When glaciers melted eons ago from a narrow belt straddling New York and Vermont, they left exposed rich outcrops of slate.Around 1839, entrepreneurs began taking advantage of this natural resource. By the late 19th century, more than 250 quarries were in operation. Though Depression and war took their toll on this industry, production never ceased.The Slate Valley Museum, established in 1995 at Granville, thus has the opportunity not only to celebrate history but to interpret activity that continues through the present day.Upon entering the building — a relocated 19th-century New World Dutch Barn that's a major artifact unto itself — one's attention quickly moves to the replica quarry stick that soars to the center of the room. These poles, often a hundred feet high and laden with guy wires and pulley systems, anchored the operation of pulling huge chunks of slate out of the ground, then dropping them at nearby shanties.But restrain yourself a minute, and take a sharp left to a display on the geology of slate. There's a quick review course on how mud gets compacted into shale. Then, as we all learned in earth science, pressure and heat produce the transformation to metamorphic rock — in this case, slate.Technical information on a long geologic time line gets lightened by commentary underneath labelled "what it really means." Maps and rock samples underscore the explanations.There are examples of the six distinct colors of slate found in the valley, a greater variety than at any other site in the world.
Now go back toward the quarry stick and stop at the fully equipped shanty. Skilled workers would process huge blocks of rock into thin slate shingles for roofing. Narration explains the roles of the block cutter, splitter, trimmer and puncher while you look at the specific hand tools and foot-operated machines that remained the backbone of the industry until after World War II.A hallway densely laden with photographs pays tribute to these workers. Along with vintage pictures are two series of images captured by photographer Neil Rappaport. Impressed by a roadside scene in the 1960s, he sought out slate workings for a decade or more. Then, in 1993, he was commissioned to document all the quarries in operation.A true treasure anchors the museum's program room. "Men Working in Slate Quarry" was painted by Martha Levy in 1939 as a Work Progress Administration project for Granville High School. This detailed mural pays tribute to the slate industry with vivid and colorful renditions of all aspects of the trade. Restored as a Bicentennial Project in 1976 and moved here upon the museum's opening, the painting helped to solidify all I'd already learned at the museum.But this isn't the Slate Museum; it's the Slate Valley Museum. Curating staff have produced a remarkable set of exhibits on the people of the region. Under the overall title "The Dream and the Reality: Immigration and Assimilation in the Slate Valley of New York and Vermont, 1840-present," four separate alcoves examine immigrant groups who came here to seek their hopes and dreams. A different scholar was selected to coordinate the information in each section. The result merits careful attention.Comparisons and contrasts are easily appreciated with the organization of each unit into information on economic status before and after immigration, the role of education in assimilation, and a look at the activities of subsequent generations born in America.Wales once had the world's largest slate quarries. Many Welsh miners arrived with considerable experience, allowing them to win more prestigious (and remunerative) jobs. One arrival, Hugh Williams, owned quarries and became Granville's mayor. During the Depression, when he couldn't pay workers, quarry men labored for free until orders began to flow.
Familiarity with English allowed easier mixing, but 13 chapels in the area held services in Welsh. Traditional language flourished further with choral groups and arts competitions.Irish tended to settle in larger cities, but those coming to Slate Valley came with quarrying experience. These workers developed the craft of marble-izing slate, producing ornate mantles and checkerboards like the ones on display. Education served as both motivator and enabling step for both Welsh and Irish. Later generations readily left Slate Valley for other opportunities.Lack of English proficiency made Italian immigrants more suspect. Family cohesiveness and religion served as driving forces, though the commonality of Roman Catholicism did not lead to fellowship between Italians and Irish.Many Italian newcomers worked in quarries; some opened shops and businesses. An ice-cream shop opened by Angelo Scott around 1915 continues in operation. Angelo's grandson Tom runs it, at least when not preoccupied by his duties as Granville's mayor.Slovaks from Central Europe faced an uphill battle, too, because of their strange language and customs. Enticed by agents, many men came to America alone, then ended up with the most dangerous and lowest-paid jobs. Hampered by illiteracy, most advanced by taking on roles left by Welsh and Irish workers who moved on.Some Slovak wives joined their husbands and established boarding houses to earn extra cash, gaining economic status and authority not often available to recently arrived women.Advances via education tended to be delayed, but after World War II, Slovaks became owners of the majority of the 30 slate operations remaining.
A separate exhibit introduced Jewish settlers. Many first came to Slate Valley as a stop-off point between arrival in New York City and their destination, Plattsburgh, home to a well-established Jewish population as early as 1840. Often Jewish men earned their way as peddlers, roaming rural areas with large backpacks until amassing funds for a horse and wagon.The most successful went on to open stores, some of which served communities for over a century.Photographs, news clippings and selected artifacts (check out the Welsh fan, its slate blades barely 1/32 inch thick) accompany the displays.Museum Director Mary Lou Willits concedes that these exhibits tend to be a bit "text-heavy." However, this is text well worth reading. Most of our families came to the United States as immigrants of one sort or another.Understanding the common motivations, the reinforcing roles of ethnic identity and the subsequent tensions between tradition and assimilation help all of us better appreciate our own roles in society.Elsewhere, I inspected an alcove dedicated to the skill of roofing. A roofer's hammer also incorporates the ability to cut, punch holes and claw nails. Each slate shingle is hung with two copper nails. Proper overlapping of each row beginning from the "head lap" is critical.
Thirty-eight companies, with 500 workers, still produce more than $50 million worth of roofing slate annually. A continuous slide presentation shows the wide range of aesthetic effects possible with slate roofing.The Slate Valley Museum certainly deserves a Day Away, both for its treatment of the slate industry and for its creative installation on the immigrant presence in the region. Opening of a new interpretive center next year will further enhance the museum with an introductory overview, plus an in-depth exhibit on the technology of slate working. I'm already looking forward to my return.