“We’ve been exploring the slate industry, and of course, slate doesn’t care what state it’s in,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “It straddles the Vermont-New York border, and what we’re really exploring today is the immigrant community and the immigrants that really drove this slate industry. And what better place to do it than at the Slate Valley Museum (in Granville, New York)?”

“About 180 years ago, when slate was discovered in the (Slate) Valley and people said ‘we want to get it out of the ground’, there was nobody here to do it,” Slate Valley Museum executive director Sarah Kijowski said. “As it happened, at the same time in Wales, they were dealing with labor strikes. Wales has a lot of even older historic quarries there, so they just actively recruited Welsh slate workers to come over here and they were the ones who started the industry here in the Valley.

“They came over as skilled laborers, the ones who knew how to take slate and work it into a usable product — but there’s a lot of grunt work in slate,” Kijowski continued. “So you ended up with sort of a labor hierarchy where you have the skilled labor and the managers and then you need somebody filling the shovels and the wheelbarrows and going down in the pits. We’re dealing with things like the potato famine at the same time, so a group of Irish came over. A generation goes by. Those Welsh slate workers are now upper management. They don’t want their kids to necessarily be working in the dangerous quarries, so we run into a labor shortage again.

“About the same time nationally, we have another influx of immigrants come in,” Kijowski added. “Those are Italians, eastern Europeans — they’re coming in and they’re filling those more unskilled, so to speak, labor spots. We’re now home to a very diverse population of immigrants here.”

“Industrial barons would create essentially company towns, or factory towns, to provide services to their workers but also help keep them subservient in various ways,” Mike Hoey said. “Did we see any of that in the slate industry at all, or did it not end up working that way?”

“Actually, it’s a great question, and one of the best examples is in West Castleton,” Kijowski answered. “There’s (an) historic mill; you can go there. They have a trail that you can get (on) right at the park — and kind of walk in and explore and see things. When you’re doing that, you’ll see houses that were the company houses. They had a company store, they had company scrip (financial credit to pay workers in lieu of money), they were a company town. And it was very much that example that — it sounds good, right? But really what ends up happening is, the company owns all aspects of your life and you’re continuously indebted to them.”

Perkins asked, “What can you see about this immigrant story here at the museum?”

“We have an exhibition that explores aspects of each immigrant group, and we actually have examples of people that represent each group historically — up to the early 2000s is really where it stops,” Kijowski said. “We talk a lot about culture as well as the slate experience, so with the example of the Welsh, there’s a lot about literature and reading and storytelling and music, things like that — really trying to understand what these people brought with them and what they valued. Stories of Italian immigrants, or the descendants of Italian immigrants, playing opera (records) in their quarries while they worked.”

Perkins said, “So, if people want to learn more about the immigrant communities that made up the Slate Belt here in Vermont and New York, how can they learn more?”

“They can certainly always contact us! They can come to the museum,” Kijowski noted. “We also have a lot of information on our website; these exhibitions are basically up there.”