“We’re going to talk about slate pencils,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “So, if you remember — if you’re that old — we used slates in a classroom. Maybe you had a blackboard in your classroom and teachers used chalk on them. Well, back in the 19th century, schoolkids — or, really, anybody who wanted to take notes — had a handheld slate, maybe something similar to this, and they had to write on it. And one of the best things to write on it with was another piece of slate.

“You can hear that nice sound,” Perkins said while starting to write on a slate tablet with a contemporary slate pencil.

“Just like the chalk, but with even more heft to it because it’s a lot more dense material,” Mike Hoey noted.

“So there was a guy named John Cain,” Perkins continued. “John Cain was from Rutland. The apocryphal story is that he was fishing in Sucker Brook — Sucker Brook is kind of right over our shoulder over there — and he needed a piece of rock to hold his line down; his line was floating away. So he picked up a piece of slate — because that’s what this area is made out of — to attach to his line, and he noticed it was a little softer (than most slate, perhaps with greater magnesium content than most), and he tried scraping it on another piece of slate. He said, ‘ah! This writes really well.'”

Hoey interjected, “Eureka!”

“‘Eureka! You know what I can do? I can make pencils’,” Perkins continued. “So he took those rocks back to his home in West Rutland and hand-carved them into slate pencils and sold them, and he started to make money, so he said, ‘This sounds good!’ So he ended up buying property right here and built a small pencil factory.

“He hired a bunch of people and brought in machines and started making pencils, and I actually have one of his pencils,” Perkins said as he handed his slate tablet and contemporary slate pencil to Hoey. “This (older pencil) is a pencil made from slate, right from here, by John Cain. You can notice it’s not as clunky as that big one. It has a paper wrapping on it, it’s sharpened at the end and, you can imagine, really easy to write with. This is from the collection of the Vermont Historical Society. Ultimately, John sold (the company) — as most entrepreneurs do — and sold it to the Adams brothers that created Adams Manufacturing Company.”

“That was about when pencil manufacturing transitioned away from slate toward graphite,” Hoey said. “Was it cheaper? Was it more widely available?”

“All of those things, but also, think about how heavy these things are,” Perkins answered. “I’m holding a piece of rock in one hand and a piece of rock in another. Now that I can get paper and wood-and-graphite pencils very cheaply, it’s a lot lighter to carry around with me. And of course, many Civil War soldiers are now using pencil and paper to write home and getting used to that. By the end of the Civil War, into the 1870s, this operation wound down and ultimately went out of business in favor of the paper and pencil that we use today. But, I think, really cool! I mean, people don’t think about ‘how does one write on a slate?’. You use a slate pencil, and they were made right here in Castleton.”