Marble and Maples
Oct 13, 2008
|Vermont’s resources are honored in 2 unique museums - Monday, October 13
Yesterday we thought we’d do Ben and Jerry’s today, then cross the border into New York. Instead we spent the day visiting two museums and saving Ben and Jerry’s for tomorrow.
The towns of Procter and Pittsford each have a museum that is unique to Vermont - different than anything we’ve seen, or are likely to see elsewhere in our travels. That means a chance to learn something new, and no day is ever wasted when we learn something new. Today we learned a lot!
We started our day in Proctor where we visited the Vermont Marble Museum. Vermont has large deposits of high grade marble, and has long been a producer and exporter of the stone. Many of our nations most treasured buildings and monuments are constructed of Vermont Marble. We are presently in central Vermont where several of the largest quarries are located.
The quarry at Dorset has acres of mines extended far under the mountain. Miners at Dorset use a ‘room and pillar’ method, similar to the technique used by the Sydney coal miners tunneling beneath the sea in Nova Scotia. As stone is extracted it forms a room. When the room reaches a predetermined size an area is skipped to form a pillar, and another room is started beyond it. The pillars are 30 x 30 feet square, and are left in place to keep the tunnel from collapsing.
At Dorset there are seven layers of marble, each layer having a different color and pattern characteristics. Quarries used to offer tours, but they felt it got too dangerous so the tours were discontinued. Now a quarry will open sometimes for a day or two, but there is usually a charge and it is quite expensive. We learned this at the museum, where the charge is only five dollars per person, and the quarry story is told using many fine black and white photographs.
The Vermont Marble Museum is housed in an old marble plant that closed for business several decades ago. Coming into Proctor you realize something is different about the town as you cross a bridge over the river and see that it has railings of polished marble. Beyond the bridge you come to a fire station built of polished marble, and then several larger buildings all built of marble and looking like they belong in the state or nation’s capital somewhere.
The building housing the museum is also built of marble, but here it looks like they used scraps because the slabs are uneven and are not finished or polished. At the entrance there is an arch made of huge marble blocks weighing a total of 188,521 pounds. Past the arch there is a ‘marble garden’ of tiles, sculpture and architectural fragments, and a pile of scrap where the visitor is invited to take a piece or two for a souvenir.
Inside the museum there is a gift shop and wine tasting room, and the rest of the space is devoted to a number of large rooms that form the galleries. The self guided tour starts off with a 13 minute video that introduces the subject, and then you visit an exquisite marble chapel, a Hall of Presidents, a geological exhibit, and a room devoted to calcium carbonate and it’s history and uses. Calcium carbonate is made from finely ground marble, and it is used in everything from building materials to food products.
Continuing on there are galleries of sculpture, and a resident sculptor whom you can talk to while you watch him work. Alan has worked at the museum for 30 years now and we had a most interesting conversation. He talked of the difficulty of learning to do his work in a public place where he was constantly subject to interruptions and distractions. And then he talked of the struggle he has each winter when the museum closes and he has to re-learn how to work in solitude without the interruptions and distractions. It was one of the most interesting conversations I have had in a long time, and an unusually intimate exchange of thoughts and viewpoints on a subject we all struggle with at some time.
The galleries ended with displays of local marble in all it’s variety of colors and patterns, the museum’s collection of marble samples, many of which are rare and priceless, a bathroom and kitchen where marble is used extensively in the design, and a final gallery containing more sculpture. One of the most interesting displays here was a demonstration of how a small plaster model can be used to create a large stone statue, identical in every dimension to the model but life sized or larger.
From the marble museum in Proctor we drove on to Pittsford to see the New England Maple Museum. The scenic route sounded good until we discovered there were two covered bridges. Covered bridges and RV’s are not a good combination, so we took the commercial route. The museum advertises itself as “The sweetest story ever told!” and it is a ‘journey through Vermont’s maple sugaring industry.’
No product is more universally identified with Vermont than maple sugar and syrup. The flavor of maple has been artificially reproduced and added to dozens of products on the market, but if you’ve ever bought real maple syrup you know how expensive it is. Genuine maple syrup is far more costly than artificially flavored imitations, and a trip through the Maple Museum told us why.
Using murals, photographs, animated ‘workers’, and good old fashioned historical artifacts, the museum tells the story of how maple sugaring was discovered and adopted by the Indians, how it was conducted by early settlers in Vermont, and how it is accomplished today using modern techniques and technology. Many tools and procedures have changed over the years, but one thing that has remained constant is the fact that maple sugaring is a lot of work in a good winter, and it is a monumental struggle in a hard winter.
A video goes to a large sugaring farm and details the process from beginning to end. After six weeks of long, tiring labor the farm produces some 600 gallons of maple syrup for the year. It takes 24,000 gallons of tree sap to produce 600 gallons of syrup as it takes 40 gallons of sap for 1 gallon of syrup. After seeing what it takes to produce it, you can easily see why a half pint of syrup costs the consumer $8.00.
The visit ended with a tasting room, and here we discovered the truth of what a local at the Marble Museum had told us earlier. That is the higher grade syrups are lighter and have less taste than the lower grade and darker syrups. Just as cold pressed olive oil is darker in color and richer in taste than the highly refined oils, so is Grade B syrup darker and much more flavorful than the Grade A or ‘Fancy’ syrups.
There were also mustards and other condiments that were flavored with maple, inducing us to buy a bunch of items we don't get to see every day. Tasting new and exciting flavors is another way of learning something - and this lesson cost us about $49. Cheap at twice the price, and the perfect way to end another memorable day.
We found a good campground nearby, and settled in to plan tomorrow’s raid on Ben and Jerry!