|Should have called Vermont ‘The Granite State’ - Tuesday, October 14
Today we put on 122 miles, starting at Lake Bomoseen and ending up at Stowe. By now we’ve seen a lot of central Vermont. Our travels today took us back to the Ranger Station at Rochester, back to the great little restaurant where we had brunch on Sunday, and then on to the capital at Montpelier, to the granite country at Barre, and back to Stowe which is famous for it’s white knuckle skiing on boilerplate ice.
We figured it must have more to recommend it than hard snow and it does. It also has hard ice cream! Ben and Jerry’s was founded in the nearby town of Burlington, and it now is located in Stowe. Maybe that’s why so many ski clubs from Jersey and New York have lodges here.
Our main destination in all this driving was a granite quarry in Barre, but the day was so fine and the scenery so grand that we just enjoyed the drive - proving once again that the journey is often more important than the destination. To get to Barre we drove through Montpelier and got to see their impressive granite capital building with it’s gold dome. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in pure opulence. While we were in town we stopped at Montpelier’s AAA office to pick up some maps and information on New York.
From Montpelier it was a short drive to Barre, and from there to the hilltop quarry known locally as Graniteville. Actually the quarry (which is on Graniteville Road) is named the E.L. Smith Quarry, and it is owned and operated by the Rock of Ages Corporation.
Rock of Ages was founded in 1885 and the company name has long been synonymous with headstones and cemetery monuments, and while that remains the bulk of the company’s business they also produce granite for building construction, paper press rollers and granite bases for high tech machinery. They are able to make precision surface plates that are accurate to within 1/25,000,000 of an inch.
We arrived too late for a tour of their manufacturing plant, but in time for the last bus tour of the quarry, which is what we came to see anyway. We bought our tickets and boarded an old yellow school bus, and took off with our driver and guide for the top of the hill. In the distance we could see one of the monster derricks towering over the trees, and the road up was bordered by a man made ridge built out of huge slabs of granite that came out of the quarry but were not good enough to meet the company’s exacting standards.
At the top the bus stopped at an overlook, and we got off and spent the next hour listening to our guide talk about the gaping pit before us. The quarry is now 600 feet deep! Looking at the pictures it doesn’t look that large at first, until you realize that the benches are a good twenty feet high, and that the blue dot you see at the bottom is actually a portable toilet that is taller than a man.
The scale of the excavation, and of what they do here is staggering. Just below the overlook where we were standing was the foundation of the old wooden derrick. It was capable of lifting blocks weighing 50,000 pounds out of the quarry. That sounds like a lot until you realize that the yellow steel derricks are able to lift blocks weighing 250,000 pounds out of the pit. The derricks are operated from a small building near their base, and the operator can not see the block he is lifting. He is guided by hand signals from an observer standing at the edge of the pit, who in turn is guided by someone standing at the bottom of the pit.
Rickety looking stairways are fastened to the wall of the quarry, and descending them must be a truly frightening experience for anyone afraid of heights. Workers today, however, ride up and down in yellow cars hoisted by the derricks and lowered into the pit. Our guide said the noise level in the pit is horrendous and on a hot day the working conditions are exhausting.
The deposit of marble being mined here is known to be 10 miles deep! It was formed by the coming together of continents, making it part of the Appalachian phenomenon we have encountered all the way to Newfoundland and Labrador. The guide had told us that the only color of stone mined here is gray, so I asked him if there are other colors at deeper levels - as there are at the Dorset Marble Quarry for instance?
He answered that they do not know. The depth of the deposit was calculated by geologists using seismic technology, and not by taking core samples. If there are other colors they have not gotten down to them yet. While the marble deposit goes all the way to the top of the hill, the marble being quarried starts well below the surface of the hill. The guide told us the marble at the top is a poor grade that is not of sufficient quality to meet their standards. He said it could be used for landscaping or other uses where high quality is not required, but for the items the company produces they need the high grade stone from deeper in the ground.
We ended our tour by picking up a sample from their sample bin, then we turned west into the setting sun and headed for Stowe. It was dark when we reached the outskirts of Stowe, but we found the Ben and Jerry plant nevertheless. Again, we were late and the last tour was already in progress, but it was only a couple minutes into the first video so the nice man let us join it and didn’t charge us the tour fee.
After the video our tour guide took us into a viewing area where we could watch the operation of the filling equipment. They were using only one of the two conveyors, which are capable of turning our a quarter million pints a day between them. At the moment they were making the flavor called Chubby Hubby which contains chocolate covered pretzels as one of the ingredients.
It was quite interesting to see where all that good stuff comes from, and after that the guide took us to a tasting room and gave us a sample of their chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, which is their second best seller. The number one seller is Cherry Garcia, named for the famous guitarist of the Grateful Dead. Ben and Jerry are no longer involved in the running of the company, having sold it to Unilever Corporation several years ago. Unilever signed a contract to carry on with Ben and Jerry’s green and social policies for ten years, and the employees say they have done well in honoring that commitment. When the ten years run out in 2010 they are hopeful the company will continue because it is successful and has won them a lot of fans over the years.
Ben and Jerry met in a jr. high school class in the ‘70’s and after graduating they paid five dollars to take a course in making ice cream. They opened their first café and ice cream stand in a converted gas station in Burlington, Vermont, and the ice cream was so good it eventually became their only business. It made them rich and famous, but success never went to their heads and for many years they gave generously back to the community.
One of their most successful projects was the establishment of ‘partnershops’ where they would go into partnership with a non-profit organization to open a new ice cream shop. Proceeds from the business helped support the organization, and the shop was used to train young people and provide them with jobs. Ben and Jerry also paid an unnecessarily high premium for their milk products, which all come from a dairy co-op they established. Their generous payments saved many dairy farms from going out of business when the local dairy industry fell on hard time.
We bought a couple pints of ice cream and took them to a nice campground a few miles up the road. The owners said they only have dial-up internet which we cannot use, but when we got to our site we found an unsecured wireless network in range. It only had no bars and the computer said there was no signal, but it connected us anyway and we were able to get online. Ironically it turned out to be faster and more dependable than a lot of places that have strong signals.
Tomorrow we head for Lake Champlain and cross it into New York, but tonight it’s Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Dancing With the Stars on CATV, and updating the journal on a WiFi we’re not supposed to have. Life is good!