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What happened to marble jobs here?

originally published 7/9/2009

Above, Marble plant at Nelson, circa 1910.

A look at the present economic downturn and the obvious shortage of production jobs in this county prompts a question: Whatever happened to the Pickens County marble industry as a dynamic generator of employment here?

 

 

 
At one point (evident in period photographs) the Long Swamp Valley marble district lay littered under a spread of quarries, finishing plants, commercial buildings and worker houses. For a time, the industry employed whole towns of laborers: Marble Hill, Tate, Nelson.
By contrast, modern Pickens can boast but a relative handful of workers employed in the industry. To track the change, we looked at the history of marble-business here from the late 1800's to modern times.
Marble quarrying began in Pickens County before the Civil War but never boomed until the 1880's. By then, arrival of the railroad gave a much needed path to market for heavy quarry products. Rail connected to large cities, where the post-Civil-War build-up of high-rise architecture stoked an appetite for construction stone.
In Pickens County, Northern capital backed plant infrastructure. Cheap Southern labor did the work. Steel rail moved the product. And big-city demand kept the large commercial engine stroking.
Starting with the boom, a string of independent marble finishing plants lined rail-side from Marble Hill to Marietta. By 1915, the Georgia Marble Company was buying up the independents, consolidating finishing plants and quarries into one large company.
A last plant at Marietta managed to hold out as an independent until 1941. When Georgia Marble bought it too, the company owned it all.
For the most part, marble boomed nationally until the Great Depression. In 1932, near the start of that famed downturn, American production of dimension stone marble (construction and monument marble) totaled nearly 1,700,000 cubic feet––a sizable quantity but down from where it had been.
The construction marble business remained dull until 1944, near the end of World War II, when things began to pick up  a bit. Rounding out the year at almost 740,000 cubic feet of dimension marble quarried, 1945 actually represented some improvement over '44.
By war's end, American production of pulverized marble calcium product stood at nearly double the quantity of marble cut for construction or monument purposes. The crushed marble figured as an ingredient in construction products like house paint and sheetrock mud. A postwar building boom in residential housing upped the demand for powdered marble.
Year 1945 saw momentum building for a surge also in construction marble production. That year the United States Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook predicted the years-long delay in construction of public buildings during the Depression and World War II could mean new boom times for marble in the strong post-war economy.
“Both depressions and wars have a detrimental effect on the construction of permanent public buildings,” the Yearbook noted. “Accordingly, very few such buildings have been erected since 1930, and the accumulated need offers a large potential market for marble for both interior and exterior work."
Predictions proved correct. By 1960, demand for dimension marble for use in public buildings pushed American output to just over 1,700,000 cubic feet, rounding close to pre-Depression levels. Around that time, workmen replaced the sandstone eastern facade of the United States Capitol with new Georgia marble. Massive marble columns, turned on lathes by artisans at Nelson, journeyed to Washington on railroad flatcars.
But the marble boom that followed World War II faded by the end of the Sixties. The 1970 Minerals Yearbook mentioned imported stone and pointed at lagging American technology in dimension stone production. "Failure to achieve the maximum degree of mechanization possible and to resolve the manpower problem may lead to the demise of the dimension stone industry," the Yearbook warned.
The following year, impact from imports was even more evident. The Minerals Yearbook for 1971 indicates President Richard Nixon realized the domestic marble industry faced serious competition from foreign suppliers. But Nixon declined to raise tariffs on imported stone.
Maybe worse, the president actually eliminated the import duty on unfinished and semifinished marble entering the country in an apparent effort to aid marble finishers at the expense of quarry men. To the quarry firms, he offered federal trade adjustment assistance: loans, loan guarantees, technical assistance, tax relief.
For quarry workers squeezed out of jobs by foreign imports, the federal government proposed cash adjustment allowances, counseling, retraining, and relocation money.
Aside from the round-house swing of foreign competition, adjustments in fashion struck the marble industry closer to home. The upstart of perpetual care cemeteries, equipped with flush-to-the-ground grave markers cast from bronze, cut the demand for monument marble. And customers who still chose stone monuments often preferred granite over marble.
"Granite holds up to weather much better than marble," Georgia government geologist, John Costello, said.
Architectural preferences changed also. "Years and years ago, if you look at historic buildings, you see that many varieties of marble were used in construction," Costello said.
Through the early 20th century, some graining in the stone was thought attractive for construction marble, he said. "Over time, the popularity of that heavy-patterned marble declined," Costello said, "and most customers wanted as white a stone as they could get."
Today the pure white Cherokee variety marble remaining at the Tate Quarry is almost rare, Costello claims. Maybe a new boom waits in the stone for some clever architect to rediscover the grandeur of marble with swirls and patterning.
