'Extremely Busy': Amid The Pandemic, Barre's Granite Industry Booms
During the past year, the granite industry in Vermont and elsewhere has experienced an unprecedented spike in demand — for headstones. Manufacturers say it’s related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but not in the way you might expect.
In its heyday, Barre was known as "the granite center of the world." In the early 1900s, it was the largest quarrier and manufacturer of granite products in North America. That’s no longer the case, but the granite industry is still central to the town’s identity.
“The granite that comes out of — in particular the quarry here in Graniteville — is really considered to be the highest quality grey granite in the world,” said Doug Grahn with the Barre Granite Association. The BGA represents 20 area companies that employ around 600 people.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, between one-third and one-half of Americans who die are buried. Most of those resting places are marked with stone — and one of the most popular materials for that is granite.
Demand for monuments has been increasing in recent years, but nothing matched the sudden surge in 2020. Most companies in town shut down for about five weeks in the winter, but Grahn said that this past year, “most of our members didn’t do that.”
One of those businesses is Buttura & Gherardi Granite Artisans. Everything that comes through the plant is made to order. In a mix of old-world craftsmanship and modern production, blocks of granite the size of pickup trucks are sawed into slabs, cut to size, finished, engraved, crated and shipped to retailers around the country.
In their warehouse on Boynton Street in Barre, tucked behind heavy machinery and shards of stone, there’s a desk covered in carefully arranged stacks of papers. There are more sitting in hundreds of slots on a shelf mounted on the wall. Each card goes to one piece of stone that Buttura & Gherardi are going to produce.
The company’s vice president, Paige Gherardi Lamthi, says that those cubbies full of neatly stacked papers begin to overflow when things get really busy — which is what happened about a year ago.
“Consistently, starting from June, we ended up having the busiest year that we’d ever seen,” she said.
At Buttura & Gherardi, they’ve been hiring people across the board, and added a few new positions; jobs with names like rock pitch stonecutter and lumper. Backlogs for orders are double what they typically are, according to company president Mark Gherardi.
“If I talk to my contemporaries, whether in Barre or in Georgia or in Minnesota, all the producing centers, even in Canada, it’s very busy,” he said. “It’s extremely busy.”
According to the CDC, the number of deaths that occurred during much of the pandemic exceeded what might otherwise have been expected. But industry experts say the surge in orders is not because of a surge in deaths.
Gherardi has one theory: “I think the virus has kind of woken people up to the fact that, boy, you know, our mortality isn’t secure.” So, he said, people are taking care of business.
What he means is that he’s seeing a growing trend of people buying their own headstones, well before they need them; this applies to baby boomers in particular.
“It’s a big generation and it’s a generation with a lot of affluence and wealth,” he said. It’s also a generation that’s getting older.
"I think the virus has kind of woken people up to the fact that, boy, you know, our mortality isn't secure." - Mark Gherardi, Buttura & Gherardi Granite Artisans
A thousand miles south of Barre, the town of Elberton, Ga., supplies two-thirds of the country’s granite. Chris Kubas is with the Elberton Granite Association, the largest trade association of granite quarries & manufacturers in the US. He says the surge may be because people have a bit more disposable income, from savings on travel and entertainment during the pandemic.
“They use some of that money for things they may have put off in the past, and a granite headstone could be one of them,” he said. He added that disruptions in international supply chains may have caused an uptick in domestic orders. And, like Mark Gherardi in Barre, he’s seeing more people pre-buying monuments for themselves.
Whatever the reasons may be, granite business in Barre is busier than Gherardi has seen in the last 40 years, which could mean good things for Barre economically, and help sustain a legacy industry in central Vermont. His business is already on track for another record year.
“[It’s] very rare for our company or any of our companies in Barre to be working overtime in March, but we are,” he said. So far, his orders in 2021 are already over 30% higher than they were in 2020.
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