The Fletcher Granite Company is pictured in early 20th-century Hardwick. More than a century later, the Fletcher quarry still supplies most of the landscape granite for Swenson Granite Company’s plant in Barre. It’s the last granite operation in the Woodbury-Hardwick area.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles on Ernest Ryland Fletcher and his influence on the industry. Paul Wood’s column appears monthly on these pages.
By PAUL WOOD
In 1902, Ernest Ryland Fletcher purchased the assets in Woodbury of the Fletcher Granite Co., probably at a very attractive price since it had been on the market for 2½ years. The assets consisted of 163 quarry acres, boarding house, two cutting plants, dwelling houses, one-third interest in the Hardwick & Woodbury Railroad, water power privilege, and pumping plant. One year after the purchase (April 1903), Fletcher made the decision to move his cutting operation from Woodbury to Hardwick.
It is likely that this decision was based on the availability of a larger labor force, and more worker housing. The housing shortage in Woodbury was described in a Woodbury Herald article: “The Fletcher Granite Co. will put 40 men at work here within two weeks and not a house ready for occupancy. … The work now in progress includes the construction of the Fletcher Co’s boarding house, which will accommodate 50 men when completed. But the quarrymen will fill that. The cutters must be provided for in some other way.”
Hardwick also had electric power, freight and passenger train service as well as many stores, professional services, town water and sewer, a fire company and fire hydrants, paved streets with streetlights and sidewalks, and telephone service. In the decade from 1890 to 1900, Hardwick had grown in population by 60 percent (1,547 to 2,466) whereas Woodbury had only grown by 6 percent (810 to 862). In 1905, Hardwick had 96 commercial listings in Walton’s Vermont Register, including two electric plants, two telephone companies, a dentist, a bank, an undertaker, three barbers, two jewelry stores, two music teachers, a library, and four boarding houses. At this same time, Woodbury had only nine commercial listings.
In April 1903, Fletcher bought land in Hardwick and next year built a cutting plant — a 40-foot by 240-foot straight shed and 150-foot wide horseshoe shed. By 1908-10, Fletcher’s Hardwick cutting plant had two boom derricks, a locomotive crane, a 40-horsepower steam engine, three polishers, and two surfacing machines. By 1910, FGC had (including the quarry) 54 skilled and 43 unskilled workers. By comparison, in 1910, Woodbury Granite Co. was more than six times the size of FGC with 430 skilled and 217 unskilled workers and, by 1914, WGC had a total of 1400 workers.
A 1905 Sanborn fire insurance map shows that FGC’s Hardwick cutting plant also had a 20-foot by 20-foot office building and a 20-foot by 30-foot blacksmith shop with five or six forges. Steam power was provided by boilers housed in small sheds attached to the main sheds. The plant had a railroad spur network with a three-way switch and three spur endings. One spur passed through the straight shed and another ran between the straight shed and the horseshoe shed. The stone yard formed by this spur and the front of the horseshoe shed was serviced by a boom derrick.
The February 1908 Granite Cutter’s Journal reports: “Rumor has it, that E.R. Fletcher … is to branch out into the building line on a larger scale.” Fletcher’s quarry yielded excellent building granite and no doubt Fletcher was looking with envy at WGC’s large building contracts. The main uses of Fletcher granite were for damp ground-level locations including: gravestone die bases, monument bottom bases, statue pedestals, and building approaches, steps, base courses, and trim. Less expensive materials such as limestone, brick, and terra cotta were typically used as building cladding instead of granite.
Some major Fletcher contracts included First National Bank of Englewood (Chicago IL, 1906), Lincoln Saving Bank (Louisville KY, 1907), Howe Memorial (Spencer MA, 1910), Old National Bank Building (Spokane WA, 1911), Plymouth Office Building (Minneapolis MN, 1911), Omaha Nebraska Court House (1912), Schenectady (NY) County Court House (1913), and Homewood Cemetery Entrance (Allegheny, PA). With the exception of the Howe Memorial, the Homewood Cemetery Entrance, and the First National Bank of Englewood, the large four to 16-floor buildings appear to have been clad with limestone or brick so the Fletcher granite would have been used primarily for approaches, steps, base courses, and trim.
