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Vermont granite quarrying challenged by cheaper imports, cremation

| Thursday, June 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

BARRE, Vt. —

Don't panic loved ones. Vermont is not running out of granite. The monumental stone has been dug in this state for 200 years now, and there's enough for hundreds more. Thousands in fact.

Which is ironic. For a resource that will never run out, granite's best-known growth market nowadays — kitchen counter tops — has lost a big bite to imports. Think Brazil, China, India. And wages of $5 or $10 a day vs. the American quarry workers' $20 and more per hour.

In the grand and solemn commerce of remembrance, however, overseas suppliers aren't the key competition. Cremation is.

Burning keeps gaining on burying for the costs. Cremation is an option in nearly half of all last rites.

But that is no reason not to erect a granite marker over the ashes — when they aren't scattered — as Paul Hutchins sees it.

“It's a point we hope retail dealers will make,” the executive vice president of Rock of Ages Corp. said.

The privately owned firm operates the last active quarry in this rock-ribbed New England town (pronounced berry).

The dirt road up to the quarry from Rock of Ages' Visitor Center puts a Western Pennsylvanian right at home. Instead of “gob piles” of coal waste, there are hills of granite waste, sprouting scrubby vegetation.

The digs have been worked since the 1880s. They employed an army of laborers and draft animals in the past. Silicosis from the dust was a killer. After many technical advances, it's healthier, better-paid work now — nine months of the year. (The other three on jobless pay). But that's for fewer workers, about 25 or 30, members of a stone-cutters' union and — surprise — the United Steelworkers, based in Pittsburgh.

The quarry reaches 600 feet, but the bottom is under green pools of water. No need to go that deep now.

The quarry resembles stacks of giant gray books lying on their sides. Granite is the result of cooled volcanic rock that vomited from the innards of Earth ages ago. The resulting stone is less given to erosion than marble, hence its versatility in buildings, monuments and statuary.

Imports have won so many kitchen counters thanks to tempting prices and fancy colors, in contrast to Barre's salt-and-pepper gray. But there are tales of foreign product fudging on quality. Rock of Ages says it guarantees against fading and cracking literally forever.

Quarry stone is blasted loose in big sections called “benches.” Holes are drilled with carbide-tipped probes and filled with explosive cord. The stone section that gets budged is taller than a man, bigger than most bedrooms and the weight of “three 747 airliners, fully loaded.” The cranes can't handle a bench, so it's sliced smaller by diamond-embedded wires and saws.

The company's manufacturing plant on weekdays displays artists and craftsman sculpting and sandblasting. The visitors center and gift shop, open weekends too, features a 17-minute enlightening video.

As you'd expect, downtown Barre features many a storefront that will outlive us all. A true museum of a graveyard is Hope Cemetery. Some of the markers are spectacular. One immortalizes a bass fiddle entwined with music staffs. Cremation couldn't compare.

Jack Markowitz is a Thursday columnist for Trib Total Media. Email him at jmarkowitz@tribweb.com.

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