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Migrant Granite Workers

From the 1850s onward, fast and regular migration of Granite Masons from Aberdeen to the Quarries of the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.A., mainly to Barre, Vermont occurred. The Masons left in the spring of each year to return home when the cold winter set in. An average of 200 Masons travelled regularly between Aberdeen and the U.S.A. until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 With the higher rate of wages in the U.S.A. many of the Craftsmen saved a sufficient capital to start there own Companies on their return to Aberdeen, which at the height of The Granite Industry had several 100 granite yards and kept 1000's employed.

The world-famous 'Rock of Ages Quarry' at Barre, Vermont, boomed in the late 1890s, a wave of Scots quarry workers from Aberdeenshire came in to operate the drills, saws and surfacers.  Little wonder: Rock of Ages began after George Barron Milne, an Aberdeen Stonecutter, immigrated to Barre in 1883.  He opened his 1st Granite business there 2 years later, and his Rock of Ages Quarry eventually outstripped both Rubislaw and Kemnay – today its open pit is nearly 600 feet deep, and 50 acres in surface area. He certainly ensured that the Rock of Ages cleft for him!

The visitor to Barre is at once impressed with the magnitude of the granite industry. On every hand are to be seen the great establishments erected for cutting, polishing, and finishing the granite for the markets of the world. The principal deposit is 4.5 miles distant from the depot and was formerly known as "mill stone hill." The granite lies in sheets or layers and greatly varies in thickness, thus permitting the quarrying of blocks of any desired size. Mammoth blocks 10 feet square and upwards are here obtained, and shafts of any length can be secured with equal facility. Barre granite is remarkably even, of the finest grain, susceptible of the highest polish, and admitting of the best conceptions of the sculptor's art. The growth of this industry has indeed been marvellous. Ten years ago only a score of men were engaged in cutting granite at this place. To-day there are over 50 granite firms in the town, employing over 1,500 men. The granite is shipped to all parts of the world, and is recognized by experts as the finest extant. The magnificent showing of to-day is due to the recognized good qualities of the granite and the enterprise of the manufacturers in meeting the demands of the trade, rather than to any effort made to force the product upon the market. It may be said that the business now so firmly established here is one that is bound to grow to many times its present proportions, and a great future for Barre is confidently predicted by those who have investigated the matter.

Donald McLeod came to Barre from Aberdeen, Scotland, and is a practical granite cutter. After working at his trade in Barre 4 years, he established his in April, 1886, at the foot of Granite Street. Mr. McLeod turned out a general line of monumental and cemetery work, in granite, for the wholesale and retail trade. He employed 14 men.

These emigrés included Alfred Diack, who emigrated in the last years of the 19th century and built a business in Granite Memorials in the town of Quincy; his nephew William later wrote the definitive book on Aberdeen’s Granite Industry. 

On settling in Barre Masons established their own Freemasons Lodge, Presbyterian Church and Burns Club. Some stayed and opened their own businesses. Another interesting piece of information was recorded in 1886, when a group of Masons were hired in Aberdeen to travel to Texas and cut, and erect the State Capital Building.  Unknown to the Aberdeen Masons the Granite Cutters Union of America was in dispute with the employers who were using convict labour in the Quarries. The Aberdeen Masons were therefore to be used as strike breakers. Much animosity ensued but it was eventually settled.  What became known as ‘The American Trade’ slowly declined in the early 1900s due to the U.S.A. being in a position to manufacture its own stone products.  With the end of the World War 1 many of the Masons returning from Military service found work hard to come by. The Ganite industry had begun to decline, granite yards were closing and the depression had struck.

Tools and Machinery in the American Granite Industry History Parts 1-3
Extremely well illustrated and interesting appraisal of the early Granite Industry in North America with little acknowledgement to the Aberdeen Granite Masons who attended to this demanding trade with their many adventurous sojourns to that continent during their early lives.

Aberdeen's men of Granite have left their mark all over the world. Their work is their legacy and here is but a few: The Paris Opera House, the London Bridge (now in Nevada U.S.A.) the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the State Capital Building in Austin, Texas.

