Carving a family life out of the rugged stone of the Northeast
ADOLPH Hadeka and his son, Billy, throw their weight onto the crowbar. A few crackles, a grinding sound, and the top half of a 3,000 pound block of slate slides neatly off the bottom half. The newly exposed, almost perfectly flat brick-red surface is streaked by a few bands of white -- veins of quartz, typical of the ``surprises'' the Hadekas frequently get as they blast, chip, and scoop slate out of their 90-year-old quarry here.
This surprise isn't a good one. The ideal stone would be solidly red, premium raw material for roofing slates and flooring tiles.
There's a lot of ``touch'' and instinct to being a good slate quarryman, observes Jerry Hadeka, Billy's twin brother. ``A man who's worked in the pit long enough can tell by looking whether he needs to break part off to get at better stone,'' he says.
That process of judging the quality of the stone begins when huge blocks are gnawed out of the craggy walls of the quarry by well-rusted steam shovels. It continues as smaller slabs are squared off by a diamond-toothed saw and the resulting neat rectangles of slate are hand-split into tiles and shingles.
Slate quarrying is a ``tough way to make a living -- it's physically tough, and the market comes and goes,'' Jerry observes. The twins, along with their older brother, Ray, have spent much of their lives in or around a slate pit.
In all, three generations of Hadekas have wrenched stone from the geologic strata of Vermont and New York state, starting with Adolph's father, a Polish immigrant who toiled in the region's marble quarries before taking up farming. In those early years of the century, Poles were a substantial part of the workforce in the slate and marble industries, augmenting the Welsh quarrymen who had earlier migrated here.
On returning to his hometown of Poultney, Vt., after service as a bombardier in World War II, Adolph Hadeka staked his claim to the slate business, buying one of the old quarries that punctuate this countryside with hollowed-out pits (usually filled with water) and towering heaps of tailings. He bought, worked, and sold a number of quarries in the years that followed, and in 1964 purchased the ``red quarry'' here in Hampton -- to the scoffs of locals who thought it a poor investment in a failing industry.
The market for slate roofs, after all, had evaporated decades earlier with the advent of cheaper asphalt shingling. Many quarries in the region had closed down. Some had been converted to production of slate granules, used as a topping for the asphalt shingles. But that business, too, had faded. Still, through hard work, and ``saving dimes and nickles,'' as Mr. Hadeka puts it, the Hadekas held on.
In 1976 the family acquired the ``green quarry'' in Castleton, Vt., about a 15 minute drive from here. That pit, too, had a history of failures, and when it came to financing ``no one wanted to help,'' Hadeka recalls. But the senior Hadeka knew what he was doing. And he knew he could rely on his ``biggest assets -- my three sons.''
Shaping a lean operation that relies heavily on family resources, the Hadekas made the skeptics eat their words. The business has developed to the point where it's ``pretty debt-free'' and ``can pay them [his boys] `pretty well,' '' says Hadeka.
He and his sons do all the blasting and mining within the quarry; his wife, Eileen, is the corporation president; and Billy's wife, Dale, provides clerical and secretarial support. A crew of about a dozen employees fill various other jobs at the quarries.
Despite expense, demand for slate roofing has revived in recent years, stirred by fire codes and insurance rates in the West that discourage use of flammable wooden shingles, and by a new regard for traditional building materials. Slate roofs, after all, are virtually indestructible, lasting for 80 to 100 years.
It's not the roofing slates that have given the Hadeka Slate Company its recent surge of success, though. That part of the operation, observes Ray, who supervises and participates in the sawing, slicing, and trimming of slate here, ``has stayed pretty basic and I doubt if it'll ever change much.'' Shingles, tiles, and flagstones make up only about 25 percent of the business. The other 75 percent sprouted from dozens of acres of finely crushed tailings left over from the days when former owners pounded out slate granules -- and from the stubborn foresight of Adolph Hadeka.
Their father, the younger Hadekas note, is a man who doesn't like to throw out anything, whether it's rusted old engines and axles, heaps of which peek out of the bushes around the red quarry, or mountains of overgrown tailings. ``He was the junk man of the slate industry,'' says Jerry. ``He bought all the old piles of stuff and made products out of them.''
The prize product is a tennis court surface made from a distillation of slate tailings. Dump truck loads of the gravelly, dusty refuse are fed into a rotary dryer at the Castleton quarry which ```scalps off'' both larger grains and fine dust particles, leaving a consistent grind that can be mixed with a binder, bagged, and shipped to resort and second-home developers.
The playing surfaces have the properties of traditional clay courts, but dry much faster, according to the Hadekas. They come in either the greyish-green of the Castleton quarry, or the brown-red of Hampton. The red variety, in a coarser texture, has also found a market as an infield material for baseball diamonds.
As Jerry, who oversees the tennis-court operation, drives his pickup along the bumpy trail that meanders through the wooded tailing mounds near the green quarry, he notes that they've only made the tiniest dent in the 700 millions tons or so of the material.
``It will last my lifetime,'' he says. And who knows, he adds, referring to fine slate dust that's one of the wastes left by their own operation, ``Maybe someday somebody will be mining that like we're mining somebody else's by-product.''