Barre pioneers: Living off the land

“In almost every new settlement, one of the first attempts, is to erect works for the pot and pearl ash manufacture: And there are probably as many works of this kind, as there are settled towns in the state … there is no better pot or pearl ashes made in any part of America, than that which is produced in Vermont.”

Samuel Williams, The Civil and Natural History of Vermont, Vol II, 1809

The pioneer settlers of Barre in Vermont, by necessity, lived off the land. Most of the area was forested and the land had to be cleared before farming could commence. But the forest was not entirely an impediment to settlement. The game that was hunted in the forests was the primary source of meat. Maple sugar and honey were abundant sweeteners. Trees felled while clearing the land provided timber for building and fuel. In addition, the forest provided one of the few products that early settlers could sell: potash.

{{image2-a:r-w:250}}Potash (potassium-rich water-soluble salts) was used during colonial times in making soap, glass and dozens of other products. Today, it is a product of mining, but in colonial times potash was made from wood ashes. The first US patent issued was signed by president George Washington and was for “the making of Pot ash”.

In colonial Vermont, potash manufacture went hand in hand with the clearing of the land. Logs that were not needed for lumber or fence rails were made into potash. To produce a tonne of potash, the broadleaf trees on an acre of ground would be cut down and burned, the ashes leached and the lye evaporated in great iron kettles. Potash sold for four to five dollars a hundred weight.

Another natural resource exploited by settlers was granite. The fields the settlers cleared commonly were very fertile, but they were scattered with granite boulders left by retreating glaciers. The farmers cursed those troublesome rocks that dulled their plough points. As if to exact revenge, many of the boulders ended up in stone walls; others were dressed (shaped) for use as cellar walls, well linings, fence posts, hearthstone, steps and lintels. Some stone blocks were dragged out for shaping into millstones, resulting in the moniker Millstone Hill being given to Barre’s most prominent hill.

The early stoneworker may have worked the rock by heating it with fire and then splitting it by dousing it with cold water, or hitting it with a large sledgehammer or iron ball. A new procedure was invented during the early 1800s in which a line of shallow rectangular slots was cut into the stone using a flat cape chisel. Small, flat steel wedges were placed between shims of sheet iron and driven into these slots, splitting the stone.

About 1830 the method was improved by using a “plug drill”, with a V-shaped point that was rotated slightly between each blow of the hammer. This created a round hole two or three inches deep. A pair of half-round steel shims or “feathers” were placed into the hole and a wedge or “plug” was driven between the feathers to split the stone.

The new splitting technology spread rather rapidly through the granite quarrying centres of New England, facilitating the quarrying of granite from ledges.

With the opening of new quarries, Barre began to assume its prominent place in the granite industry.

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