Inex Online Magazine article
The Slate industry in the United States seemed to begin in the most casual manner. Anecdotes abound of settlers stumbling across the rocky outcroppings; invariably, it was a Welshman making the discovery. No surprise there, since slate had been quarried in North Wales since Roman times. Techniques of quarrying the rock, splitting it, and trimming to size, were already well established. Rapidly growing cities in England demanded a non-flammable roofing material, a need answered in abundance by the giant quarries of North Wales.
It was, however, a dangerous occupation, overseen by English owners, and when news came of slate in the New World, thousands were willing to risk the dangerous crossing to begin their work lives anew, hopefully in better circumstances.
The first recorded use of slate as a roofing material was in Delta, Pennsylvania, in 1734. Local quarries produced Peach Bottom slate, named after a nearby township, and many thousands of homes in the area still boast this fine product. In 1787, slate quarries were opened in Arvonia, Virginia, and by mid-19th century commercial quarrying was underway in Vermont, New York, Georgia and Alabama.
The primary use was for roofing, but soon ‘architectural slate’ commanded a robust market. Slate found use as thresh-holds, sinks, window-sills, treads and risers for stairways, blackboards, billiard tables and fire-surrounds. These products became enormously popular, employed in institutional use or to elaborately detail the homes of the affluent.
Marble was considered a more exotic material than slate and became its natural competitor, in response to which marbleizing techniques were introduced from Europe. Elegant designs were painted and baked on to the slate, illustrated by the 19th century lectern shown below.
Slate’s natural qualities–being impervious to water, relative ease of honing and polishing, and extreme strength– kept it in the forefront until cheaper materials emerged. Its main handicap was its great weight, preventing efficient transportation, and the prevalence of slate artifacts are invariably within close range of the quarry of origin.
This is demonstrated well in New England, where the highly-prized Monson Black slate, from Monson, Maine, was very popular. And still is. Owners of 100-year-old pieces make the trek to Monson, where John Tatko (the Sheldon Slate Co) still fabricates and refurbishes slate artifacts. These are carefully taken apart, cleaned and reassembled. High tech glues replace the original Plaster of Paris, but the original patina, softened with age, remains in place, its signature beauty.
The Slate Valley straddles the New York/Vermont line, just south of Lake Champlain. While only twenty miles long and ten wide, it contains the largest concentration of slate quarries in the US, and the most colorful slate in the world. A deep earthy red is found on the New York side, grading, sometimes in the same quarry, to purple and mottled purple, full of green inclusions. A wide range of green, unrepeatable as natural phenomenon, with black and gray slate complete the color spectrum. Slate are described as “Unfading” or “Weathering”. Unfading is self-explanatory, while weathering slate can oxidize to display a further wide range of colors.
In Granville, NY, John’s brother, Pete Tatko, runs the other half of the Sheldon Slate Co. Showing off the natural product is the drive behind Pete’s creations. Complex kitchen counters, sinks, floor-tile and institutional products fill his shop, where an average of 75 people work. Quarrying architectural slate is different to that of roofing slate. It requires more finesse (black powder, not dynamite!). The quality must be perfect as the tiniest fracture would spell doom to a 12-ft. counter-top. Impurities in the slate that make it unsuitable for roofing material add to its desirability for other purposes: pyrite, a gold colored crystal formation often found in slate, laces through the material in delicate patterns. The depth and subtle variation of colors are captivating.
Across the Slate Valley is Vermont Structural Slate, another family business. Craig Markcrow and business partner Doug Sheldon, provide custom-cut stone projects, fabricated from Vermont and Virginia slate. They extend their material inventory to Granite, Marble, Quartzite and Sandstone, focusing their attention on design and architectural applications. Mottled purple, Strata Gray and Unfading Green slate are illustrated below in unique applications.
Slate is a material of endless possibilities. The sheer presence of rock slabs, stone that few people see in their daily lives, demands attention. Used aesthetically, artisanly or functionally, slate is a stone that draws in the observer. For all its centuries of use, it invariably prompts the question, ‘What is that?’. And it is this intrigue and mystery that creates its cache as an essential element in interior design.
For your next project, look up the websites below!