Death was a part of everyday life for Barre's stonecutters; after all, they made a lot of tombstones. The town's granite industry -- which peaked in the early 20th century -- attracted immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Spain and Italy with its promise of high wages and a decent living. But the men who cut the stone in the granite sheds were forced to inhale deadly silica dust. Many succumbed to silicosis, or "stonecutter's TB," before they reached 50. Dozens are buried in Barre's Hope Cemetery, near examples of their work.
Those men are no longer able to speak about their lives, but their stories are available in a new book, Men Against Granite, released this month from the New England Press. The volume brings together 52 interviews with Barre residents conducted during the 1930s. Only some of those interviewed worked with granite, but all of them were affected by it in some way. The result is an intimate glimpse of Depression-era Barre and its love-hate relationship with stone.
It's difficult to imagine the government paying a couple of writers to spend two years interviewing residents of one small town, but that's actually how Men Against Granite came to be -- through the Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration. The project's national folklore editor believed that depicting ethnically diverse communities could fight the spread of fascism, which in the 1930s was sweeping across Europe. He charged writers employed by the New Deal to document ethnically diverse communities. Barre was the natural choice for Vermont writers assigned to the project.
From 1938 to 1940, Mari Tomasi and Roaldus Richmond set out to chronicle the widest possible variety of perspectives in Barre. They interviewed a chambermaid, a former mayor, a boarding house matron, a lumber baron, farmers, a peddler, and a number of granite workers and their widows. Their work was to have been collected and published, but funding for the endeavor dried up when the U.S. entered World War II.
Nearly 60 years later, UVM English Professor Emeritus Alfred Rosa, who founded the New England Press, discovered the manuscript. Though he had studied Tomasi and reprinted her novel, Like Lesser Gods, he had never seen the Men Against Granite interviews -- that is, until he Googled her. He found the work in bits and pieces at the Library of Congress, and with the help of co-editor Mark Wanner, shaped it into a collection of mostly first-person interviews, each in its own chapter. Rosa says, "It's the finest portrait of a particular place at a point in time in its history that I know of in the U.S."
Because portable tape recorders did not exist at the time they did their research, Tomasi and Richmond worked primarily from memory. They first met with subjects to develop a rapport, then visited again to conduct their interviews. They took few notes, reconstructing the accounts later, while sitting at their typewriters. Their reliance on memory no doubt affected the accuracy of their reporting, but you'd never know it -- the reporting, but you'd never know it -- prose in Men Against Granite retains a consistent colloquial dialect, as if the subject were speaking directly to the reader. "It's like having some great-grandparent beam into your room and tell you stories from 70 years ago," says Christopher Bray, a managing editor at New England Press. "It has all these lives between the pages."
Many of the lives Tomasi and Richmond chronicled were outside of the granite industry. "Granite's all right for them that likes it," says a farmer in "I'll Take the Good Clean Dirt." But, he says, "they can have their granite. I'll take the good clean earth for me... People can get along without tombstones, but they can't get along without food, they can't get along without potatoes, eggs, milk, butter, bread, vegetables. You can't eat granite."
Among the cast of characters is a working woman --a hotel chambermaid who describes her mundane job in "Taking Care of Myself." She says, "The way I look at it, you got to have money to live, and if you can get it without breaking your back, so much the better. Changing sheets and polishing mirrors isn't the best job in the world, but it's not the worst, either."
She also reveals her disappointing relationship with "Nat," a traveling salesman. They were engaged before she found out he had a wife and kids in New Jersey. Cheating men seem to abound in boomtowns. "Sometimes I thank my stars I got a plain face and a bad shape," says the chambermaid. "It keeps the men away from me. And you never can tell when you're going to bump into one as deceiving as Nat."
In the highly entertaining chapter "Only Suckers Work," a man known only as Callano reports that he used to work in the stone sheds. "I didn't like it, though," he says. "I wasn't cut out to work steady. What the hell is seven-eight bucks a day? Chickenfeed. I could make more chips shooting craps and playing poker."
Callano boasts about quitting his last job. He had won $90 the night before and pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket to light a cigarette. "The boss went crazy," he recalls. "I took a long time doing it, see? The boss said, 'You're fired, Callano. Get your time and get out.' I laughed at him. I told him: 'You can't fire me, you prick! I quit already.'"
The stories collected in Men and Granite are even more intimate and affecting when read aloud. On May 6th, New England Press, along with the Aldrich Library, the Barre Historical Society, the National Italian American Foundation, the Vermont Granite Museum and the Vermont Historical Society, organized a reading from the book at Barre's Old Labor Hall. It conflicted with the series finale of "Friends," but the large, mostly gray-haired crowd didn't seem to care. Row upon row of folding chairs pack-ed the area in front of the stage. Some people stood against a far wall. A large circular light fixture illuminated the podium as the other lights dimmed.
The audience sat in rapt attention as 10 people read selections from the book, each of them taking on a persona from the past. Author and former legislator Ed Granai's was one of the most dramatic. He read from a chapter entitled "Corti's Last Christmas," in which a Barre grocer recounts the murder of Elia Corti, an Italian stonecutter. Corti was shot and killed during a scuffle between socialists and anarchists at a political rally.
"The noise got worse," read Granai, "and some of the men got mad. The excitement was at a mad point. Then this Garetto, he pulled out a gun -- a .32. The men told him to stop. Corti was standing by the door." Granai pointed toward the front door as he read the account. The crowd shivered.
The next reading, from a chapter called "Dust on His Clothes," was even more moving. Anita Fregosi Ristau of the Barre City School Board read the words of an anonymous stonecutter's widow. "Edo never cut stone until we came to this country," she read. "He learned it in Barre. We had happy times. No, I wasn't afraid then. Edo wasn't afraid, either. If he was he never showed it. None of the men do -- unless sometime when they're drinking, and then only joking about it. But the women know. We see it coming -- the change. It begins to show in a man's face -- in his eyes. Sometimes the smell of granite dust on Edo's clothes would make me want to cry -- but not when Edo could see me."
Although the reading had already been going on for well over an hour, the audience sat reverently still, listening to this voice from the past. "He was only thirty-two when he died," continued Ristau. "So very young, and the gray was already in his hair... I don't mind talking about him. I think he should be in a book. If I could write I'd put him in a book myself."
Finally, someone has.