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In a boarding house of four or more tenants, the landlady would require the help of family members or paid employees.
In a boarding house of four or more tenants, the landlady would require the help of family members or paid employees.

Barre’s unheralded boarding house keepers

While Barre, Vermont owes much of its current prosperity to the contribution of its granite and stone cutting industries, Bill Langer says there was another group of citizens whose role in maintaining the well being of those workers has largely gone unacknowledged ...

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hard-working men developed a booming granite industry in Barre, Vermont. But we should not overlook the hard-working women that also contributed to the livelihood of the Barre stone industry families. While some families could subsist solely on the incomes of the granite workers, others needed supplemental income. This was especially true when the male head of the house passed away from disease, silicosis, or accident, leaving his widow and family to fend for themselves.

From 1880 to 1910, women held a variety of jobs but about half of Barre’s working women were boarding house keepers. This was remarkable considering that nationally less than two per cent of the working female population took in boarders.

In a typical boarding house, “room” meant a bed, a chair, and a place to hang the boarder’s clothes. “Board” meant three meals a day. The daily schedule of cooking breakfast, packing lunch pails, making beds, cleaning rooms, laundering and mending clothes, buying groceries, cooking supper, and cleaning up was gruelling. A single woman could manage one to three boarders. Four or more tenants usually required the help of family members or paid employees.

Mrs McCarthy was an Irish shed owner’s widow. Her husband loved the granite business. But when first his uncle and next his good friend died from lung disease, her husband began to drink excessively. His workmen often half-carried him home after the shed closed for the day. Business suffered.

Mrs McCarthy took action. “I saw my duty even though it was a painful one, and I did it,” she said. “I went up to the shed one afternoon and talked to every one of the unmarried men ... [I] told them I would be glad to have any of them as roomers ... By the end of the next week, six were rooming at the house.”

‘Board’ meant three meals a day, which was arduous work for the boarding house keepers.
‘Board’ meant three meals a day, which was arduous work for the boarding house keepers.

To further supplement their income, many boarding house keepers sold homemade wine and grappa (a distilled wine) to boarders and neighbours. Liquor laws in Barre changed back and forth from a dry community to one that licensed liquor sales. However, during times when liquor sales were allowed, licences were only issued to males with formal liquor establishments. Consequently, some women were arrested and fined or even jailed for those small-scale liquor sales.

Boarding houses could be very pleasant places to stay. In a 1940 interview, Pierre Savoie, a hard-working Barre stonecutter, reminisced about the time he spent in boarding houses. “Mrs Fournier did the cooking that night, we all liked it. Her husband died of stonecutter’s tb [tuberculosis] the month before. She said she was going to ... take in roomers and boarders. Four of us moved in next week ...

“[A]nother French woman began to take in roomers and boarders next door,” Savoie added. “They was friendly, but they knew us men talked about the food and compared it, so there was competition. It suited us fine. Each one would cook the best she could, and still make a profit. I never ate so well since.”

Savoie went on to say that he “almost married once with the widow who run the boarding house next door ... But I figured I wouldn’t be my own boss no more. I’d have to work all the time, if I liked the job or not ... I like money, but I ain’t going to break my back getting it”.

To him, running a boarding house was more difficult than cutting stone!

Bill Langer
Independent Research Geologist

Bill Langer is a freelance writer and retired Senior Research Geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Bill is now an independent researcher specialising in aggregate resources. Click here to email Bill or visit his website.
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