The many slate roofs still seen on 19th and early 20th century houses around Rutland and Addison counties in Vermont had their origin in the many slate pits of the historic Slate Valley. A fascinating glimpse inside the multi-ethnic lives of the slate workers of Vermont and New York awaits the weekend explorer at the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, N.Y.
The Slate Valley of southwestern Vermont and eastern New York extends 24 miles along the borders of both states from Granville, N.Y .and Rupert, Vt., north to Fair Haven, Vt. The area is about six miles wide. From still comes high quality slate used in various industrial applications.
In 1839, slate deposits were discovered near Fair Haven, but quarrying was found impractical and uses for slate were limited. By the mid 1840s things began to change, and a strong future for the industry looked promising. The roof of a barn one mile south of Fair Haven was the first to be covered with slate in 1848. It was feared the barn would not withstand the weight of the stone. The barn is still standing today and the same slate roof is intact.
With the industry ready to take off, many workers were recruited.
In 1850, the first Welsh immigrants arrived in Fair Haven, and in 1852 thirty Welsh settlers arrived in Middle Granville. Several slate companies were formed. The biggest problem early on was the transportation of the quarried stone. In order to solve the problem, the Rutland and Washington Railroad, which had started in 1845, extended its lines to Poultney, Vt. and later to Salem, N.Y. and Eagle Bridge, N.Y. This move allowed the industry to continue to grow.
Immigration of workers to the Slate Valley increased with three hundred recruited from Wales in 1891 when the industry began to boom. And immigrants continued to come to the area through the 1890s and early 1900s from Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Ireland, Hungary and later Canada. Many were already skilled quarrymen as the Welsh had been when they first arrived in this country. Many were skilled in other types of mining as well.
The site of the present Slate Valley Museum in Granville, N.Y., and adjacent streets became home as row houses were built similar to those in Wales. Nearby homes were run as boarding houses, particularly by the Slovaks who waited to send for their families until they were established. They felt at home in a valley between two mountains, much like their native land.
The arrival of these peoples brought a great diversity of cultures to the Slate Valley. Although native languages and customs were often maintained in homes and neighborhoods and among church congregations, by the 1900s children were encouraged to become part of their "new country."
World War I, the Great Depression of 1929 and World War II all took a toll on the slate industry and the economy of the area in general. During World War II, the slate industry virtually shut down because so much manpower was lost to the armed forces and defense industries. Several who left their communities did not return.
After the war many changes began which would end up creating a resurgence in the slate business. Methods of quarrying improved with the advent of more advanced mechanization, greatly increasing production. Methods of shipping also saw significant advances. The industry has progressed much to the credit of all the communities in the Slate Valley, and to the credit of all the workers who developed slate quarrying from its very beginnings. First the Welsh brought their skills here from a country where many were denied a future in quarrying. Others developed their skills with diligence and hard work. Pride in their work and a strong desire to improve their lives motivated them.
The Slate Valley Museum has been established, in part, to pay tribute to these workers and their families and to preserve their way of life and their many contributions to the fabric of human history. The museum is open (Memorial Day to Labor Day) Tuesday through Saturday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m.-4 p.m. After Labor Day, the museum is open Tuesday through Friday: 1 p.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Directions: From Addison County, take Vt. Route 22A south into New York to the blinking light at the junction with Route 22. Turn left on Route 22 (south) to the intersection with stop light at junctions of Route 22 and Route 149. Then, turn left (at light) onto Church Street (County Route 26). A McDonalds Restaurant will be on your left as you turn onto Church Street. Follow Church Street. Cross a small bridge then turn left on Water Street. The museum is ahead.
Special thanks to the staff of the Slate Valley Museum for this article.