It would be hard to teach Vermont history without encountering Barre granite.
First there were the waves of immigration from places like Scotland, Italy, Spain, and French Canada. Then, there were the generations of workers who died young after contracting the lung disease silicosis from the dust in granite sheds. There were labor strikes and young widows who opened their homes to boarders, and it’s interesting to compare early twentieth-century labor in Barre with working conditions in other industrial pockets of the country. Barre history even encompasses the political tensions between socialists and anarchists and the evolution of union membership over time.
I grew up in Barre and spent my childhood driving past operating quarries and the piles of granite waste called ‘grout’. My aunt says that the grandfather I never knew spent evenings after work picking granite chips out of his eyes. I was embarrassingly old when I realized the correct saying is “to take for granted,” not “to take for granite”!
Many professional historians are drawn to research what they know. The trick, though, is to move beyond that personal attraction, to cast aside the myopic or the anecdotal for context and the rigor of scholarship. This is what separates the professional from the hobbyist. But when the topic is personal, memories form the base.
My neighbor Mr. Bottamini was slightly younger than my own grandfather. His parents had been born in Italy. His dad had been a stone cutter, but like other children of immigrants, Mr. Bottamini had retired from white-collar work. He had spent the first part of his career as a reporter for the Barre Daily Times , where he wrote obituaries for residents who’d come from all over the world, and reported on labor issues like the speech given by labor activist Anne Burlak - better known as the Red Flame - at Barre’s socialist hall during the 1930s. Even after he retired, Mr. Bottamini occasionally wrote a column on Barre history for the newspaper.
So naturally, when it came time to write a 7th grade research project on Vermont history, I picked Barre as my topic. I began my research by stopping at the Bottamini’s house, where Mr. Bottamini entrusted me with his copy of a 1903 book on Barre history. I was thrilled to carry home such an old treasure.
These days, when I can, I like to take my students on field trips to Barre and one of my favorite stops is Hope Cemetery. There I point out well-known monuments to skilled Italian sculptors and activists. We note how the iconography of those granite monuments often documents very brief lives.
My friend Mr. Bottamini’s gravestone is also in Hope Cemetery, and I can’t help but think of him during those trips - and how it was his love of local history that got me started on this path myself, all those years ago.