Availability of Vermont Slate Helps To Keep Local Lakes Region Humming
Published May 27, 2009
Vermont is the only place in the world where it’s possible to quarry commercial quantities of Vermont Unfading Green slate.
That alone seems likely to keep the extraction industry going in western Rutland County’s Slate Belt. Meanwhile, Vermont towns including Fair Haven, Poultney, Pawlet, Castleton and Wells also produce other shades of slate in green as well as mottled green, purple, red and gray for both structural and decorative purposes. Granville, NY also is a slate producer.
What makes slate workable, said state geologist Laurence Becker, is the structure of the minerals that formed when shale – produced from compressed mud – was subjected to heat and pressure during Vermont’s long geological history.
The silicates (the main minerals found in many rocks) that give slate greater stability than shale enable slate to be used on flat surfaces such as roofs, he said.
Camera Slate Products is owned and operated by the Camera family (pronounced kuh-MAIR-uh). David Camera, Sr. said he’s still involved in the company, but two of his four sons, David Camera, Jr. and Shawn Camera, are now managing most of the work.
They have a series of quarries, he said: two in Blissville (between Castleton and Fair Haven), one in Pawlet and three in Wells.
“We have mills at every one of the quarries,” he said, and the business employs between 40 and 50 workers.
Though most of what is produced now ends up on top of buildings, the company began in 1965 by producing flagstones and floor tiles. But, once the quarry began producing good roofing slate, “we never looked back,” he said.
Slate gets shipped to many states, he said, and one of the reasons Camera Slate Products has endured is that it adheres to the highest quality standards when it comes to avoiding breakage in transit.
Slate is fragile, he said, and if a roofing company finds a quarter of the shingles it has received are unusable due to careless shipping, that company will find a different supplier or roof covering.
Camera said he knows of one slate company that allows for 11-percent breakage. His company’s standard is “no more than 2-percent,” he said.
Many homeowners don’t have the money up front for a slate roof, he acknowledged, but if they can manage to afford it, the material should outlast anything else.
“Slate is amazing,” he said. “That’s what we’re selling, the quality . . . especially these times. Everything counts now.”
The firm has been through lean years before, though, and expects to do so again, said Camera, partly because of financial prudence.
“We never borrowed any money,” he said, and profits were always funneled back into the business. “We’re strong. We can take these tough times.”
Taran Brothers is another veteran of Vermont’s Slate Belt. Joseph Taran said the family oversees quarries in North Poultney, South Poultney and Wells, as well as North Granville, NY, from its headquarters on York Street Extension in Poultney.
Granville is just across the Vermont-New York State line, and is so integral to the slate tradition that the Slate Valley Museum, which mostly features slate’s history in Vermont, is located there. Red slate is only produced in New York, Taran said.
Slate varies from quarry to quarry, Taran observed, so the firm produces a variety of products including flagstones, floor tiles, structural pieces and roof tiles. He said the flagstone is “very durable,” especially the higher of the two grades it markets.
Taran Brothers produces slate in three shades of green, a mottled green with purple patches, purple and gray.
The family business dates back to the 1920s, said Taran, who is co-owner and co-manager with his brother, Stephen Taran, and his sister, Barbara Taran Taylor.
They can work alongside as many as 15 to 20 employees, he said. “Sometimes there’s only five, depending on what day it is,” he said, adding that flexibility has helped them survive through recessionary times.
John Hill, the proprietor of Green Stone Products, said its mainstay is a quarry in Poultney that provides jobs for about 50 people. In all, Green Stone Products has about 65 employees, he said, with others handling quarrying and milling in West Pawlet and Wells.
“Green (slate) is what Vermont is known for,” Hill said, in reference to the company’s name. Pennsylvania is known for its black slate, he said, which is said to be less durable than green slate.
Hill said green roofing slates “are guaranteed for 100 years, and will last probably 110 to 120 years.” Slate roofing “is believed to be high-end,” but colleges like Middlebury and the University of Vermont use it because it is cost efficient in the long run, he said.
“Vermont is amazing,” Hill said: It has a Slate Valley, with the Marble Valley 15 miles away; go another 15 miles and there’s the granite backbone of the Green Mountains.
Chuck Smid, owner and manager of New England Slate Products, is among the industry’s veterans. When he built his own house in Sudbury in 1974, he had an opportunity to take the slate roof off a barn that was going to be taken down.
With that much slate on hand, he had some to sell. Soon, he was dealing in recycled slate. As the business grew, he not only migrated to the slate belt, but began importing slate that wasn’t available in the U.S.
Many of the area’s first slate quarry workers came from Wales in the United Kingdom, Smid noted. A UK quarry in Penrhyn that dates back to the 13th century is still producing Penrhyn Purple slate, which Smid distributes.
One of Smid’s brochures recounts how the St. Asaph Cathedral in Wales needed to replace its roofing timbers after 250 years. To do so, the church had its Penrhyn Purple slates taken off so new timbers could be installed; the old slate then was placed atop the timbers.
One reason Smid carries that slate is because the stone is “highly resistant to acids, alkalis and other chemicals,” and retains its color despite ultraviolet rays in sunlight, according to a company brochure. That’s an important characteristic at a time when acid rain is making many old marble cemetery headstones illegible.
Smid likes to tell of a ship carrying Penrhyn slate which sank in an 1865 hurricane about 100 miles southeast of Savannah, GA. When salvagers found the shipwreck in 2003, they recovered $75 million in mint-condition gold coins – as well as slate that had retained its quality.
In his search for top-quality slate products, Smid has also made arrangements to sell North Country Unfading Black. That slate is only produced in one North American quarry in Quebec, now that a black slate quarry in Monson, ME is no longer operating.
The firm also has access to the more expensive Unfading Red slate. Smid’s brochure describes it as “one of the most durable slates known,” hard to extract and only available in Washington County, NY.
However, most of the slate that comes through the New England Slate Company is from Vermont. That includes Semi-Weathering Gray/Green; Vermont Grey; Variegated Purple; Royal Purple; Unfading Mottled Purple; Unfading Green; Unfading Grey; Semi-Weathering Grey/Black; and Mottled Grey/Black.
Smid’s company also carries tools for repairing slate: for instance, it has a nail puller that can reach up under slate tiles without lifting and breaking them. It also has a traditional slate hammer, which has a sharp point rather than a claw, for quickly putting holes in replacement slates.
It also sells the hardware from which slates hang, rather than being nailed to a roof. This hardware is made of copper or stainless steel, because iron would rust away long before the slate deteriorated, Smid said.