BIRNIE & DIACK, Columbia street, Quincy Adams, is composed of William L. Birnie and Alfred O. Diack. Both men are natives of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the former being born March 22, 1855, and the latter October 31, 1867. Mr. Birnie learned his trade in the quarries of Kemnay, and at Aberdeen, where he worked 9 years. He then came to the USA and was employed by General Tilson at Hurricane Island, Me, where he remained 1 year, going from there to the Bodwell Granite Company, Vinal Haven, Me. Three years later he went to Milford, Mass, and from there to Graniteville, Mo., where after a few months he returned to Milford, and in 1890 went to Quincy in the employ of W. C. Townsend, and later for S. Henry Barnicoat, when he became associated with Diack.   Diack learned his trade in Kemnay under his father, Alexander Diack, after which he worked as journeyman in Jersey Island, and in Wales, when in 1889, he went to Milford. Two years later he went West, working in Texas, Colorado and California, when he went to Quincy and worked for S. Henry Barnicoat and later with McIntosh & Son a few months, when he formed a partnership with Mr. Birnie and engaged in the wholesale monumental business at their present location. They have a well-equipped plant and employ 30 hands, their trade extending all over the country Mr. Diack is vice-president of the National Association of Granite Industries of the United States, and president of the Granite Manufacturers' Association of Quincy. He is also one of the Directors of the Mt. Wollaston Cemetery, a member of St. Stephen's Chapter, Quincy Commandery, and Aleppo Temple, F. and A. M., Mt. Wollaston Lodge, Manet Encampment and Shawmut Canton, IOOF, and is chief of Clan McGregor. He served 2 years as a member of Quincy City Council.

JOSS BROTHERS COMPANY, Quincy, was established in 1882, and is one of the oldest in that section. The business was carried on by John and James Joss, under the firm name of Joss Brothers, until 1895, when it was incorporated under the present name.  They have an up-to-date plant consisting of polishing mill and cutting sheds covering about an acre of ground. A 125 horse-power boiler and engine furnishes power for their machinery and air compressor Pneumatic tools, surface cutters and all the most modern machinery is in use in all departments and 2 x  15-ton travelling cranes are used in the polishing mill and cutting sheds. While the major part of their orders call for monuments in Quincy granite they use considerable Westerly and other New England granites. They employed from 25 to 30 men, and earned a reputation for a high standard of quality in the work which they turn out. Of the recent public monuments cut by them mention can be made of the Soldiers' monument in Sandwich, Mass, This monument, standing 35 feet high and 8-6 square at the base, is surmounted by a statue of a soldier at parade rest. They recently furnished a soldiers' monument for Melrose, Mass, and one of the memorial monuments on the Chattanooga battlefield was made by them.

John Joss was president of the company from its incorporation to the time of his death in 1906, when he was succeeded by Mr. Jonathan Dinnie James Joss, the present manager, who has also been Treasurer of the Company since it was incorporated, is a native of Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, but came to the United States in 1871, when but a young man. Since 1901 he has been treasurer of the Granite Manufacturers' Association, of which he is an active member, and is also a member of the Quincy Board of Trade.

ANDREW MILNE, of the firm of Milne & Chalmers, Inc., Quincy Adams, and Summer Street, Boston, is 1 of the oldest men in the granite business in Quincy. He was born at Aberdeenshire, February 13, 1841, and when 28 years of age he came to this country and settled in Quincy, learning the polishing trade in the yard of McKenzie & Patterson. He worked as a journeyman until 1880, when he became associated with John Wiley, George Chalmers and W. A. Smith, and formed a partnership under the firm name of Milne & Chalmers at South Quincy. In 1904 the firm dissolved and Mr. Milne bought the business, and 2 years later it was incorporated under its present name, with Andrew Milne, president, Mary B. Milne, treasurer, and James Milne, clerk. In 1910 he, together with J. L. Miller, Henry McGrath, Reed & Vendret, P. T. Fitzgerald, and later, his son James, daughter Mary, and Peter E. Vendret formed a corporation under the name of the Bay View Quarry Company, and bought the well-known Field & Weld quarries, the officers being Messrs Miller, president, McGrath, vice-president; Reed, treasurer, and Milne, secretary. Milne & Chalmers do a large retail business throughout New England and employ 60 hands. His son, Thomas, is a travelling salesman for the house, and another son, Andrew, is senior member of Milne & Hector of Quincy Adams. Mr. Milne is a member of Wollaston Lodge, St. Stephen Chapter, Boston Council, He was an extensive operator in real estate, being president of the President Hill Real Estate Trust, also of President Hill Annex Real Estate Trust, and secretary of Cranch Hill Real Estate Trust. He is one of the incorporators of the First Presbyterian Church Society, was president of its Building Committee and chairman of the Church Remodelling Committee.

