Vermont’s Slate Industry
The slate industry transformed Poultney in the last half of the 19th century. An agrarian community populated principally by Yankees became an industrialized town enriched by a diverse group of immigrants. Allegedly, the slate industry was due to an accidental event. According to an old story, around 1843, a farmer was showing his land to a prospective buyer. The buyer kicked at a mound of soil and looked at the rocks he dislodged. He exclaimed to the farmer “Why that is slate” The farmer then decided not to sell!
The slate industry began in our area, when Colonel Alonsen Allen started the first quarry on Scotch Hill in Fair Haven in 1845. The first quarry in Poultney was the famed Eureka Quarry established in 1852 by Daniel Hooker. The initial applications of slate products were school slates for writing and slate pencils. By the late 1840s the Allen quarry was producing 600 school slates per day.
Immigration into the Slate Valley
Then in the 1850s demand for roofing material emerged. Slate roofs could last 100 to 150 years, if properly maintained. Processing of slate for roofing required special skills which existed in abundance in Wales. The Welsh had been mining and processing slate since 1399. Skilled Welsh workers immigrated to the “Slate Valley” in droves. They were motivated by the depressed economy, high taxes, lack of social mobility in Wales and the opportunity they saw in America.
Irish immigrants who had come to the area in the 1840s to build the railroads initially performed the unskilled tasks at the quarries. By 1860, some 450 workers ere employed by 16 companies. Applications of slate expanded to include vases, washbowls, bathing tubs, fireplaces, mantelpieces, tabletops, flooring tile and stairs.
Boom and Bust
The slate industry expanded in a series of booms and busts over the next forty years. By the 1900 there were nearly a thousand workers employed in 250 operating quarries. The 1900 to 1920 period saw Slavic and Italian immigrants working in the quarries. There are many descendants of these early Welsh, Irish, Slavic and Italian immigrants living in the area today. Some of these people progressed from workers to managers to owners of quarries.
The great depression caused the complete collapse of the slate industry. Recovery after the Second World War was very slow due to the emergence of alternative roofing materials.
Today, Poultney is the center of the Slate Valley, which straddles the New York and Vermont border and the slate industry is expanding. This is due to the need to replace all those roofs installed in the 19th century, the recognition of the long life and value of slate roofs, the requirement for fire proof roofs imposed by the State of California, and the revival of many of the earlier applications. It is estimated that the Slate Valley has 38 companies employing 200-300 employees ad producing $40 million a year of slate products.
Visitors to Poultney who would like to learn more about the slate industry can visit the Slate Valley Museum in nearby Granville, NY. The museum provides exhibits of historical tools used in the slate industry, displays showing the science and art of slate quarrying, a geological display showing how slate was formed over many years and photographs and videos showing how slate is processed