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What's Up With the Boulders Surrounding a Defunct Barre Business?

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Boulders in Barre - KEN PICARD
  • Ken Picard
  • Boulders in Barre

A Seven Days reader from central Vermont who identified himself only as "Mike D." emailed us recently to ask if we knew the story behind the bevy of boulders that mysteriously appeared a few months ago outside a long-defunct restaurant in downtown Barre. Each standing three or four feet high, the three dozen or so gray-and-white stones guard the perimeter of the parking lot of the one-story building at 435 North Main Street, which is sandwiched between Yipes! Auto Accessories and the Busy Bubble Laundromat.

Mike wrote that the rocks reminded him of postapocalyptic "zombie invasion deterrents" — though they would deter only zombies who lack the perambulatory ability to turn ever-so-slightly sideways and squeeze between the stones.

The boulder barrier is too tall to be an aggressive speed bump, too porous to fence in even the largest of dog breeds and too rectangular to be a modern-day version of a prehistoric astronomical calendar. Needless to say, it's raising eyebrows, even in a city that celebrates its stonecutter roots with a 23-foot-tall, 43-ton granite statue just a quarter mile down the street.

The 6,000-square-foot commercial building, which was built in 1930, has been through many incarnations over the years, mostly as eateries: a Chinese restaurant, the Granite Village Restaurant and Pub, the Maple Leaf Pancake House and, most recently, the all-you-can-eat Barre Buffet. According to the most recent real estate listing of the property, the building has a huge kitchen, multiple dining rooms and a spacious bar area. The Barre Buffet — which offered Chinese, American and Italian fare, as well as sushi, according to its Yelp reviews — closed for business about five years ago.

A call to the City of Barre's planning director revealed that the building is now owned by Philip Ketcham of Washington, Vt. Reached by phone, Ketcham immediately guessed the purpose of a reporter's call. "The boulders? That gets a lot of attention," he said with a chuckle.

Ketcham, 71, is an amiable guy who just bought the building in June. He has owned a nearby property on Seminary Street for the past seven years, he said.

Since the Barre Buffet closed, "This property has been a major headache," he continued. "People hanging around, breaking into the building, doing all kinds of nastiness." According to Ketcham, the "headaches" have included drug dealing, cars parking in the lot at all hours and homeless people using the alleyway as a toilet.

Last spring, Ketcham saw the property listed for sale at $180,000, down from $400,000 a few years ago. Fed up with the misuse of the lot, he said, he decided to buy it himself to "minimize the headaches."

Rather than fence in his new acquisition, Ketcham bought boulders from North East Materials Group, a Graniteville company that provides stone for breakwaters, landscaping and major road and rail projects. He drove up there, explained what he wanted and found a trucker to deliver the stones to Barre. Once they arrived, Ketcham used a small excavator to position the boulders where he wanted them, to "keep out the riff-raff," he said.

Why truck in boulders instead of erect something cheaper and more conventional, such as a chain-link fence? As Ketcham explained, a fence isn't advisable in the floodplain where this property is situated, because it could catch debris and obstruct the flow of water.

And, at several tons apiece, the stone stanchions aren't going to move anytime soon. "It's kind of a novel idea," he said.

Mike Hartigan, manager of Yipes! Auto Accessories, confirmed the value of the barrier. Before the boulders appeared, he said, drivers would "bomb through" the vacant building's parking lot, from Seminary Street to North Main, rather than drive around the corner. "It's nice that they're not doing that anymore," said Hartigan, who's fielded plenty of questions about the boulders from his customers.

Ketcham, who worked "in the trades" for 60 years building cabinets and "anything else you can think of that's made out of wood," said he's in the process of slowly renovating the building to turn it into his woodworking shop. He has no immediate plans to lease it out as a restaurant or retail space.

In fact, he tore up most of the asphalt parking lot and has planted grass there. Next summer, Ketcham said, he plans to put in some trees and possibly a garden. "It'll be pretty pleasant," he said.

Despite the apparent permanence of the Barre Stonehenge, no city permit was required to put it up. And, really, no one should be surprised to see large rocks on display in a city that proclaims itself the "granite center of the world."

"The question is, are they granite?" Hartigan said. "I don't think they are. That would have been even better."

The original print version of this article was headlined "What's Up With the Boulders Surrounding a Defunct Barre Business?"

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