ALEXANDER FALCONER, Quincy Adams, is a native of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where he was born October 14, 1854. He served 3 years at his trade, and in 1877 went to St. Catherines, Ontario, where he was employed building the Welland canal. Two years later he went to Buffalo and New York, working until 1891, at which time he moved to Quincy, where he was employed 3 years. He then bought what are now the Falconer quarries and engaged in the contracting business dealing in monumental, edge and paving stone. He is also one of the stockholders of the Blue Hill Quarry at West Quincy, and is a wholesale dealer in monuments. Mr. Falconer was a member of Quincy Common Council in 1895-96, and of the Board of Assessors, 1909-10-11. He is past treasurer of Rural Lodge and is a member of the Council Commandery and Knight Templars, F. and A. M., also Clan MacGregor.

Andrew McIntosh, Jr, vice-president and manager of the Henry C. Smalley Granite Company, was born in Aberdeen, January 1, 1868. He came to the USA when 5 years of age, and after leaving school he served his time as granite cutter and carver in Quincy and Westerly. His wide experience has equipped him to maintain a high standard of work such as this firm has the reputation of producing.

Moruya Quarry NSW

PictureGranite workers from Kemnay also helped to quarry and shape the Australian Granite used in the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Quarrying for granite commenced in the district in the late 1850s by the brothers Joseph and John Flett Loutitt who were from the Orkney Islands. 

Their quarry known as Louttits was on the south side of the River produced stone for many Sydney landmarks including the pillars of the General Post Office in Martin Place, and the base of the Captain Cook Statue in Hyde Park.



In May 1926, 9 year old Ruby Grant, her brothers and parents, William and Annie Grant, left Aberdeen Joint Station for Liverpool to board the SS Pakeha which would take them to Sydney.  Grant and 8 other stonemasons had been recruited on highly attractive 5 year contracts to help prepare the granite masonry for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Ruby’s family was headed for Moruya, a small township 190 miles south of Sydney, where Middlesbrough-based Dorman, Long & Company, the Bridge Contractors, had opened up a Quarry to supply the granite for the bridge’s pylons. The Moruya enterprise constituted a substantial proportion of the Bridge’s estimated cost, but John Bradfield, the Australian Engineer and driving force behind the bridge’s construction, wanted solid piers, and wanted them made of granite.  When the Grants reached Moruya, they must have felt at home: the management team which had been in place since early 1925 was very much an Aberdeenshire affair: for example John Gilmore, the Quarry Manager, was from Harthill near Kemnay. Dorman Long provided a temporary township called Granitetown of 70 wooden houses, 2 blocks of bachelor accommodation, a shop and Post Office, a Recreation Hall, and the New South Wales Education Department built a School. ‘From the moment I saw the place, I knew I was going to love it,’ wrote Ruby of her first sight of Granitetown.  Not so her mother!  As she gazed at the paraffin lamp with tears in her eyes, she exclaimed, ‘Oh! - What have we come to?’ 

For the next 5 years William Grant and his fellow Masons dressed blocks of granite to drawings outlined by the Masons’ Foreman, Bill Morrison.  Each piece was numbered to help the Masons  up in Sydney.  The Grants bought a camera to record their time  in Australia, and 50 years later, Ruby wrote a wonderful book of her experiences, Granite Town Memories, a copy of which is at the Aberdeen City Library.  Picnic outings, sawing wood, treks into the bush, Australia’s unusual flora and fauna, swimming at Moruya Heads, school days: all are recorded with enthusiasm by Ruby.  The villagers organised concerts and Scottish dances in the Recreation Hall: ‘How furiously those folk could dance’, wrote one young Australian apprentice.  They also brought the Doric Dialect: ‘Many locals reckoned an interpreter would have been handy.  We grew to like it, and some of us even tried to speak it!’  wrote the Quarry Clerk. John Bradfield described how, following a visit to the Quarry in 1926, one small girl told him she had ‘come a’ the wye fae Scotland tae mak’ a brig.’   By 1931, the Bridge was nearing completion, and the Quarry began to run down. The Grants and most of the recruits eventually returned to Aberdeen, though some stayed on, and a few even returned to Australia.  But their contribution has not been forgotten.  Years later, Mary Gilmore, the Quarry Manager’s  wife, wrote: ‘This forgotten community leaves behind it in Sydney the beautiful granite pillars of the Bridge as a memorial’.

