As a genealogist, I have visited many cemeteries. Some people see them as depressing places, full of doom and death. I disagree. For me, a visit to a cemetery is similar to a trip to a park. They vary in details, but the better ones are places of beauty and everlasting memorials that celebrate the lives of now deceased individuals. You can find many beautiful cemeteries, and some of them contain very artistic tombstones, testifying to the artistic skills of the people who converted stones into works of art.
A small town in central Vermont is the home of one of the most unusual and artistic cemeteries I have ever seen. It is almost impossible to stop and admire only one work of art; everywhere you turn in this cemetery, you see four or six or eight works of art, all simultaneously vying for your attention.
The tombstones in this one cemetery are among the most creative to be found anywhere. You can find traditional tombstones with angels, willow trees, and even busts or full-size statues of the deceased. What amazes me even more, you can also find tombstones made in the shape of race cars, barnstormer airplanes, a window, a cat, open books, and one cube-shaped tombstone that seems to balance eternally on one point, looking like a child’s wooden block that has suddenly been spun on one corner.
I recently visited the cemetery and snapped hundreds of digital photographs. I extracted 56 of my best photographs and uploaded them to this newsletter’s web site.
The Hope Cemetery is located in Barre (pronounced “Barry”), Vermont, a town that bills itself as the "Granite Capital of the World." The cemetery sits on top of a hill overlooking Vermont’s Green Mountains. It is a quiet and peaceful place, best enjoyed on a warm sunny summer day or perhaps when the forests are ablaze with color during Vermont’s amazing fall foliage season. The cemetery is not far from the stone quarries and the factory of the Rock of Ages Corporation, perhaps the country’s leading producer of tombstones and other granite memorials.
Founded more than 100 years ago by two native Vermonters and one Scotsman – George B. Milne, James Boutwell, and Harvey Varnum – the company now known as Rock of Ages grew quickly as a leading producer of tombstones, statues, and other memorials. The same granite also was used to build many government and public buildings throughout the eastern United States, including the steps of the east wing of the U.S. Capitol Building. Most of the memorials were carved at the Rock of Ages factory in Barre by skilled craftsmen who chiseled the granite blocks into works of art.
Milne formed his first company in 1885, then joined forces with former competitors Boutwell and Varnum in 1905. The new company started with a handful of local skilled workers but quickly exhausted all available local talent. The company sent recruitment agents to other parts of the world that were known to have numbers of skilled sculptors, enticing the sculptors to move to Vermont for employment at Rock of Ages. The recruiters offered to sponsor the workers on their trip to the United States, including free transportation for the artisans and their families, temporary housing until they were settled, and guaranteed employment at a fair wage. The recruiters met with great success in Italy, where economic hardship was a daily fact of life at the time. Many Italian artisans moved to Vermont, attracted by the offer of steady employment and a living wage for them and their families. One can only guess their impressions of their first harsh winter in the mountains of Vermont, where temperatures often drop to 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and the annual average is seven feet of snow. This wasn’t Italy!
The recruiters had their best successes in Italy's stonecutting center, Carrara. However, cutters and carvers were recruited from other countries as well. Sculptors already skilled in making statues were able to quickly adapt to Vermont granite. The work ethic was strong, and most of these workers were soon assimilated into American life. A few returned to Italy when their contracts were finished, but most elected to stay and continue working at Rock of Ages or at one of the other granite companies in the area. Modern-day Barre still has a high percentage of Italian names among its citizens, descendants of these immigrants.
Italians comprised the biggest ethnic group at Rock of Ages, especially among the artisans. However, many other ethnic groups joined the company’s workforce of quarry miners, stonecutters, carvers, shipping department employees, and various administrative workers. The company’s location was within a one-day train ride of the Quebec border, so many French-Canadians moved south looking for work. Scots, Irish, Poles, and Spaniards and others joined them. The small town of Barre must have been a veritable United Nations. In 1890 the population numbered nearly 7,000. By 1903 it was 12,000 and rising.
Of course, all these artisans and all their family members grew old and most eventually died in Vermont. One tradition allowed that each tombstone carver would work on his own tombstone as his last assignment before retirement. He took as big a piece of granite as he wished and then created his own memorial. He would complete the entire work, except for the date of death. The tombstone would then be placed in storage. Upon the death of the retired worker, a co-worker would chisel in the death date, and the stone would be moved to nearby Hope Cemetery to be placed on the grave. It is estimated that 75% of the tombstones in Hope Cemetery were designed by current occupants of its graves.
Sadly, many of these gifted men died prematurely of a common stone carver's ailment, silicosis, after a lifetime of sucking in airborne stone particles. Ventilation equipment was not installed at Rock of Ages until the mid-1930s. Silicosis disappeared soon after.
Obviously, some workers died before retirement. A worker’s wife, child, or other relative also might pass away. In those cases, a member of the deceased’s family or a co-worker would make the tombstone. In Hope Cemetery, one can see many tombstones for children, many of them far more ornate than what one normally finds on a child’s grave. You can only imagine that the child’s father may have carved the tombstone with loving care, often with tears in his eyes.
As you might expect, the works produced by these men turned out to be memorials to their skills and talents. Those who carved their own memorials were at the peak of their artistic careers. They were “the grand old masters” of granite tombstones.
Works of art deserve a suitable museum. In this case, the “museum” is a scenic hilltop overlooking the Green Mountains. It is difficult to imagine a better setting.
Hope Cemetery was established in 1895 and originally contained 53 acres, later expanded to 65 acres. Edward P. Adams, a nationally known landscape architect, created the original plan for the cemetery. Each new section of the cemetery is the result of expert counsel and modern design.
The tombstones are made from Barre Gray, a stone that is fine-grained and impervious to weathering. Only memorials made of Barre Gray are permitted in the town's three cemeteries. The more unusual designs are all in Hope Cemetery. It is still possible for ornate and unusual tombstones to be put into Hope Cemetery. These large memorials can range in cost from $20,000 to 30,000 or more.
To see some of the Hope Cemetery tombstone photographs I took recently, go to http://blog.eogn.com/photos/hope_tombstones/. Once there, you will see small, thumbnail sized images of the many stones. To see a larger photograph, double-click on any of the thumbnail images. You will also see my explanatory text of each image. I hope you will enjoy those images.
Would you like to visit Hope Cemetery to see these works of art for yourself? It is located on a side road, a short distance from downtown Barre, Vermont. Many tourists and others drive through the town each year, unaware of the works of art that are only a short distance away. You can ask any of the locals where “the cemetery with all the unusual tombstones” may be found. Everyone in town knows.
If you have a map, look for Merchant Street, and then drive to the top of the hill. If you do not have a map, you can obtain one here: http://tinyurl.com/2bxjom.
If you are one of the ever-increasing number of motorists who have GPS navigation in your automobile, set it to:
Latitude: 44.2114497 North
Longitude: 72.4987162 West
However you get there, I suspect you will enjoy a visit to the Hope Cemetery. Until then, take a look at the photographs that are available at http://blog.eogn.com/photos/hope_tombstones/.