A September 1908 issue of the Hardwick Gazette reports that “Mr. Fletcher says he intends to give up his cutting business and devote his time entirely to the full development of his quarrying interests.” Apparently as a part of his decision to focus on quarrying operations and possibly as a result of a recent illness, Fletcher sold his horseshoe shed in 1911 to Ashley Smith, who had previously operated a small cutting shed in Woodbury. Vermont & Chicago Granite Co. occupied the shed after Ashley Smith and when he ceased operation in 1917, Nunn & Fordyce took possession. Fletcher sold the straight shed, blacksmith shop and office building to Alex Taylor in 1924. The horseshoe shed collapsed in the late 1920s and the straight shed burned in April 1931.
Harold Nunn (son of Byron Nunn, co-owner of Nunn & Fordyce) recalled the straight shed circa 1930 which probably still retained much of the pre-1924 Fletcher equipment. There was an air compressor on the left side of the building and a steam boiler in the center for heating — 1½-inch diameter heating pipes ringed the shed. There were several small boom derricks inside with hand-operated winches. There was also a narrow-gauge track inside the shed with small handcars used to move stone between workstations and to carry waste granite outside. In the center of the shed were the stonecutters. Polishing machines were on the right side. A surfacing machine was located outside the main shed in a structure that was open on three sides.
Fletcher continued to own and was taxed on his property in Woodbury after he moved his cutting operations to Hardwick in 1904. (The quarry property was sold by Fletcher’s widow to John B. Hall in 1938.) He leased the cutting sheds to John Hannigan from 1906 to 1935 — the longest-lived granite cutting operation in Woodbury. It is likely that Fletcher used a part of the Woodbury shed for cutting some of his own granite after he sold his Hardwick sheds, since his 1935 obituary mentions that “he returned to Hardwick ten years ago and continued in the granite quarrying and manufacturing business.”
Fletcher ran an ad in the January 1906 Granite Cutter’s Journal that reads, in part, “There are no quarries in this country with better natural resources for producing a Light Gray Granite and there is no cleaner, more even-grained stone being sold for less money. I want some of your business this year and can furnish you anything you want in light or medium gray granite.”
The August 13, 1908, issue of the Hardwick Gazette ran an article from the Granite, Marble and Bronze magazine that reads, in part: “Two 20-ton power derricks were in operation, sending out over 10,000 cubic feet of clean gray granite each month. On the ground, ready to be raised, was the mast, boom, and all necessary machinery for a derrick with a working capacity of forty tons. … For 15 years Mr. Fletcher has made a study of the formation and lay of the sheets on this mountain. Following the knowledge gained from study, personal observations, and the experience of other quarry owners all over the country, he has developed an ideal granite quarry … a quarry that will produce anything in size, from a shaft or base to the limit of transportation to a small marker.”
The rapid rate of development of the WGC gray quarry compared to the Fletcher quarry is apparent from T. Nelson Dale’s descriptions in “The Granites of Vermont.” (1909). The Fletcher Quarry measured 300 feet by 300 feet by 20 to 40 feet deep with two derricks and one rock drill. Compare to the WGC gray quarry that measured 500 feet by 400 feet by 50 feet deep with eight derricks, three Blondins, five rock drills, and 24 plug drills.
Ernest Fletcher was married three times, his first two wives having predeceased him. Carlotta Smead was Fletcher’s first wife and Ethel and Ernest R. were the issue of this marriage. Carlotta died in 1903 and the 1910 census lists Fletcher living with his 18-year old daughter and 12-year old son. Fletcher married Blanch Hall later in 1910 but apparently no issue resulted from this union. Blanch died in 1919 and the 1920 census shows Fletcher now living in Woodbury with a boarder, Kate Celley, a stenographer in a granite manufacturer’s (probably FGC) office. Her husband, John Celley, had been superintendent at Fletcher’s quarry and was killed in 1913 by a derrick pin. Fletcher married Kate Celley in 1921. In 1926, Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher moved (from Woodbury) to a new home in Hardwick.
