WELLS Despite the ups and downs of international competition for buying and selling slate rock for architectural and landscaping needs, Rutland Countys slate industry is still a force to be reckoned with, according to industry officials and historians of the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, N.Y. At a recent public tour of the giant Hilltop Slate Company quarry in the Wells-Poultney area, conducted by the Slate Valley Museum, local residents and representatives of the news media had a unique opportunity to see Vermonts largest slate operation up close and personal. The tour coincided with the new Heavy Lifting historical exhibit at the Slate Valley Museum. Hilltop owner Dan Boone and quarry manager David Lundy welcomed visitors to Hilltops big pit, in operation since 1948. Four colors of slate (ranging from green to red) are extracted from the companys Poultney pit. The slate-belt straddling Vermont and New York was created as deep deposits of oceanic mud in the Pre-Cambrian eraan ancient period of geologic time when sea life was little more complex than algae and some soft-bodied lifeforms. The sea mud was later cooked under extreme subterranean and tectonic pressures to become the slate we are familiar with today. While United States slate makes up only 5 percent of the worlds slate market, Lundy said, Vermont slate is considered among the highest quality in the world. Were known for some of the best color slate on the planet! Hilltop operates 13 quarries in Vermont and neighboring New York. The company markets product to Europe and Asia where it is used for roofing and various high-end architectural and landscaping projects. Hilltop, a locally owned business based in the Slate Valley, keeps its 60 quarry employees busy operating several giant high-tech Caterpillar mining trucks and excavators. At months end, Hilltop sends two large shipping containers of top-notch slate product overseas, while some ten tractor- trailer loads of slate, per week, come out of just the Poultney quarry. All that amounts to roughly 1.8 million pieces of marketable Hilltop slate produced annually. And theres plenty of work for the local employeesat the Wells-Poultney quarry, theres enough slate rock to quarry for another quarter century. Overseas customers are very demanding when it comes to consistent color and overall quality, said Lundy. Slate is tested for 10 things such as acidity, pressure, color, etc. Hilltops Vermont-origin slate appears to pass the international acid test with, dare we say, flying colors. While 95 percent of modern slate quarrying is waste, Hilltop officials are looking for new uses for slate waste including road and driveway fill products. Once exhausted, quarries are restored with trees and other vegetation using environmentally safe technology proven in Applachian coal regions. With a proud, more than century-long heritage of slate quarrying and milling behind it, Hilltop and other local slate operations continue to enrich the world with one of natures most unexpected treasuresslate, in all its vibrant and sought-after colors.