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Online Extra
October 2003



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ZipUSA: 05641




By Margaret G. Zackowitz
When you're looking at tombstones in Barre, Vermont—and everyone who comes here does—keep an eye out for the ones with carved flowers. They're trying to tell you something.

"A lily with a broken stem means a life cut short," says sculptor Giuliano Cecchinelli, his cap pulled so low that at certain angles the hat itself seems to be the one with the thick Italian accent. He walks quickly; you have to hurry to keep up as he strides between the graves in hilly Hope Cemetery, the city's major tourist attraction. Like many of the men who crafted these memorials—and now rest under them—Cecchinelli, 59, was born and trained in Italy's stonecutting center, Carrara. Every so often he stoops to rub a thumb across some detail on a pale granite grave marker: a curling scroll edge carved parchment thin, an angel's downturned face. Cecchinelli's own work stands over many of the newer burial plots, but most headstones in this section are almost a century old. "Ferns mean the beginning of life. Chrysanthemums mean death. Roses are for love," he says. "And carnations—carnations mean the guy was an anarchist."

Anarchy? In this quaint Vermont setting? It turns out that Barre isn't quite what it appears. (Even the city's name—which local legend claims was chosen by the winner of a fistfight in 1793—isn't pronounced the way it's spelled. You'd better call it "Berry" or risk being asked how the drive was from New Jersey.) The anarchists, who were a political presence here a hundred years ago, have faded into history. But while the city's politics are more conventional now, they remain eccentric. Barre's current mayor, Harry Monti, was elected via a write-in campaign that was a surprise to him: He was in Cancún, on vacation, at the time. The proudly blue-collar city supports the arts; rust-peppered pickup trucks jostled newer cars in the overflowing parking lot of the 1899 Barre Opera House for a recent performance of Carmen. But crowds also packed the place for the Miss Vermont pageant last year. You can rent the same stage for your kid's piano recital.

Back when the opera house opened, Barre was a boomtown, "the Chicago of New England," a newspaper called it at the time. In 1890 the population numbered nearly 7,000. By 1903 it was 12,000 and rising. Cutters and carvers from all over Europe arrived to find jobs with Barre's granite quarries and stoneworking sheds. A bustling Little Italy thrived at the city's north end as Italian marble workers came to try their hand at the harder rock. Scots, Irish, Poles, and Spaniards made lives and livings here too.

These days things are quieter. Though 57 stoneworking companies still operate within city limits, cheap imported granite has reduced demand. Local quarries don't produce—or hire—the way they used to. Barre's population has dropped to just over 9,000. Chain stores outside the city limits have sapped much of Main Street's old commercial diversity: Four pizza shops, three Chinese restaurants, and two florists have sprouted within a one-mile stretch downtown. As Harry Monti's Cadillac negotiates the afternoon traffic jam—an orderly queue of 17 cars, slowed only by drivers' polite stops for jaywalkers—he explains why a little place like this would need two flower shops. "We have," he says, smiling around his ever present cigarette, "a lot of dead people."

Barre makes a good living off of death: The boom years may be over, but more granite gravestones are still produced here than almost anywhere else in the United States. Gross sales of world-famous Barre Gray granite topped 11 million dollars last year. And Barre Gray is about the best there is. fine-grained and impervious to weathering, it can be pulled from the earth here in huge flawless blocks. Street curbs and yuppie kitchen countertops aren't sufficiently noble uses for the stone; this stuff is meant to last the centuries. The steps of the east wing of the U.S. Capitol are made from Barre Gray. So are the grave markers of Stephen Foster, Harry Truman, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Col. Harland Sanders. (Does the man who invented Kentucky Fried Chicken deserve anything less?)

Hope Cemetery, where sculptor Giuliano Cecchinelli (and his hat) shows off the flower carvings, is one of three graveyards managed by the city. Only memorials made of Barre Gray are permitted there. Other than that, the options for eternal remembrance are wide open. "We allow bigger monuments than most other cemeteries," says Dwight Coffrin, whose title, Director of Cemeteries and Parks, seems to list his responsibilities in order of importance to the city. Hope also allows more unusual ones. Along with the usual crosses and cherubs, markers for the 85-acre park's 10,500 graves include an actual-size armchair, an oversize soccer ball, an airplane, a race car, and a massive cube balanced mysteriously on its corner. A number of the stones mark empty graves. The pre-need purchase is common: Many people erect tombstones decades before they die. "That way, you know how you'll be remembered," explains Coffrin. "People want to enjoy their memorials while they're still alive." But those paying respects to their own gravesites are far outnumbered come autumn. "This cemetery averages 35,000 visitors during the six weeks of the fall foliage season each year, and those are just the ones on tourist buses," Coffrin says. "We don't even keep count for the rest of the year."

The rest of the year can be a problem in Barre. Despite the city's Green Mountain location, summer temperatures and humidity sometimes soar here, and the winters are numbingly cold. Just ask Pete O'Grady. In September of last year the 33-year city employee resigned as Barre's superintendent of streets to start a new life in Phoenix. The desert held an obvious appeal: O'Grady's job had involved clearing his hometown's roads of its annual average of seven feet of snow. But after only ten weeks away, O'Grady returned to Vermont in November. He'd been miserable in Phoenix. He'd hated the crowds and crime, the traffic and bureaucracy. "Everything's so complicated there," he remembers. "You have to give them your social security number and sign your life away just to get your utilities hooked up. In Barre, whatever you need, you make one call and it's done." O'Grady's former job had not been filled yet, so the city rehired him. The superintendent of streets of Barre, Vermont, picked up right where he'd left off—in time for the season's first blizzard.

"I didn't mind," says the guy who grew up on Granite Street. "It was so good to be home."

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