The Socialist Labor Party Hall

By Carol Maurer

It was a preservationist’s nightmare. On October 4, 1994, dozens of boxes filled with historic documents stored in one of the city’s most significant buildings were trucked off to a distant landfill. And, the fate of the building itself was in doubt. Built in 1900 by Italian immigrant granite workers, the Socialist Labor Party Hall in Barre, Vermont, an icon of the city’s turbulent past, seemed to have reached the end of the line.

When a local bank foreclosed on the Vermont Pak Tomato Company, a storage facility that had most recently occupied the building, Karen Lane, Library Director at the Aldrich Public Library, requested and received permission for the library’s archivist to examine the contents of the boxes. Instead of the promised call from the bank, however, she was stunned to receive a call from a friend informing her that the contents of the building had been hauled away. Karen and Joelen Mulvaney, who had researched and written about the building, made a frenzied rush to the landfill in a desperate but futile attempt to recover the documents.

Recalling the debacle, Karen says, “Despite losing the papers - an incident that still causes me anguish to suppose what treasures of Barre’s radical past we might have found there - the positive outcome of the whole event was that it made Joelen and me and our friends very determined to save the remaining artifact, the Hall itself.”

The Labor Hall is a simple, 50x108 foot rectangular, granite-trimmed, brick structure of no pronounced architectural style. It is divided into two sections; a two-story flat-roofed front section and a single story rear projection. Prominently displayed above its five-paneled wood door and fanlight is a granite medallion carved in bas-relief representing the symbol of the Socialist Labor Party, a raised arm and hammer.

The hall’s interior is embellished with stenciled cased beams and walls, a beaded dado, maple tongue-and-groove flooring, and a decorative tin ceiling. In atonement for its embarrassing blunder, the bank retrieved the original mirrored chandelier it had sold to a second hand furniture dealer and, at Karen’s request, paid for its restoration. It hangs again in the main hall.

People who have attended functions in the hall speak of its unusually resonant acoustics which must have enhanced the vigor and clarity of oratory delivered before the development of modern sound systems. Much of the construction work was done by Socialist Labor Party members in their limited free time after grueling ten hour, six day weeks of heavy labor in the quarries.

Italian socialists built the hall in 1900 to serve their community’s need for a meeting place but went well beyond that goal by organizing a choral society, a band, language classes, study circles, dances, theater, musical productions, and sporting events. A cooperative store, bakery and bottling works were located in the basement. Consistent with their ideals of promoting education and the arts and taking care of their neighbors, the members provided for their community in many important ways.

Aurora Atherton, 88, whose father came from Italy in 1902 to work in the granite sheds, remembers a myriad of activities. “We used to have so much fun going to picnics and Saturday night dances. Everyone would go. My father took me to the hall, then went into the other room to play mura (a finger game). He was a strong union man and went to a lot of meetings at the hall. Once a year the union had a big banquet and there were floats with people underneath pushing them along.”

During the building dedication ceremony on November 28, 1900, a standing-room crowd heard a speech by Camillo Cianfarra, the editor of Il Proletario, the New York City newspaper of the Socialist Labor Party, entitled, “What is Socialism?” When he returned to New York he wrote, “The Italian Socialist Section of Barre has built a hall for the grand sum of $7000, most of which has already been paid. That which at first would have seemed impossible has been accomplished and the hall stands now on Granite Street, a superb synthesis and demonstration of the collective effort of the workers joined and guided by the light of an idea like ours.”

An unpretentious, blue collar town, Barre is “the granite capital of the world.” The mother lode of Barre granite which covers an area approximately three miles long by one mile wide under the hills around Barre and surrounding towns is the greatest concentration of high quality gray granite to be found anywhere. While the first granite enterprise was established in the 1820s, and several more followed, it wasn’t until 1875 that the extension of the railroad opened the granite market to the world. Suddenly, by 1900, the lure of good jobs transformed the quiet village of 2000 in 1880 into a small industrial city of 11,754. By 1902 there were 68 granite quarries in operation. Today’s population is 16,893.

As Barre’s labor market boomed, swarms of immigrants flocked to the Barre granite quarries. The first to arrive in 1880 were the Scots bringing with them a strong tradition in socialism and trade unionism. They were key players in organizing the granite cutters’ union in 1886 which was later housed in the Labor Hall.

Then came the Italians around 1883 from the marble centers of Carrara, Brera, and Milan where many had studied sculpture in the fine arts academies. Their finely-honed skills in stone carving were a major contribution to the industry but equally significant was their penchant for political activism, a bubbling stew of leftist ideologies and volatile personalities stirred up by a passion for social reform. At a time when Vermont was solid Anglo Saxon, Protestant, Republican, and anti-union, the town of Barre was a smorgasbord of anti-establishment, anti-clerical, and anti-capitalist causes. Anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, American Labor Party supporters, and Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) were part of the mix. The anarchists, identified by their black bow ties, frequently clashed with the socialists who wore red cravats. Memorial statues in Barre’s Hope Cemetery indicate by tie or cravat the political allegiance of those interred. Other immigrant groups settled in Barre but the Italian stone carvers chiseled the deepest impression in the city’s cultural history along with some of the finest examples of sculptural design and craftsmanship.

For nearly four decades the hall was an epicenter of radicalism and reform. Internationally known political and labor leaders - Samuel Gompers, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Joseph Ettor, Edmondo Rossoni, Norman Thomas, Big Bill Hayward, Ann Burlak (“The Red Flame”) - delivered impassioned speeches on workers’ rights and social policy.

