Once rock-solid slate industry is down to 13 quarries

Once rock-solid slate industry is down to 13 quarries PEN ARGYL, Pa. — Slate is everywhere in the northeastern reaches of Northampton County. It crackles underfoot in yards. It adorns hills along the country roads. The outskirts of small towns such as Pen Argyl are dotted with abandoned slate quarries. But while slate may be everywhere, the industry in Northampton County that extracted value from slate has dwindled down to four companies. At Dally Slate outside of Pen Argyl, about 50 employees toil in two quarries and four manufacturing facilities. They extract, lift, transport and cut the natural stone that is used for roofs, kitchen counters, floor tiles and pool-table tops. The family-owned business, now on its third generation, ships slate materials to customers all over the East Coast. Founded in 1954, Dally has taken over two other local companies and next year will build a fifth manufacturing facility. The scene at the quarry is timeless. At the edge of the yard, there’s a steep drop-off that leads to a four-sided quarry. On the bed of the quarry some 140 feet down, men with hard hats position slabs of slate on pulleys. At the other quarry, an emerald-green pond provides a quick respite on hot summer days. But picturesque images aside, Dally, along with Williams & Son Slate & Tile near Wind Gap, Capozzolo Brothers Slate Co. in Bangor and Penn Big Bed Slate Co. in Slatington are about all that remain of Northampton County’s once-booming Slate Belt. The Slate Belt refers to a group of towns at the base of the Blue Mountain ridge, including Pen Argyl, Bangor and Wind Gap. Like Dally, Williams and Penn Big Bed mine slate for roofing tiles. Capozzolo is known for its slate magnets, coasters and other ornamental objects. The industry began in earnest in the United States in the 1850s. In 1899, the United States boasted 200 quarry companies in 13 states. At its height, slate was used for chalk boards in schools across America. Homes built before World War II frequently had slate tile and roofs. “It wasn’t a luxury item,” said Michael Reis, editor of Stone World magazine. The slate business lost steam during the Great Depression, when the economy faltered and cheaper materials became more readily available. Many of the original slate workers who installed and serviced the roofs have died. Today, only 13 slate-quarry companies are left in the United States. Most of these are found in two places: eastern Pennsylvania and western Vermont, Reis said. The health of the industry is tied in large part to the state of the economy, said A. J. Williams, president of Williams & Sons Slate & Tile. “It runs in streaks,” Williams said. “When it comes down to brass tacks, stone is a luxury.” The American slate industry produced about 24,000 tons of product in 2001, valued at $14.9 million, according to the United States Geological Survey. Slate accounted for just 6 percent of domestic stone production in 2001, behind granite, limestone, sandstone and marble. Slate is still used primarily in roofing and flooring but its customer base now consists largely of affluent homeowners and corporate clients. Slate roofs cost about $1,000 per roofing square, with an average roof costing $15,000 to $20,000. “Any house that costs over $1 million is a prime candidate for a slate roof,” said Brian Stearns, editor of the Slate Roof Quarterly. The American slate industry faces tough competition from slate that arrives from China, India, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Slate also competes against granite, Formica and asphalt. Granite is used in window sills and countertops. Formica is frequently used as a slate substitute in countertops. And asphalt roofs triumph over slate competitors by costing as little as $2,000. Ancillary costs such as insurance plague the industry. Companies that extract slate from the earth are classified as mining firms, which increases insurance costs and also state and federal safety regulations. “That’s what killing us,” said Williams, whose firm produces slate floor and roof tiles. Dally Slate holds its own, but it isn’t easy. The harsh winter weather this year cut down on the number of jobs, said owner John Dally Jr. Some slate slabs froze and had to be discarded. Awareness is a critical issue for the remaining American slate companies. Dally recently spoke with a pool-table manufacturer in California who had been importing slate because he did not think there were any slate companies left in the United States. Slate, covered with felt, forms the flat surface of the tables. The slate business is undergoing a small renaissance commercially. The American industry is producing more slate now than it did 10 years ago, Reis of Stone World said. Slate, along with the rest of the natural-stone industry, has benefited from a renewed interest in home improvement. And slate is becoming more affordable, rendering it more appealing to middle-income consumers, Reis said. While the market may be changing, the people and the techniques tend to remain the same. Several generations of families work at Dally, a common practice in the slate industry. Dally joined his grandfather’s company in 1984, after earning a degree in mathematics from Bloomsburg University. His brother, Craig Dally, now a state representative, also worked at the company. The work is labor intensive. After the slate slabs are extracted from the quarry and lifted by pulley to the work yard, the pieces are cut several times, first by a diamond-segmented saw and then later split by an expert slate splitter. The slate is constantly hosed down with water to allow for proper splitting. Water rains down over the blade to cool it and cut down on dust. The company has been extracting slate from one of its two quarries for 15 years. The workers need to drill deep to obtain slate that does not crumble. Cases of roofing slate ready to be shipped litter the yard. On a good day, Dally’s workers can extract 25 pieces of slate. About 75 percent of the slate that is quarried is discarded. “Each piece of slate roofing is hand-split,” Dally said. “You don’t get someone off the street to do that.” Dally, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, spends much of his day in a pickup truck driving among the quarries. He does not want his children to follow in his family’s tradition of working in the slate industry. Many of his employees are of the older generation and have been working at Dally Slate for more than 20 years. “What I call the old-timers, they were handy,” Dally said. Williams, who also runs a third-generation family business, said his three sons must get a proper education. Whether they choose to follow their great-grandfather, grandfather and father into the family business remains to be seen. “It’s an option,” Williams said.

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