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Heyday gone, granite artisans in N.H. carve a out new niche

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009
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MILFORD, N.H. - They call it "The Granite Town," and it is, in some ways, the figurative capital of the Granite State. Once it boasted 15 quarries, which produced blocks that adorned buildings in Boston and across New England.

In Milford, granite was not something hard or immutable or inanimate. It was passion and it was history and it represented an entire way of life.

But like the great steel mills of Pennsylvania, in New Hampshire what once seemed forever proved only temporary. The mighty granite industry crumbled, its regional dominance worn away by technological advances and globalization. Only one of Milford's quarries, Kitledge Quarry, continues to operate; the rest are dormant, gaping holes in the earth.

And yet some locals cannot get granite out of their blood or their livelihoods. Now they run small businesses, fashioning granite countertops, walkways, or posts at the edge of the great quarries of Milford's glory days. But, more often than not, the stone they sell is not mined here; it comes from across the country and around the globe, with exotic names like Uba Tuba from Brazil, Volga Blue from Russia, Acajou from Canada, and Autumn Rose from Texas. These businesses could be anywhere. They are here because the owners or their fathers or grandfathers worked the granite and passed on the trade and the love of stone.

"It kind of gets in your blood," said Tim Hall, owner of Milford Granite Co., a shop that produces granite steps, signs, fences, and benches.

Although Hall's hangar-like headquarters is but a stone's throw from Kitledge Quarry, he gets most of his granite from Elberton, Ga. (which calls itself the "Granite Capital of the World"; evidently, there is a lot of that in this business).

On a recent Friday, Hall took a 3-pound hammer and a carbide-tipped hand tracer and whacked a 7-inch slab of Georgia Gray a couple of dozen times with the precision of someone who has been cutting stone since high school. The slab split in a perfect line, revealing the intricate constellation of shades of white, black, and gray.

"You see the cut; it's real fine grain," Hall said, admiring his work. "I like making things out of stone. It's interesting - take a piece of stone and make a bench."

At $10 per square foot, Hall added, such a 7-inch slab of Georgia Gray costs him $8 less than the same amount of Kitledge granite. He sells his benches for between $200 and $350, depending on the shape and size.

Like most people in the business around Milford, Hall got his start at Barretto Granite Corp., the company that once owned Kitledge Quarry and figured prominently in the town economy from the 1950s to the early 1990s. That bygone prominence is recognized by the twin granite planters in front of the town administration building, each with the inscription honoring "all Granite State stoneworkers" and John J. Barretto, who ran the business until his death in 1991.

Across the street, the Bravo Family Fun Center occupies a granite building with a castle-like crenellation. The town's centerpiece, the Milford Oval, features granite curbing, granite benches, granite monuments accessible by granite stairs, a flagpole with a granite base, and a memory walk of red brick infused with granite spears. J's Tavern, the former Stonecutter's Lounge, has a countertop of polished tapestry granite from Kitledge Quarry, and a nice view of the Colonel John Shepard Bridge, a granite span over the Souhegan River.

Milford, with about 15,000 residents, has become a diversified hub of services. While thousands had jobs in the granite industry at the beginning of the 20th century, only a few dozen work in granite-related businesses now.

Barretto Granite failed to upgrade to the computer-driven technology that became popular abroad, which allows granite to be cut more easily, quickly, and accurately. The company went bankrupt soon after its founder's death.

In 1992, Barretto's property was purchased by Fletcher Granite of Westford, Mass., which is using Kitledge granite in projects underway at the Kenmore Square Green Line station and at Steinbrenner Stadium at MIT, according to Dave Psaledas, the company's senior operations manager.

Larger, faster container ships have allowed companies from across the country and overseas to sell stone and compete for projects in the region, said Brice Repolt, founder of BFR & Associates in Manchester, N.H., which supplies natural stone and quartz surfacing for construction. Repolt, a sales agent of The North Carolina Granite Corp., got his start at Barretto in 1966, cleaning up granite chips from the mill floor.

"I've learned how to cut stone, how to saw stone, how to finish stone," he said, as he showed a visitor Kitledge Quarry.

Its steep walls of various shades of gray descend 120 feet into a murky green pool that partially obscures giant layers of stone. Most Kitledge granite is porous and liable to stain and is generally considered more suitable for construction than decoration, Repolt said.

The exception, he said, is tapestry granite, highly valued and unique to Milford. Its grays, blacks, and whites swirl in a dizzying pattern of shapes and directions, making it a coveted stone for fireplaces, walkways, and countertops.

"The beauty of the stone is the movement," Repolt said, admiring a wall of tapestry granite from a promontory overlooking the quarry. "When you consider that granite was once a liquid and you can just see these liquids moving around and creating these patterns, combining to form this beautiful tapestry, it's phenomenal."

At the former Barretto Granite Mill, Repolt showed off granite sheets of Baltic Brown (dark brown with lighter round inclusions), Acajou (a pointillist masterpiece of browns, blacks, and silvers), Volga Blue, (a canvas of violent black and gray shards spotted with indigo), and dark green Uba Tuba. A slab of tapestry, at $35 a square foot, can be more expensive for a business to purchase than any of these imported varieties, he said.

The easy availability of imported varieties of granite has spawned, in recent years, a robust countertop industry. It is a natural next step for people whose families have been cutting stone for generations, like Richard Ronzio Jr., whose father worked for Barretto Granite.

"The pretty stones are from Brazil, India, and Canada," said Ronzio, a co-owner of Eco Stoneworks, a half-hour drive from Milford in Manchester.

There, workers used a diamond-tipped saw to cut large slabs of solarius granite from Brazil, elegant gray swirls infused with yellow and gold. Ronzio said he usually pays between $8 and $30 per square foot for a slab of imported granite; he gets almost none from New Hampshire.

It is a good business, though one that requires little stonecutting expertise. The slabs are already finished at the proper thickness when they arrive; all you need to do is cut them to countertop size and shape.

"Countertops," grumbled Repolt as he surveyed the rows of abandoned slabs at the Barretto mill in Milford, "are boring."

It is the kind of thing people say in The Granite Town, where granite is motion, passion, and history, where granite is something that is in your blood.

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.

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Mark Wilson (Mark Wilson / Globe Staff) Brice Repolt at a pile of gravestones on the former grounds of the now-closed Barretto Granite Corp. in Milford, N.H.