BY STEVEN JUPITER
PROCTOR—The heart of Proctor is made of marble, in both a literal and a figurative sense: Literally, the center of the town is physically dominated by the stone—a graceful marble bridge crosses Otter Creek, and the Vermont Marble Museum is immediately adjacent; figuratively, Proctor owes its very existence to the stuff, as the town was created in the 1880s specifically for the operations of the behemoth Vermont Marble Company, whose first president was Redfield Proctor.
Almost everything one sees in the village today was built by “the company” either to produce marble or to cater to the workers. Proctor was a quintessential “company town” until the Company effectively went out of business in the 1970s, when it was sold to OMYA.
The Vermont Marble Museum occupies one of the company’s old buildings in downtown Proctor. Though the Museum has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s planning a “soft re-opening” in October. To reconnect with the community, it sponsored a showing and discussion of two short vintage films about the Company at the Union Church in Proctor this past Saturday evening. The films were Mountains of Marble (1937) and Marble Today and Tomorrow (1958).
The program attracted an audience of roughly 40 people and began with an introduction by historian Kevin Thornton of the Marble Museum, who explained that the films had been recently rediscovered in a private collection and digitized with assistance from Fred Pond of the Vermont Historical Society (in attendance) and a grant from the John M. Bissell Foundation. Barbara Lacy of the Union Church was also present to welcome the audience.
The two films differed in some obvious respects—the 1937 film was in black and white while the 1958 film was in color, for example—but both shared an extreme reverence for marble as a material and narrators who sounded vaguely like Cary Grant.
It was possible to enjoy the films simply as artifacts of their eras. Mountains of Marble even had a brief scene with a woman doffing her satin dressing gown in a marble-clad bathroom. The narrator admonished the audience to “look at the marble” while an unexpected glimpse of nudity caused the room to erupt in laughter.
The opening of Marble Today and Tomorrow featured slabs of marble swirling about in pinkish light—very much a kitschy mid-century aesthetic. The work had the retro vibe of a school filmstrip trying hard to make a dry subject seem cool, almost to the point of a Simpson’s parody. There were many images of men’s hands caressing the smooth contours of various pieces of marble.
But both films followed the same basic outline. They each offered an account of how marble came into existence as the pressurized remains of sea creatures. Vermont is rich in marble because it used to be covered by a prehistoric ocean, of which Lake Champlain is all that’s left.
Each film explained how the stone is located, extracted, processed, and shipped. They each showed several examples of Vermont marblecraft in New York City (e.g., Rockefeller Center, United Nations) and Washington, D.C. (e.g., Supreme Court, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).
Both films made clear that people at every level of the company made marble their lives: Geologists, miners, cutters, polishers, and carvers. It’s notable, though, that neither film featured any interviews with executives, since throughout its history the company was led by men—all Republican—who seemed to pass the governorship of Vermont from one to the next like a corporate perk. It’s impossible to overstate the company’s influence on Vermont politics in the 19thand 20th centuries. Vermont Marble Company ran Vermont for a long time.
When the films were over, Mr. Thornton took the floor again and solicited questions and stories from the audience. There were questions about quarry-worker compensation ($0.42/hr.in the 1930s), injuries (one-to-two fatalities per year, according to available records), and current reserves of marble in Vermont (only Danby still produces in quantity).
It was a mostly older crowd; many had come because they had family connections to the company. One gentleman recalled that his father had been a scab at the Company during a strike and had been run off the road by angry union workers. He’d had to pull a pistol to defend himself. Mr. Thornton added that five men from Center Rutland had gone to prison for beating up scabs.
Vermont today is hardly considered a hotbed of ethnic diversity, but the marble industry in the 19th and 20th centuries attracted workers from Ireland, Canada, Sweden, Italy, and Poland, among other countries. “Ethnicity was hugely important,” said Thornton. “The conflicts among the different ethnic groups made union organizing really difficult. It was hard to get them to see themselves as workers first and whatever their ethnicity was second.”
As tight-fisted as the Company could be with wages, it built schools, a library, a hospital, and houses (not all of which were heated or fitted with toilets, however). “The fact that the Company provided so much in Proctor created a very different feeling than up in Barre, where there were several different marble companies, and none did much for their workers,” said Thornton. “It’s probably why there are still so many people in Proctor who remember the company affectionately.”
It was clear that many in the audience appreciated the opportunity to share their families’ experiences in the company’s heyday and their memories of growing up in Proctor as the company was winding down. And so, the films will be shown again, according to Thornton, though no specific plans have been made. He’s currently working on a documentary film about the Marble Strike of 1935 and would love to hear from anyone with stories or memories of a parent or grandparent who worked for the Company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And the next time you drive through Proctor, or any Vermont town that ever had a quarry, notice the preponderance of marble. It’s everywhere in Vermont. For nearly 100 years, it was the state’s bread and butter. You can’t understand the history of Vermont without an understanding of the role of marble and the Vermont Marble Company of Proctor.