Clipper SOBRAON’ Built 1866. Named after Punjab Battle
Composite ship of 2131 Tons.
Length; 317 ft.
Breadth; 40 ft.
Depth; 27 ft.
Built by Hall of Aberdeen for Lowther, Maxton and Co. Master; Captain Kyle then ~
Captain J.A.Elmslie. He had her for her career in the Australian Passenger trade.

In 1911 the shipwrights who were about to break her up inspected her but she was found to be as sound as she ever was and the Federal Government bought her for use as a Training Ship. They renamed her ‘Tingira’ and she remained in that role until she was retired for good and broken up. She carried the bell from the old cadet training ship ‘Vernon’ as a call to assembly for the boys who were learning their trade. During 1927-35 she lay on moorings at Berry’s Bay. On 19th March 1932 she functioned appropriately as a viewing platform for official opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge

Peripatetic Masons

Aberdonians emigrated to South Africa, finding opportunities in the Granite Quarries around Bulawayo and Cape Town during the 1890s. This latter-day ‘trek’ was smaller in scale and only lasted for a few years: by 1899, the South African Masons’ Union wrote to their Aberdeen counterparts advising that the granite trade was in a depressed state, and counselling against any further emigration. The Boer War killed off the South African jobs completely, but that did not discourage the peripatetic quarrymen.

A well-substantiated story has it that James Bisset, a stone cutter once employed at Kemnay Quarries, travelled to Odessa in the Crimea during the 1860s, taking his wife, a copy of the Complete Works of Burns, and his old stand-by, the fiddle. He trained the Crimeans in the art of sett-making, but eventually his employer went bankrupt and the Tsarist authorities grew tired with Bisset’s politics. So it was that James Bisset and his family were deported, and began a long, weary trek home. They crossed the Balkans to Istanbul, from where they sailed to Marseilles, then crossed France on foot. James supported his wife and 2 small children by playing the fiddle as he went, and they reached Kemnay many months later.  In due course, one of Bisset’s sons became a quarryman at Kemnay, and was known throughout his life as ‘The Rooshan’.

Rockefeller Centre - NYC

After a brief post-war respite, foreign competition in the 1920s made life even tougher for the Aberdeen industry. Then the Great Depression struck. Although its effect was global, there were still opportunities for those stone cutters prepared to travel. Alfred Bossom, the chronicler of New York’s skyscrapers, noted in 1934 that Scotsmen “almost monopolise” the stonework, and the biggest building construction project in the world at that time was the Rockefeller Centre in New York.  Unsurprisingly, then, the pink Deer Isle Granite from Maine which clads the plinths and paves large swathes of Rockefeller Plaza was worked by a largely Scots workforce – many of whom came from Aberdeenshire. 

The Deer Isle stonecutter, Bob McGuffie, was interviewed by Time magazine years later. “After I got out of grammar school, I began cutting paving as my father and other Scots had done before me… I did that until 1939 when the demand for paving blocks died out and then I turned to cleaning up the stone that had been cut with a sand-blast finish”.  McGuffie settled at Deer Isle around the time that its pink granite was being cut for the Rockefeller contract. His father Alex was the Quarry’s Union Secretary, who moved to Maine during an upturn in the granite cycle. Inset Dear Isle Quarry

The New World continued to act as a sponge to absorb excess labour from Scotland. There was a great strike and workers were locked out of the quarries in 1892, but by 1901, John Goss, the owner of the Green Head and Crotch Island quarries at Deer Isle, needed extra labour. Goss made William McKenzie his foreman, and McKenzie in turn recruited fellow Aberdeenshire men such as Alex McGuffie to bolster the workforce.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, McKenzie had connections to Fyfe’s Kemnay Quarry. When Deer Isle granite was selected for the lower portions of the Rockefeller Centre, the Depression was at its worst – so it could be said that John D. Rockefeller kept many Scots Masons from poverty during the early 1930s.

1932 Photos of Construction

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Last modified: 01/09/2013