In August 1910, Fletcher became seriously ill with typhoid fever. He was too sick to be consulted on business matters and work at his plant ground practically to a standstill. A few of Fletcher’s workers left town but most found employment in other Hardwick sheds. Not surprisingly, Fletcher was a hands-on owner who didn’t delegate — there was apparently no capable second-in-command who could take over in his absence. His doctors reported that “there is about an even chance for and against his recovery”. He did recover and, after a six month’s business suspension due both to Fletcher’s illness and a labor strike, Fletcher started work again at his plant with two gangs of cutters.
Although in the early years Fletcher ran a union shop, he was secretary and a founding member of the Granite Manufacturers Association of Hardwick, which was established in 1905 as a counterbalance to the increasing strength of the workers’ union. The Hardwick branch of Granite Cutters International Association was established in 1891. Later, in 1907, a Central Labor Union was organized that included granite cutters, tool sharpeners, lumpers, drillers, carpenters, and painters of Hardwick and the quarry workers of Woodbury.
His membership in the Granite Manufacturers Association notwithstanding, Fletcher was listed in the Granite Cutter’s Journal as a union shop from 1904 to 1913. William Traynor, the Granite Cutter’s Journal corresponding secretary from Hardwick, described Fletcher as “just and generous in his dealing with us, a fair-minded, generous employer, and an all-round good fellow.”
Apparently FGC became an open shop sometime after 1913 since the company is no longer listed in the Granite Cutter’s Journal. By November 1920, the Hardwick Gazette informs us that Fletcher was using non-union help at his quarry and that local union stonecutters were refusing to finish it. However, in a Gazette advertisement, Fletcher claimed he shipped more stone in October 1920 then he did in October 1919. As of June 1921, the GCIA members in Hardwick were still boycotting granite from Fletcher’s quarry.
Fletcher claimed that for the past two years, granite from his quarry had been shipped all over the eastern United States and cut by (non-Hardwick) GCIA members with no complaint. He observed that quarries elsewhere were non-union and paid far less than Hardwick ($.40 vs. $.60 to $.77 per hour) but were not boycotted by the cutters of the GCIA. He felt that this unequal treatment was unfair. In a Hardwick Gazette advertisement, Fletcher quoted Vice President Coolidge: “Any class or organization undertaking to obtain for itself privileges not open to any other class or organization, is hostile to American institutions and a menace to American liberty.” Further, Fletcher pointed out that St. Cloud, with no quarry union and less than half the cutting sheds unionized, had jumped from 12th place to 2nd place in U.S. granite production in 10 years.
Fletcher was no stranger to conflict and litigation. In 1910, prior to his troubles with the union, he entered into a dispute with WGC, claiming that they dumped grout on his land. (Their quarry lands abutted.) This was not a small matter since, if Fletcher wanted to quarry where the grout was dumped, its removal would be an expensive proposition. Fletcher was trying to recover $4,162.50 plus costs. In July 1910, after a two-week trial, a jury decided in his favor and the case was then appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court. Court records show that the case was never heard by the Supreme Court. So either the appeal was abandoned or the court refused to hear the case.
In 1924, Fletcher had a tax dispute with the town of Hardwick. He had claimed that Hardwick promised to reduce his assessment when he removed some machinery from his shed. They did not, so he withheld $200 from his tax payment. For this $200 tax debt, the town of Hardwick attached Fletcher’s properties in both Hardwick and Woodbury. He felt that Hardwick was trying to injure his credit. On appeal, the state tax commissioner reduced the assessment by $2,000. Again, Fletcher took out ads in the Hardwick Gazette to present his case to the public.
Fletcher was a passionate baseball fan and FGC had one of the best teams in the area. Games against WGC were always heated battles and well attended. In 1899, 19 of Fletcher’s workers were listed as playing baseball. From Fletcher’s Hardwick Gazette obituary: “He was an ardent baseball fan and true sportsman, and back in the years when business was at its best, conducted one of the best baseball teams in this section of the state, and the great rivalry between Hardwick and Woodbury teams at that time is still a matter of most vivid memory.”
