It seems as if Brandon’s quarrying history has been reborn with the Route 7 road work just south of town. Unlike in the 1800s, when Brandon enjoyed its heyday as a marble quarry center, the work is now being conducted with enormous excavators and front-end bucketloaders, the kind my young boys love to watch in videos. The dump trucks lined up and waiting to be loaded are size of those we see at Omya’s open house each year. Gravel has been spread on each side of the road to bear the weight of this enormous equipment and to give the giant rock moving machines room to maneuver as they carve out the hillside in order to straighten and widen Route 7’s tortured twisting route out of Brandon.
I have always been drawn to Brandon’s marble history. The hitching posts that are still located in front of the older homes, even those way out in the country, are mute testament to its importance, as are the places where old marble slab walkways remain intact. A few houses are still graced with front stairs or retaining walls for raised lawns, and others are lined with marble edging or curbs.
But I am most intrigued by the marble ghosts that haunt the town. On Route 7 south of Woods Market Garden and before the river, if you look up to the left you can see an old hitching post still standing in the woods where there must have once been a house. Just north of town, next to a side-by-side two-family home, stands the crumbling front wall and steps leading to a house that is no longer there. And down by the tracks on the corner of Union and Church Streets, a vacant lot is edged with a marble curb where a house once stood.
It makes for exciting backyard archaeology. Once, while digging up an azalea bush for transplanting to a sunnier spot in my yard, I found its root ball had encased a large chunk of marble that somehow had ended up under ground a few feet from the front of the house. I assume that these and other large chunks of broken marble castoffs I have unearthed while gardening had once been hauled to the site when the original house was moved there in the 1850s to create an ad hoc foundation. My most exciting discovery to date, however, was when we ripped up our asphalt front walk and uncovered the original marble stepping off stone at the curb, now a good two inches below the level of the lawn.
I put all of my recovered marble in what we call our “stone garden,” modeled after the one we like to visit at the old Vermont Marble Company’s factory building in Proctor. I am not above raiding the slag pile that remains undisturbed many years after the closing of the factory for bench pieces and supports when we visit. But mostly I like to reuse stone I have found on my own property, knowing that it probably came from a Brandon quarry or cutting mill. I make cairns among the flower beds and marble pathways through our overgrown thicket of a garden. Each of my children also has their own special marble bench. One day I hope to collect enough of my own marble to raise our rotting carriage barn sills enough to keep it standing for another 150 years.
Brandon began cutting marble before it became a quarrying town in its own right. The first marble mill was built over the Neshobe River at the site of the current Town Offices, and it sawed Pittsford marble transported by boat up Otter Creek and the Neshobe River beginning in 1811. The first quarry on record was opened on a farm west of the village in 1840, and by 1843 a Mr. E. D. Seldon owned both the quarry and the old stone mill above the village, creating a vertical monopoly that allowed him to exploit his investments extensively. Six-horse teams were required to haul the rough-cut blocks from the quarry on the swampy outskirts of town to the mill. It must have been quite a sight, as well as a traffic stopper, when one of the teams came laboring up to the mill. A sample of the pure white statuary marble can be seen in the Brandon Congregational Church’s pulpit, which Mr. Seldon donated. Other marble companies followed suit, quarrying and milling their own product and hauling by horse-team to the rail station for transport.
Most Brandon quarries were bought up and fell into disuse long before they were quarried out. Either the owners died and no one was willing to invest in newer technology to make them profitable, or a fire destroyed the nearby mills necessary to make the finish work financially viable, or a competing company bought them and let them sit idle to keep prices high. Such was the case with the Vermont Marble Company of Proctor, which by the 1870’s owned several of the most prominent of Brandon’s quarries.
My favorite quarries are the ones just past the intersection between High Street and Franklin Street (Route 7) behind the American Legion—ironically, just north of where the current quarrying is taking place. Unlike most of Brandon’s quarries, which lie far afield from major roads, these two quarries were the last to be actively worked in Brandon, until they finally closed in 1937. It is amazing to look at their relatively small size and consider the sheer effort of human labor, as well as that of the horses, to extract and transport the marble to be finished.
For more than 100 years, Brandonites performed the backbreaking labor of working the quarries. In the mid-1860s, a man received a dollar and a quarter for an 11-hour day. Meanwhile, quarry owners poured their profits into both expanding their businesses and their houses. #45 Park Street, originally built in the 1830s in the Greek Revival style so prevalent at that time, was later owned by local quarry magnate David Griffith in the 1880’s. He added on features like an Italianate porch. Another house on Franklin Street features a beautiful marble fountain that was installed some time after the original house was built in the adjoining lot. Now, when I sit in traffic waiting for the road crews to allow my lane of traffic through, it take me back to the last of Brandon’s gritty, glory days as a marble town — to the beauty and wealth that it added, to the workingmen’s lives it sustained, and to the fossil clues of the town’s architectural and industrial past to be admired and wondered about.
Rebecca Reimers is a native of the New York City suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and a refugee of Westchester, N.Y. She has been living in Vermont for more than 13 years, in New Haven, Burlington, Middlebury and now in Brandon. She is a retired high school social studies teacher raising her three young sons with her husband, a native of the Boston area. Her thoughts on her community, and the surrounding towns of Leicester, Goshen and Forestdale, appear in "View from the Borderland," an online feature at the Addison Independent Web site.