I have to say, Monson, Maine is the friendliest little town I ever visited. Possibly because I was a fan before I showed up. It is the last stop on the Appalachian Trail, a hundred miles south of Mt Kathadin. Black-top turns to logging trails and the backwoods begin.
I went to visit the famed Monson Black quarries, but before I found them I met Maitri and Amy, bartenders at the Lakeshore House on the edge of Lake Hebron. Then there was Glen Poole and the Historical Society across the street, who gave me a whirlwind tour of the past 193 years of Monson history, Hippie-chick and Poet who put me up at Shaw’s hostel, and the main distraction, John Tatko of Sheldon Slate Works.
It was a beautiful fall day as I approached Monson. About half a mile before town I spotted a giant slab of slate on the roadside, raised on edge, announcing Sheldon Slate Works. I had to pull in, of course. I knew of Sheldon slate and Pete Tatko from Granville, New York, but didn’t know there was a Monson connection. The yard was huge, surfaced in crushed slate, with the obligatory jumble of abandoned machinery on the periphery. In the middle, a 10,000-square-foot steel building that housed the slate works.
I met Jim, who was restoring a 1911 slate sink, in one corner and Garret, dressing a Monson slate counter-top, in the other. Then John Tatko. The words irrepressible, charged, and enthusiastic spring to mind. John is all about energy. In no time we were discussing the slate industry, local history, geology, back roads, canoes and moose-sightings. He’s a talker. A very intelligent talker, who loves Maine and loves his trade.
Monson was established in 1822, a couple of years after Maine seceded from Massachusetts. Not until 1870 did the proverbial Welshman, William Griffith Jones, stumble on an outcrop of slate while out riding his horse, leading to the first Monson quarry—the Eureka quarry. Many more followed, eventually consolidating into the Portland Monson Company and the Monson Maine Slate Company. Nearly a century later, in the 1960’s, the Tatko family bought the Portland Monson Company and later yet, the Kennedy Slate Company bought the Monson, Maine Slate Company.
Quarrying in Monson was always a hard-scrabble affair. The slate seams dip steeply into the earth, forcing deep and dangerous quarries. Since the grain and cleave are directed vertically, the quarry perimeter of low-grade material is inclined to shear off and fall into the working areas below. Many lives were lost. The slate produced, a true black unfading slate, closely resembles the best quality Peach Bottom slate from Delta, Pennsylvania. Often the only way to distinguish them is the counter-sunk nail-holes that became the signature of the Monson product. Several quarries adopted tunneling as a means to extract the slate—a technically difficult and labor-intensive method. Eventually the quarries fell into minimal use. Rubbish piles are still ground up for road surfacing, while landscapers pick out rock they can use.
We are familiar with slate as a roofing product but, as the Sheldon Slate and Vermont Structural Slate Companies demonstrate, there has always been an architectural aspect to slate production. Fire-places, sinks, lintels, thresholds, and memorial markers have always been built from slate. Notably, slain president JFK’s tombstone is made from Monson Slate.
It is a trade requiring different skills, and material of a very high quality. John showed me around his shop. To me it resembled a wood-shop, with slate instead of wood. State of the art CC machines are employed to cut out the contours and holes in a complicated sink-top. Work benches line up, where the final detailing is done by hand. And this is no hobby shop! Business is brisk. Sheldon Slate Works regularly sends pieces to the UK, to all parts of the United States and to Puerto Rico. A portion of their work is in restoration. Monson slate was ideal for architectural products and they were produced prolifically for the New England area. More than a hundred years later, these pieces, with minor scrapes and bruises, find their way back to Monson to be refurbished and made like new.
It is a niche market for sure, but still pursued industriously by the likes of John Tatko, in Monson, Maine. You have to visit. Take some money. You’ll want to buy everything.
Oh, and the quarries…I’ll have to get up there again and find out where they are. Back in the woods somewhere, I guess.