On June 13, 1935, Ernest Ryland Fletcher committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a revolver in his office suite in the Jordan Block. Poor health caused by a serious fall on an icy driveway, current business conditions, and financial problems probably led to this act. (For example, to cover some of his debts, Fletcher had — just six months before — conveyed all nine houses he owned in Woodbury to the Hardwick Trust Co.) This fall the author, with some difficulty, located Fletcher’s monument in Hardwick’s Main St. Cemetery. Expecting a fine large monument commensurate with Fletcher’s important role in the granite industry, the author overlooked several times Fletcher’s small slant-face marker on a single-grave lot. It is sad that an important granite pioneer with a career spanning a half century is memorialized with such a modest monument.
It is instructive to compare Ernest Fletcher and George Bickford, manager of WGC. George Bickford was the son of a highly respected minister. He attended excellent schools, Montpelier Seminary and Wesleyan University. Bickford was a cultured and articulate man who had excelled in debate and sports during his school years. He married the daughter of a wealthy and business-savvy man who later bankrolled the business Bickford managed.
Bickford surrounded himself with capable managers on whom he depended to run the business while he was on the road selling to architects, contractors, and financiers. A combination of reliable financial backing, excellent management and delegation skills, and an ability to sell by conveying the impression of quality and dependability, allowed Bickford to be extraordinarily successful in landing and executing large contracts.
Fletcher, the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in very modest circumstances on a farm. He had only a common school education but was ambitious, having started his own business at age 19. To bankroll his business ventures he had to convince local (St. Albans) investors. He was feisty, honest and hardworking. The school of hard knocks taught him to watch out for his own interests and to defend himself in court if necessary. Fletcher was a hands-on manager, apparently not delegating management responsibilities — his business ground to a halt when he was ill.
Fletcher was a granite pioneer, having been the first in Hardwick and Woodbury to have a vision of large-scale production of dimension granite for buildings. It is hard to resist speculating on the outcome if Fletcher had had more supportive financial backers. Woodbury would have retained a successful and growing granite business, including both quarrying and cutting. As a result, Woodbury would probably have grown in population and attracted supporting businesses. The WGC would have had a serious competitor in the building granite market that had access to unlimited amounts of granite very similar to their own.
The H&W RR was a single-industry railroad. As quarrying declined, there was not enough non-granite freight business to make up the difference. At the end, there were only three employees: Wallace Bailey, manager; Charles Hubbard, engineer; and Carroll Hines, fireman. The road was abandoned in October 1934, the year before Fletcher’s death. Shay locomotives Nos. 2 & 3 and 40 flat cars were scrapped, with the scrap proceeds going to help pay down H&W RR’s debt to the St. J & LC RR. The H&W RR rails were pulled up and scrapped in August 1940. So, any future quarried granite would have to be trucked out. The Fletcher Quarry was closed for most of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
The Fletcher Quarry was purchased and reopened by the Swenson Granite Co. (the owner of Rock of Ages) in 1973 and initially supplied small amounts of granite to the federal government for soldiers’ markers. In 1983, Swenson won a contract for a new wing of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building requiring 160,000 cubic feet of granite — one of the largest construction granite orders in recent history.
Pennsylvania state officials wanted the new wing to match the original main building that was clad with WGC granite from their gray quarry on Robeson Mountain. The stone from the abutting Fletcher Quarry is almost an exact match. To supply this quantity of granite, the quarry was more fully developed and quarried blocks were hauled out by flatbed trucks on roads that followed the original H&W RR roadbed.
The Fletcher quarry is now Vermont’s highest producing quarry — 30 tons of granite is trucked out every two hours during the workday. Over several years, former quarry foreman Typer Wilson converted the quarry to a drive-in configuration in which large front-end loaders drive directly to the active quarry face and haul out granite blocks weighing from 40,000 to 60,000 pounds each.
The Fletcher Quarry currently supplies most of the landscape granite for Swenson Granite Company’s plant in Barre for products including curbing, steps, terrace paving stones, posts, garden benches, flush markers, fountains, and bird baths. Although Fletcher’s cemetery monument was disappointing, perhaps the true monument to Ernest Ryland Fletcher is his quarry that continues to supply the market with uniform defect-free gray granite — the last granite operation in the Woodbury-Hardwick area.
Paul Wood writes on behalf of the Vermont Granite Museum in Barre.
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