One of my favorite songs is by James McMurtry titled “I’m Not From here, I Just Live Here,” which is about coming to a town looking for a better way. Those words resonate through my head at times because I am not from here, but I have lived here 13 years now. I can tell I am new because when I ask directions, people direct me past missing landmarks — where something used to be — which turns out not to be so helpful for a newcomer.
Places hold significance for us. Buildings where we shopped or worked become landmarks both in our landscape and in our lives. Buildings like the Jones Brothers Manufacturing plant were significant not only to Barre but to the nation, which is why it has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. I am grateful it is not one of our lost landmarks, as it has given me direction since my arrival.
Barre is an amazing place. It is full of hard-working people who are proud of the work they and their parents have done and of the contributions they have made to this country. Our best national monuments were made in Barre. The jackhammer, pneumatic chisel, and a number of specialized tools were invented here.
The Jones brothers built a straight shed in response to the invention of the new overhead traveling crane that streamlined the manufacturing process. It was one of the first in the country to use this architectural design.
Ordinary people from Barre responded to work demands and invented new systems and tools, and then created incredible tributes and artwork. Ordinary people did extraordinary things here — and still can.
In 1994, the Barre City and Barre Town community came together for several public meetings at the then-reviving Barre Opera House to develop ideas on how to rejuvenate the Barre area economy. Several groups came up with the same idea — utilize our unique local history and create a granite museum and cultural heritage center that would draw tourists to the area. They felt Barre had an important story to tell and important lessons to teach.
After conducting extensive research and feasibility studies, it was determined that a museum could draw enough tourists to make a significant difference in the local economy. The City Council established a task force to make it happen, and eventually recruited a board to establish a not-for-profit museum organization on behalf of the city.
The Jones Brothers Manufacturing plant was chosen to become the Vermont Granite Museum because it is very visible, historic, sizable and conveniently located to the interstate. At the time of its purchase, it was a dilapidated eyesore on 12 acres of property along the Stevens Branch, with a great deal of potential.
In 1997 the land and property were purchased for approximately $213,500. In 2000 a Barre City bond of $1 million allowed the project to take on some momentum. City money leveraged matching grants and donations from a variety of sources, including private funds, in-kind donations from local businesses, public funding, and funds from private foundations.
Those funds went into architectural planning, engineering, and exhibit design, along with the ensuing construction of a new exterior shell, insulation, a new roof, new windows, a new foundation, a sprinkler system, and utilities and equipment in the portion of the building called the Stone Arts School. The money paid for raising the entire building several feet to get it out of the flood plain, as well. Extensive site cleanup and landscaping work was done.
As with any good venture, a lot of money was expended at the onset of the project for the soft costs, planning and stabilization of the building. And as any good developer can attest, it’s difficult at best to continue the momentum without the next round of funding. When that didn’t occur, the museum was forced to refocus on stabilizing its financial condition.
For the last five years our organization’s operating expenses have been fully covered by donations from private individuals and monument businesses, as well as fundraising events such as the annual Granite Festival, and rental income from the Pinsly Railroad Station in Depot Square, which VGM/SAS also owns.
The museum has hosted conferences, offered the space for community events, created some exhibits, opened an “annex” on Millstone Hill, which is a quarry exhibit. The VGM/SAS has given tours and run a variety of stone-related workshops.
The railroad station and property around it were purchased by the Vermont Granite Museum in 2001 with money from a Transportation Enhancement Grant. The VGM pays property taxes to the city on this building and land because it leases the space to commercial businesses. The Depot, which was renovated in 2009 using Enhancement Grant funds and a generous donation from Cabot Creamery, is now assessed at more than $463,300.
This building is a jewel in downtown Barre and also is on the National Register. More importantly for the future of Barre’s downtown, the Depot property also came with almost 100 parking spaces which constitute almost 40 percent of the Merchants Row parking.
Both the Depot and the Jones Brothers buildings have been restored and in turn have restored a part of Barre’s history and pride of place. The Jones Brothers property is now a welcoming sight at Barre’s west gateway, with its restored exterior, parking lot and recreational land that happens to be the single largest land parcel involved in Barre’s proposed Semprebon bike path.
Likewise, the Depot and its associated property have become a critical parcel to any of the downtown revitalization plans now under consideration.
Barre’s industrial and ethnic heritage and its value to central Vermont is still significant. I’m not from here, but I chose to live here because of a combination of the wonderful things I noticed when my husband and I were looking for a place to settle.
Barre was — and is — filled with an unusually high number of artists and craftsmen. Barre had a developing granite museum that signaled to me this was a community of people who were proud of the work they did and they had a desire to share that heritage with others. The stone arts were first identified by Carlo Abate as important in Barre and the VGM/SAS continues to draw on that legacy by offering workshops for stone carvers, artists, preservationists doing stone repair, geologists, and dry stone masons.
My children are from here now. This is where they have grown up. They have enjoyed the gifts of those who dreamed of a renaissance in Barre and then dedicated their time and resources to it.
The City Council of Barre, Mayor Thomas Lauzon, the City Planning Commission and the VGM board of directors are hosting a public forum on Thursday, Oct. 11, from 7 to 9:15 p.m. at the museum to discuss the future of the museum and the community’s interest in its completion. Please join us if you can. Either way, we are collecting comments about the Granite Museum through an online survey that can be found on our website at www.granitemuseum.org.
Whether you are from here or just live here and wish to honor Barre’s granite and ethnic heritage, join us on Oct. 11 and help us chart the future of the Vermont Granite Museum and Stone Arts School.
Patricia L. Meriam is chairwoman of Vermont Granite Museum and Stone Arts School.
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