A discovery was struck while researching this story: The United States marble industry experienced a boom time as recently as last decade.
From 1993 through 2005, Congress approved roughly $4.5 billion for 78 federal courthouse construction projects scattered over the country. Almost certainly as a result of that upped demand for construction marble, United States production of dimension marble climbed steadily during the same years.
In 2004, the country saw close to 1,360,000 cubic feet of marble quarried––approaching the level of 1960. The last year of the courthouse spree, 2005, saw output just over 2,850,000 cubic feet––a quantity surpassing every other year clear back to the Great Depression.
Come 2006, the year after Congressionally funded federal courthouse construction folded, American dimension marble production plummeted back to just under 640,000 cubic feet. American marble quarrying remained at about that output level for 2007, the last year for which USGS Minerals Yearbook data has yet been published on the Internet.
Yearbook data indicates Georgia quarrying at Tate has led every other American state in production of dimension stone marble for many years. Francois Darmayan says that record still stands with Vermont Quarries holding steady at second place. Darmayan is general manager over Polycor Georgia Marble’s modern quarrying operation at Tate.
Polycor produced about 120,000 cubic feet of dimension marble from Tate last year, Darmayan said.
To picture that quantity, imagine the Pickens County Courthouse (including the brick wing on back) as a solid marble mass––no air space inside, just a solid chunk. (Subtract the extra bit of height at the center top of the main building, and, by our rough calculations, the three-story courthouse occupies about 124,175 cubic feet.) Polycor’s annual output totals to a lot of marble.
Polycor operates the Tate marble quarry and a finishing plant beside it. But the labor-intensive processes that once generated a host of jobs at Tate are gone with the wind.
"The manufacturing methods have changed as far as quarrying, so they get out more now with fewer people," Polycor Structural Project Manager Mike Westbrook explained.
Gone too is most of the fine finishing work at Tate, fabrication of any marble product with shape to it, Westbrook said. Quarry blocks are still cut into slabs at Tate. Slabs are still polished inside the Tate Mill. But no carving, sculpting or art-type finish work are conducted commercially at Tate on a regular basis today.
"We still do a lot of pavers, a lot of flat work," Westbrook said. Sculptured marble (anything with a shape) is finished elsewhere. Polycor ships quarried marble to specialty shops where the shape is put on, Westbrook said. "Some are in the Northeast. A couple are in Canada," he said. Each shop majors on a single specialty, he said. One does counter tops. One does columns. One does cornice moldings.
Most of the white Georgia marble quarried at Tate today goes to mark graves of American veterans, Francois Darmayan said. "The main part of the dimension marble we quarry is for government headstones," he said.
But now most fabrication of those grave markers happens somewhere else, in Vermont or Mississippi, he said. Only at times of peak demand are any VA headstones still made at Tate, Darmayan said. The present economic downturn has not altered the demand for VA grave markers, he said. Train cars of marble blocks seen heading south through Nelson in early April were bound for headstone manufacture in Vermont, Darmayan said.
Polycor's other market, construction marble, calls mostly for slabs used in walls and floors. Because such marble pieces are applied as a building nears completion, Darmayan explained, Polycor has continued to ship orders despite the downturn, as building projects now finishing began about three years ago.
"We're the last step for construction," Darmayan explained, and most building projects begun before the recession are continuing to completion. So far, only a couple of projects in New York have called back to cancel marble orders, he said. Compared to last year, Polycor marble sales are off by about 10 to 15 percent, Darmayan said.
The severe downturn in residential construction has lowered the demand for crushed marble calcium product used in many building supplies. Huber Engineered Materials laid off six employees from its Marble Hill crushed marble plant in January. According to a press release, the lay-off amounted to a seven percent workforce reduction at the plant.
Imerys also operates a crushed marble plant at Marble Hill but effectively evaded all Progress questions, including ones about reduction of labor force. A company lawyer required all reporter questions be submitted by e-mail, then answered none of them.
Polycor aims to weather the economic crisis while maintaining the same number of employees, Francois Darmayan said. Polycor employs about 60  at Tate, he said.
Evan Howell manages the only marble finishing plant (in the old sense) still operating in Pickens County. The Blue Ridge Marble and Granite Company started up in a reopened Nelson marble plant about two years ago.
Along with private memorials, Blue Ridge also fabricates counter tops, table tops and some structural pieces for building construction, Howell said. Those last go for "government buildings, private buildings and banks," Howell said. "That part of it is what's so bad slow right now," he said.
Everything marble now fabricated at Nelson is sculpted from stone quarried at Tate, Howell said. Even with the slow-down, his workmen stay pretty busy.
"We work six days [per week] most of the time," Howell said. He aims to keep all of his 20-man work force working, Howell said. "It's slow," he said, "but we ain't laid off."