Luigi Galleani, considered by scholars the most important figure and one of the leading orators in the Italian anarchist movement in America, settled in Barre from 1903 to 1912 where he launched his celebrated weekly journal, Cronaca Sovversiva (subversive chronicle).

Anarchist firebrand, Emma Goldman appeared with the charismatic Galleani before a huge crowd at the Barre Opera House in 1907 on one of her frequent lecture tours. In 1899, on a previous trip to Barre where she was scheduled for four lectures on Social Problems, her feminist and anarchist views so enraged a group of citizens they convinced the Mayor to run her out of town. In her autobiography, Living My Life, Goldman offers her version of the incident. “After two weeks activity in Barre the police suddenly decided to prevent my last meeting. The official reason for it was supposed to be my lecture on war. According to the authorities, I had said: God bless the hand that blew up the Maine. It was of course obviously ridiculous to credit me with such an utterance. The unofficial version was more plausible. ‘You caught the Mayor and the Chief of Police in Mrs. Colletti’s kitchen dead drunk,’ my Italian friend explained, ‘and you have looked into their stakes in the brothels. No wonder they consider you dangerous now and want to get you out.’”

There were a dozen often-violent strikes between 1890 and 1933 igniting conflict between labor and management on such issues as reduced work hours and mitigation of the granite dust problem that caused the deadly lung disease, silicosis. Also, there was friction between the different factions within socialism and between socialists and anarchists. Tragedy struck in 1903 when partisan emotions boiled over and a scuffle in the Labor Hall between socialists and anarchists resulted in the accidental shooting death of 34-year-old anarchist, Elia Corti, a prominent and highly regarded stone cutter.

Perhaps the most famous incident occurred in 1912 when Barre’s Italian community sheltered 35 children who were sent to safety from Lawrence, Massachusetts where the textile workers’ “Bread and Roses” strike had turned violent. The ragged, malnourished children were warmly greeted in Barre by several hundred people and a band. A front page article in the Barre Daily Times of February 19, 1912 describes the scene. “Arriving at the hall, several local physicians were on hand to examine the children as to their physical fitness and immunity from disease. A monstrous banquet previously prepared by committees was spread at the hall and the youngsters fell to with a will after the examination was over. In the evening, the distribution to the different people who had volunteered their hospitality took place. It is understood that many more children could have been accommodated by families equally anxious to help the striking workers in Lawrence.”

As time passed, the political climate changed. The post World War I “red scare” and the notorious trial of anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, in 1920 created a national paranoia that dampened the fervor of radical groups. Thousands of socialists, communists, and anarchists were targeted, often illegally, for arrest and deportation. People whose passion in life was to improve the lot of their fellow workers were characterized as bomb-throwing lunatics. A golden age in labor history had come to an end.

The Labor Hall continued to function under socialist stewardship during the 1930s, although less vigorously, until 1936 when it was sold at auction to the Washington Fruit Company to be used as a warehouse. For the next 58 years its colorful history faded from memory.

When the case of the missing boxes and resulting newspaper coverage turned the spotlight on the endangered hall, the community at large mobilized to save the building that symbolizes Barre’s dramatic ethnic and political heritage. The Friends of 46 Granite Street, the building’s original advocates, revived a defunct Barre Historical Society and began the long, arduous journey toward the goal of raising over half a million dollars to buy and restore the hall for a labor museum and community center. Its board of directors represented a diversity of interests - several local historians, two members of the Barre City Council, two union granite sculptors, a college professor, the library’s archivist, a college administrator, and activists Karen Lane and Joelen Mulvaney. Volunteers came from all segments of the community to knock down walls, remove cement, organize fundraising dinners, and attend monthly work days.

As in the beginning, union members donated their time, labor, and money. “We made a special effort to reach out to Vermont unions for their support and involvement because we believe that is the true heritage of the hall,” says Karen Lane. “The idealism that gave rise to it is the desire for a better life for the working person, a realization of the value of cooperation and collective action.”

The first to step up to the plate was the Granite Workers Association with a donation of $5,000. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 300, also donated $5,000 and with the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, Local 693, their labor as well. Support also came from the Vermont State Labor Council and other unions. Several union representatives serve on the Barre Historical Society’s Board of Directors. Giuliano Cecchinelli, a granite sculptor and board member who emigrated to the United States from Carrara, Italy in 1961, carved a handsome piece of sculpture which was raffled off to raise funds for the hall.

During the restoration the building was honored with the National Park Service’s designation of National Historic Landmark. In his letter supporting the nomination, Robert Reynolds, archivist of the George Meany Archives and editor of Labor’s Heritage Magazine wrote, “The Labor Hall is both national in scope and unique in labor history. As a nation of immigrants, the Hall shows how new arrivals sought to build and assimilate while at the same time preserve the culture of their homeland. I know of no other national landmarks acknowledging the nineteenth and early twentieth century cooperative and socialist movements in the United States.”

On Labor Day, 2000, as in times past, the Labor Hall overflowed with people, excited voices, speeches and music as it reopened its doors to the community. Traditional labor songs played and sang by local musicians recalled the decades of struggle by working people everywhere to simply get a fair deal. Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid, Joe Hill’s Rebel Girl, Bread and Roses, Which Side Are You On, Solidarity Forever and other songs of comradeship and struggle flooded the hall with nostalgia, good fellowship, and community spirit.

“When you’re in that hall you get the same feeling as in the old days,” says George Clain, President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 300, and a member of the Historical Society’s board of directors. “You step in there and there is something that tells you where you are. You can feel it, a magnetism, a power that moves you forward. This is where I ought to be. It’s like going home.”