A Melting Pot – Barre Memories (Part 2)

Ethnic diversity and street life in Barre

Quarry workers with pneumatic tools - early 1900s
Quarry workers with pneumatic tools – early 1900s
Interior of Anderson-Friberg Granite shed - c.1932
Interior of Anderson-Friberg Granite shed – c.1932
Novelli and Calgagni Granite shed
Novelli and Calgagni Granite shed
Italian Pleasure Club outside the clubhouse - c. late 1920s-early 1930s
Italian Pleasure Club outside the clubhouse – c. late 1920s-early 1930s
Barre Italian Baptist Church
Barre Italian Baptist Church
Depot Square after 1905
Depot Square after 1905
Howard Marr, owner of Marr's Smoke Shop
Howard Marr, owner of Marr’s Smoke Shop
Magnet Theater - c. 1937
Magnet Theater – c. 1937
Paramount Theater
Paramount Theater
Barre Opera House facade
Barre Opera House facade
Barre Opera House auditorium
Barre Opera House auditorium

Granite was the magnet that started Barre, and it goes back into the mid [18]80s when they were quarrying granite. I’m no expert on the granite business; there’s better histories on this than I can give you. They were quarrying granite for mills to grind corn or whatever, and that would probably have been somewhere after the Civil War, around 1870, in that area there.

The Scotch were the first people here, probably, followed by the Yankees, who had to run the stores for the Scotchmen. The Scotch went home oftentimes in the winter. By home I mean back to Scotland. And then the Italians in large numbers, starting in the 1890s, going into 1900, plus. And then along at the same time came pneumatic tools. The ways of carving changed. The ways of quarrying changed.

The North End of Barre was where a significant number of Italian people lived, and there was also a place in the South End, near the high school, where the high school now is, that also had a significant number of Italian people. Sometimes they came from different parts of Italy and didn’t always get along, so they didn’t want to live near each other.

What overhung everything that went on in Barre, the fact that men who worked in the stone shed died in their early forties, generally, from silicosis. That shaped the environment of Barre. There were a lot of homes where liquor was sold during Prohibition simply because that’s the only way the ladies could make a living. And there were rooming houses set up where women could sell rooms rather than to families.

Then, around 1918, I think there was a first influx of French Canadian people. I’m sure they came down in small numbers before, but I think there was a strike in 1918 or thereabouts. So, suddenly the French have a stronger presence and an interest. The Italians, of course, formed their club. They had the Mutuo, the Italian Pleasure . . . . I think it was four or five Italian clubs. The French–the only one I know of is the Canadian Club, but I suspect there were others. And some were church related. Not much is written about, but we had a fairly significant influx of Lebanese and Syrian people that by religion here were mostly Catholic, as far as I can determine.

It was, in effect, a melting pot, absent, of course, black people. We had one black man in town. One, named Lundy–Mr. Lundy, who was a much respected tailor. He had a shop down off of Depot Square. And yet, while his office was on Depot Square, upstairs from the barber shop, which was right on the corner, practically, Mr. Lundy never came downstairs and went into the corner cigar store or interacted with any of the people individually that I saw.

I wrote a story once about Marr’s Smoke Shop, down here on the corner where the Quarry Restaurant currently is, and that’s where working people used to go there after work. The sheds would close down in Barre around 4 o’clock. A lot of these fellows would go home. They’d eat dinner, and they’d be back downtown by 4:30, so in the summer there was a lot of free time.

The smoke shop was for smokes. It was also for pinball machines, and there was some gambling–baseball gambling tickets that were sold there illegally. It was run by a man I used to call “the mayor of Depot Square,” by the name of Howard Marr, a man I had a great affection for.

Marr was a character. He had an opinion on everything. He was loud, boisterous, occasionally profane but never vulgar. He started, originally, a bowling alley across the street in a pool room, which he ran for a while. Then he opened up the smoke shop. But there had been a smoke shop there, I think, even before he was there. The interesting thing is: it wasn’t just one smoke shop. There were three smoke shops, all within 50 yards of each other, and they all sold and did about the same thing. Howard used to keep a lot of comic books there, and he didn’t care whether the kids read them or not. So the kids come in, and they sit down on the floor, and the kids would be picking up the aura of whatever working people of the time were talking about.

And what they were talking about was how to achieve some of the goals that they, as laborers, felt they were entitled to. But manufacturers would hang around there too, and they would be taking, oftentimes, the other side of the argument. And it was very kind of alive.

People would whisper once in a while, “That guy is a communist.” The fact of the matter is Marr, who had papers delivered from all over, ordered three copies of The Daily Worker, which I think was the communist newspaper of that period and maybe still is, and the person pointed out to me was a man who–a very respectable man. He was a granite manufacturer and not a laborer, and it sort of turns the thing upside down. And there were others. There were people of liberal persuasion. But anybody admitting to being a communist . . . I think there were three.

The other thing that was going on while all these people might be in Marr’s Smoke Shop, right next door there was a shoe shine stand which was open in good weather. As they used to say, “That’s where the Spanish go.” And we had a fairly large number of ex-patriots from Spain as a result of the civil war in Spain. And many of them came alone with no families. And so right across Main Street, they were there, as though that section had been partitioned off for their benefit, and they could speak the language they wanted.

But all nationalities were represented, I guess. There were Finnish people. Lebanese. Syrian. Irish, of course. Swedes. And I haven’t named them all now, certainly. But all these nationalities existed. Most everyone could speak English. If they couldn’t, they generally probably didn’t show up on the corner.

Take a summer night on the corner of Depot Square. There would be hundreds of people up and down the street. We had three movie theaters with marquees. I take that back. The Opera House did not have a marquee. But the Magnet Theater, which was 100 yards from Marr’s at most, had a marquee, as did the Paramount Theater, which, in earlier times, had been called The Park.

And there were two diners. There were several other restaurants, but there were diners that were open and active in order to pick up that 9 o’clock crowd. That is, when the movies got out. The Opera House occasionally ran a vaudeville show of some kind.  Once in a while we’d have a premier of a movie at the Paramount. I know there were one or two in my time, as there were in Montpelier. And where does it happen? In Barre it happened, for us, on Depot Square.

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