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American Slate - The Story 3

American Slate - The Story

Chapter 3, By Tim Underhill

Logistics of the New Industry

One phone call, with a credit card number, can nowadays send into motion what would have been unthinkable in the early eighteenth century.

A quarrier in LaBana might call down to production, pallets and labels made up, fifty eight squares of excellent unfading black would be loaded into a container, trucked to a port, shipped to Baltimore, trans-docked and hauled to Vermont.

What an amazing event!

In 1835, when quarries were first opening up in VT, NY, VA, AL, GA, PA, our forefathers were standing by with picks, shovels, regular hammers, bf hammers, splitting chisels, star chisels......not a sophisticated tool-box. In fact, when you think about it, they were either dumb as rocks themselves, or incredibly motivated to even begin digging. Who knows with the Welsh, but let's assume they were highly motivated.

They dug with the enthusiasm of the free, they dug cheerfully, picking and hacking at the overburden. Tons of dirt and rock were carted away, searching for the slate bed. Finally, it was found and another realm of back-breaking tasks opened up.

I would suggest, historically speaking, that at this point the Welsh entrepreneurs stopped. For all the thrill of escaping the hardships of their homeland, here they were, once again, at the bottom of a slate pit, doing all the work. Iolo Prothero (or someone with as implausible a name) paused in mid pick-stoke and had a brilliant idea. The Irish.

The Welsh promptly crawled out of the pit and whistled down a few Irish immigrants (the latest arrivals). The Irish hesitated, but knew they had to eat. Before long, the Welsh were using their shovels to lean on, while gesturing with a leek, or whatever came to hand, as to where the Irish should dig. The Irish were great diggers.

The problem, however, with having two oppressed races on the same job-site, in the same rooming house, bar or quarry pit, is that they generally fight. They can deal with an oppressor, but left to themselves become autopressors and subsequently quite dysfunctional.

After a while in the quarry pit, it dawned on the Irish that they had survived English brutality, ethnic cleansing, starvation, and a wretched voyage in a leaky tub, but that now, with their proverbial luck, they were working for bloody damn Welshmen!

In the pit, Seamus Hickey paused in mid pick-stoke and had a brilliant idea. The Italians. The Irish promptly crawled out of the pit and whistled down a few Italian immigrants (the latest arrivals). They were on to it already and whistled down some Hungarians, who had no intention of being quarrymen (they were actually a tourist group of interior designers), who were equally on the ball and whistled down some Czechs, Russians and an unfortunate group of Hibernians.

While the labor force struggled to find its balance, technology made advances. To picks, shovels and chisels was added an ass. After unspeakable experiments, the ass was attached to a bucket. Dragged across the dirt, this scraped a tiny portion of overburden away. Quarrymen loved this since they got to watch. This was improved to a team of asses with a larger bucket and dubbed the ass-pack hoe.

More enlightened immigrants arrived (not German) and the quarry stick was devised. The ass was attached to one end but with no instructions. After endless experimentation, the ass took the initiative and implemented the windlass, which prompted a 'stone-fancier' magazine to write, as late as 1903, '...less progress has been shown in the getting out of slate than in any other branch of quarrying..'

The die was cast. Slate quarrying was going to be a messy affair, no doubt.

To hell with roofing America, this group needed no audience. Trade agreements, pacts, promises (the more solemn, the more fun they were to break), angry immigrants, back-biting, back-stabbing family dynasties, worker exploitation (old country be damned), undercutting, over-charging, fourth line high-sticking, cut-your-legs-off, free-for-all and in your face!

Vermont was born.

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