In many ways Barre is a typical Vermont industrial city, small in size (population 8,789) and struggling to reconcile its industrial heritage with its need to reinvent itself with a twenty-first-century economy. The “Granite City” was the historical center of what was once the largest granite industry in the United States, and this gives Barre its distinctive character and a number of definite Vermont landmarks.
The city is located in the valley of the Stevens Branch, which flows northwest to the Winooski River. Although both an “upper village” (South Barre) and a “lower village” developed around mill sites on the Stevens Branch, in the early nineteenth century the lower village initially lagged behind. Then in 1805 Joshua Thwing purchased an old flour mill in the lower village and began a machine shop and a foundry. After its expansion in 1833, the foundry began using one hundred tons of iron a year and employing 30 workers. By 1850 “Thwingsville” swelled to more than 500 residents scattered along the Stevens Branch for a mile between the Thwing mill and a village green established by the Congregational and Baptist churches. Bypassed by the Vermont Central Railway in 1849, the Thwing works did not prosper and the village lost population. Things changed in 1875, however, when a rail spur from Montpelier was constructed, and for the first time Barre granite could be shipped in quantity. New quarries opened and the population of the village jumped from 2,000 to nearly 9,000 between 1880 and 1900. More than one-third of Barre's residents were immigrants from the quarrying regions of Scotland and Italy. In 1883, the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad built its own spur to the granite sheds; in 1890, the Barre Railroad Company's “Sky Route” to the quarries in East Barre was opened; and in 1893, the East Barre Railroad also began to feed the sheds lining the banks of the Stevens Branch. The following year, Barre incorporated as a city, the fourth largest in Vermont.
The building boom that accompanied the economic one created the Barre City of today. New churches and a library filled out two sides of the old village green and brick and granite commercial blocks lined Main Street, with streetcars running its length and to Montpelier beginning in 1897. The neighborhood public schools, built between 1890 and 1920, are among the finest in the state. Barre's cultural life was served by the City Hall and Opera House (WA41), and the Socialist Labor Party Hall (WA40) commemorates a time when the city voted socialist and was also a center of international anarchism.
While World War I and the outlawing of socialist parties dampened the spirit of what was then Vermont's third-largest city, demand for granite remained reasonably strong for both building and funeral work. A strike in 1922 initiated French Canadian immigration to the area. But the onset of the Great Depression, a general strike in 1933, and World War II caused granite sales to diminish. Still, after the war, funeral demand revived sufficiently to sustain the industry. Downtown Barre continued as the retail center for Washington County and for neighboring rural Orange County, and many merchants covered their storefront granite columns with facade modernizations. But in the 1960s suburban tastes accelerated and many city residents moved to new houses in subdivisions springing up on the former farm pastures of surrounding Barre Town. Since the 1990s, retail development at the Berlin I-89 interchange has competed with downtown retail.
Today, the Rock of Ages quarry (with a visitors' center in Graniteville) and independent memorial businesses still thrive, and the heritage of the industry is celebrated in the Vermont Granite Museum, housed in a restored granite shed at 7 Jones Brothers Way. From the masterpieces of funereal art in Hope Cemetery (VT 14 at Merchant Street) to the sculpture and turned granite columns on buildings downtown and the neighborhoods of vernacular houses built for the Yankee, Scottish, Italian, and French Canadian immigrants, Barre remains very much the Granite City, with an industrial and labor heritage unlike any other in Vermont.
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