Granite mined from Maine quarries graces great buildings, many kitchens

(Maine) — For more than a hundred years, granite mined from Maine’s island quarries was the stone of choice for America’s great buildings and monuments. Starting in the years around the Civil War, granite cut from the quarries of Vinalhaven, Stonington, Hurricane Island and other Maine locations went into such notable structures as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Naval Academy, Washington Monument, Suffolk County Courthouse, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the JFK Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.Today the New England Stone Industries Quarry on Crotch Island in Stonington has a new lease on life, thanks to the demand by Maine granite craftsmen for its Deer Island granite, fueled by America’s new love affair with granite countertops for homes.Granite is a common stone in Maine. It is a light-colored igneous rock composed of fine- and coarse-grained crystals of quartz and feldspar, with dark crystals of mica or hornblende mixed in. The color of granite is mostly determined by the color of the feldspar and hornblende. The feldspar contributes a white, pink, tan or salmon color to granite, while the intense black of some granites is from the hornblende. The quartz crystals in granite are generally translucent, milky or have a smoky color. Deer Island granite is an attractive gray stone with white, light brown, dark gray and black highlights.Boulders and ledges in the woods behind most 19th-century Maine farmhouses often show drill marks where stone has been split off to be used for building foundations, steps and gate posts. Early dams, bridges and piers were made from hand-split granite. The front steps of the North Sebago United Methodist Church were split from a large boulder behind the nearby Gregory farm in 1903 and hauled to the church where they are in service still today.Granite quarrying grew from a homestead handicraft to a commercial undertaking in the early 1800s. In the first Maine geologic survey in 1837, C.T. Jackson identified several operating granite quarries. He concluded in his survey that Maine would be able to support an active mining industry. According to the Maine Geological Survey, by the late 1800s the industry was thriving along midcoast Maine and on some of the offshore islands. In 1895 there were 153 active granite quarries in Maine.Maine’s quarries produced granite for buildings and roads, bridges and walls. After the Civil War, granite paving blocks from Maine went to the nation’s major cities from St. Louis and Chicago, to Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, New Orleans and New York City.”Granite paving blocks were split from large pieces of stone using hand chisels and hammers,” said Steve Haynes of the Maine Granite Museum in Mount Desert. “In the late 1800s, a thousand granite paving blocks were worth $4 at the quarry. Delivered to New York City, they fetched $92 a thousand.”A LEADER IN GRANITEMajor buildings and monuments all over the country were built with Maine granite from the mid-1800s until just before World War I. According to the Maine Geological Survey, Maine led the country in the mining of granite. Skilled laborers came to the United States from Scotland, Finland, Wales and Italy to work in the quarries and to carve stone figures for the building boom of the late 1800s.Today only a handful of quarries operate in Maine to supply stone to the housing market, roads, and landscaping purposes. The last operating Maine island granite quarry is on Crotch Island near Deer Isle. Two quarries operated on the island from the 1860s until about 1970, according to Deer Isle historian Walter Reed.”We have been operating the Crotch Island quarry for many years now and produce Deer Isle granite, a very popular stone for kitchen countertops,” said New England Stone Industries’ Tony Raymos. “While our company specializes in dimensional stone products, we also produce stone slabs and memorials using stone from our 10 U.S. quarries and numerous overseas quarries. For example, we provided the granite for the new World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.,” he said.Raymos explained that stone countertops have been a feature in upscale homes for more than 100 years, but they usually were marble and softer stones. With the introduction of new saws about 25 years ago along with cheaper industrial diamonds, it was possible to cut granite and other hard stones as quickly and cheaper than cutting marble. The granite countertop industry was born.”In the last ten years the popularity of granite countertops has just taken off,” said Lloyd Henry, consultant for the Marble Institute of America. “They are now affordable and are becoming a standard feature in many homes today. Probably 80 percent of the market is in retrofit of kitchens in existing homes.” While Deer Isle and other domestic granites are widely used, most of the granite for kitchen countertops comes from overseas quarries, from Brazil, India and China. The stone is cut from the quarry, sawn into slabs and polished at various locations overseas and domestically. It is then shipped to local stone craftsmen who transform the polished stone slab into a kitchen countertop or other stone surface.DEMAND FOR COUNTERTOPSGreg Smith, owner of Stone Surface in Sebago, has been bringing the beauty of natural stone into people’s homes and hotels for 10 years. He customizes and installs marble and granite countertops and ceramic floors. For the last three years he has concentrated on granite countertops for the kitchens in the Lakes Region.”Natural stone brings a unique warmth to a kitchen. It comes in a wide variety of colors and textures, so people have quite a choice,” Smith said. “It has a beauty all its own, and no two pieces are exactly the same.”He added that granite countertops are also extremely sturdy and are nearly indestructible once installed. “Even if you stored a bowling ball in a cupboard over a granite counter and it fell out, all it would do is put a little dimple in the granite. It would not break it,” he said.Once the customer selects the type of granite from samples, Smith orders a large slab from his wholesaler, Black Bear Granite in Woburn, Mass. Black Bear has 104 types and colors of graniteand buys granite from around the world. For example, it buys Deer Isle granite from a stone cutting plant in Quebec that obtains it from the New England Stone Products Crotch Island quarries.Slabs come to Smith polished on one side to a high gloss and inch to 1 inch thick. The ones Smith has in his shop are as large as 10 by 6 feet and weigh up to a ton each. After carefully “reading” the stone for variations in texture and for any flaws, he has the customer view the entire piece for approval. Only then does Smith scribe the slab for cuts to fit the customer’s kitchen space and begin cutting.”I custom cut all my stone by hand,” Smith said. “Some shops use computer aided saws, but I am able to cut round corners and custom fit the stone to odd kitchen spaces by hand cutting that the computer aided saws cannot do.”He uses a diamond saw and saws under a water spray to reduce rock dust in the air. He has two large air filters mounted over his work area and always uses a dust mask.”The Deer Isle granite is one of the most selected varieties by my customers,” said Smith. “It has a very warm and natural look that appeals to them, and it helps that it comes from Maine.”Allen Crabtree lives in Sebago, where he is active in community affairs, including the fire department and the Board of Selectmen. He and his wife, Penny, operate Crabtee’s Collection Old Books and Crabtree’s Blueberries, a high-bush pick-your-own blueberry farm. He can be contacted at: crabtree@crabcoll.com

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