain-link fence to keep visitors like us from falling. I had seen many careers over the years, but nothing like it. As if guarding a precious work of art, the fence barrier seemed to make the scene even more spectacular, even otherworldly. The steep sides of the quarry, where the blocks and slabs had been cut, looked like a huge canvas of abstract art, with spots of oxidized water dripping like paint. At the very bottom was a turquoise pool, that seemingly out of place color created by granite sediments and crystals in the water when slabs of rock are cut. Framing the scene in the distance, the distinctive outline of Camel’s Hump, Vermont’s third highest peak, punctuates the skyline.
About five miles away is the Vermont Granite Museum, installed in a renovated manufacturing shed dating from the beginning of the last century. Although massive (about 30,000 square feet), it was called a “shed” for its open layout and cathedral-like ceiling. The machines for cutting and moving the granite blocks were powered by a dam and turbines on the nearby Stevens Arm of the Winooski River. A railway spur, leading directly to the shed, could then transport the finished masonry. Today’s visitors are transported back in time through interactive exhibits and collections of rock specimens and ancient tools, even industrial granite rollers.
Nearby, Hope Cemetery showcases local granite and the art it spawned. Established in 1895, the 65-acre park-like setting is a magnificent example of the 19th-century garden cemetery movement, which favored burials in rural, non-sectarian settings. The coincidental and increasingly popular use of granite for tombstones and memorials has created an outdoor sculpture museum. The once prevalent sandstone slates and marble tombstones proved to be much less durable than granite.
I’ve been called a headstone tourist for past pilgrimages to the cemetery populated by dead celebrities Father Lachaise in Paris and Cimitero Acattolico, the Roman cemetery where poet John Keats’ headstone reads: ‘Here lies he whose name was written in water’. But you don’t have to be a melancholy taphophile to appreciate the artistry on display at Hope Cemetery, like a Pietà-like statue and realistic representations of violins and airplanes. It’s the “Uffizi Gallery of Necropolises,” in the words of Vermont folklorist Joseph A. Citro. All the monuments are made of Barre Grey, and virtually all were carved by Barre stonemasons – some for their own graves before they died.
For Pat and I, who had lost an old friend to covid-19, a lonely granite memorial in Hope Cemetery seemed particularly poignant. Erected on the occasion of the centenary of the 1918 pandemic, it commemorated the many dead from the flu. They had suffered disproportionately from their existing silicosis (known as stonemason’s disease) from inhaling granite dust while working in unventilated sheds.
However, our visit to Barre was not all about death and granite. The trip easily included the Vermont fare of covered bridges, village greens, white church spires, and maple syrup. Indeed, Pat insisted that we experience that quintessential Green Mountain State summer taste: ice cream. “What is that?” I asked. The delicious response came to the Morse Farm Maple grove: Towering swirls of particularly creamy soft serve ice cream, served in a cup or cone, topped with a generous portion of maple syrup or pure maple sugar.
As granite is hard and durable, a cream is soft and fleeting – a most harmonious balance.
Nicklin is a writer based in Virginia and Maine. Find him on Twitter: @RoadTripRedux.
8 S. Main St., Barre, Vermont.
Located in a former fire station, this grill and pub’s varied menu offers steaks, burgers, soups, salads, pizzas, pastas and over 25 entrees. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Hero sandwiches in honor of firefighters from around $10.
14 N. Main St. Suite 1006, Bar
Describing itself as “Barre’s hometown bakery,” Delicate Decadence offers an assortment of specialty coffees and fresh baked goods, such as cakes and croissants, as well as homemade soups and quiches for a light lunch. . Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Open Sunday by appointment only.
558 Graniteville Road, Graniteville
Exhibits, photos and a video presentation provide an informative overview of the extraction and manufacturing processes. The visitor center includes a gift shop with natural stone souvenirs. An approximately 40-minute guided caravan tour of the nearby quarry is offered four times a day, Monday through Friday, May through October. Tours $7 per adult, $6.50 per person 62 and over, $4 per child 6-13, and free for children under 5.
7 Jones Brothers Way, Barre
Located in a granite manufacturing “shed”, the museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its purpose is to engage, educate and celebrate the heritage and current achievements of the Vermont granite industry. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., May to October. Admission $8 per adult, $6 per senior, $4 per child and $18 for families. Adult group rate $5; child group rate $3.
Morse Farm Maple grove
1168 County Road, Montpellier
Free sugar shack tours and tastings. Farm store with food specialties and Vermont crafts. Open every day of the year, but opening hours vary according to the seasons. (Check website for hours.) Open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice web page.