Today in History – September 8

The American Federation of Labor granted a charter to the Quarry Workers’ International Union of North America, headquartered in Barre, Vermont, on September 8, 1903. Granite had been quarried in Barre since just after the War of 1812. In the late nineteenth century, new waves of immigrants—mostly from the quarry districts of Europe, particularly Northern Italy and Scotland—came to Barre to quarry, cut, and carve the high-quality gray granite prevalent in the area. They brought a strong tradition of trade unionism to their new country.

The North End Granite Plants, Barre, Vt. Louis L. McAllister, c1917. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Writers from the Federal Writers’ Project interviewed Barre quarrymen in the early 1940s and documented the lives of workers whose union standards outpaced the rest of the country. Many of these interviews are in the collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 which is held by the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Take granite out of Barre, and it would be like taking the Capitol out of Montpelier.

[President of Barre Chamber of Commerce]. [ca. 1940]. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

One of the workers’ chief concerns was stonecutters’ tuberculosis (silicosis), a debilitating and often deadly lung disorder caused by inhaling airborne granite particles produced by the pneumatic stone-working tools. Labor unions organized to insist that employers install dust-removing equipment. One Vermont granite worker explained, the workers were “pretty well resigned to their fate. These stonecutters expect that one day sooner or later they will get [stonecutters’ tuberculosis].” Interviewed in an era when workers’ rights were very narrowly construed, he recounted:

The big worry of some of [the quarrymen] is that they’ll die before they have made good provision for their families. That’s the real reason behind the strikes. They feel that since they’re ‘marked’ men with perhaps less time to provide for their families than the average man, that they are entitled to higher wages. Besides there are certain periods in the year – we call them slack time and dead time – when there is little work to be done. Sometimes only a few men work during these slow weeks; sometimes, none at all.

[Granite Worker]. Mary Tomasi, interviewer; The Granite Worker, publisher, Vermont, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Channeling, a New England Granite Quarry. [1908]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
Barre, Vermont (the Granite City)1891. George E. Norris, Brockton, Mass [1891]. Panoramic Maps. Geography & Map Division.

Each stonecutter’s death was mourned by the community of laborers. Interviewer Mary Tomasi recounts the sadness Giacomo Coletti felt on the loss of his friend and fellow stonecutter Pietro:

Tonight he does not feel the wretched guilt that the news of Pietro’s death first brought him. It was Giacomo’s glowing letters (22 years ago) of excellent wages paid in America that persuaded Pietro to cross the ocean and learn this granite-cutting trade. These last two nights were an excruciating nightmare of thinking that if Pietro had stayed in the old country perhaps he would not now be lying dead from this stone-cutters’ TB. It took Nina and the children to convince him that the Dio’s will called Pietro from this world, and he would have been forced to answer had he been in Italy, Africa, or the very ends of the earth.

[Giacomo Coletti]. Mary Tomasi, interviewer; Montpelier, Vermont, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Source