July 15, 2019

Exhibit doesn’t take MDI quarry history for granite

Throughout the summer season, visitors leave Mount Desert Island with small mementos of their stay tucked into their suitcases.

But there was a time, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when large sections of the island itself were hauled away.

This time period is covered in the new exhibit, “Granite Dreams: Quarrying History of Mount Desert Island,” mounted by the MDI Historical Society at its Sound Schoolhouse building on Route 198 in Mount Desert.

Jaylene Roths, executive director of the historical society, gave much of the credit for the exhibit to Steven Haynes, a local granite-industry historian who also collects tools of the trade. He and his partner, Juanita Sprague, contributed the photos and tools for the exhibit, while Roths wrote the text.

“Steven had been talking to me about it for years,” Roths said. “Also it’s something people have been asking about for years. We decided this was the year to do it.”

At the height of the granite industry, there were 49 different quarries on the island. Most in demand was the Somes Sound pink granite from the Otter Creek quarry of Cyrus J. Hall.

Jobs at the quarries ranged from unskilled to skilled, and included laborers, carvers, granite cutters, paving cutters, polishers, quarrymen, teamsters, and tool carriers and sharpeners. It was dangerous work, with risks such as loss of limbs and “lung fever,” caused by granite dust settling in the workers’ lungs.

The workers would combine their talents to turn huge chunks of granite into small blocks used for paving or building. These blocks were loaded onto schooners at various ports around the island, then transported to be used in the construction of buildings as far away as Omaha, Neb. The record was 85,000 blocks on one schooner.

Roths has been pleased by the response to the exhibit at the schoolhouse, now in its second year of operation.

“It’s been incredible,” she said. “We never sit down around here. It’s really starting to catch on.”

At the society’s museum in downtown Somesville on Route 102 is another new exhibit, “A Stitch in Time,” which tells the history of area women through the textile work they left behind.

It seems challenging for a local historical society to mount two new exhibits each year.

“We are ambitious,” Roths said. “We do what we have to do. We love it.”

Hours for the two museums are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. The Somesville museum will remain open through Sept. 30, while the Somes Schoolhouse will stay open through Oct. 14. For more information, call 276-9323.

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