• Stumbling into the past
    November 05,2012

    I blame Shawn Stabell.

    About a month ago I wrote a City Room column about the H.A. Manning Co. and the city directories the publisher produced decades ago as a resource in Barre and other communities across New England. Stabell, the assistant general manager at The Times Argus, was leafing through one of the older directories when he spotted the black-and-white image of a Norman Rockwell scene on an advertisement for Rock of Ages. His curiousity matches mine, and his appreciation for history is profound. “What do you know about this?” he asked pointing to the image.

    The answer was simple: nothing.

    It took a matter of minutes to discover the 1962 commissioned work (and another done by Rockwell in the 1950s). When I asked Rockwell experts across the nation about “The Craftsman” and “Kneeling Girl,” they were as eager as I to learn more about the artwork and the history behind the mostly unseen Rockwells.

    When I asked longtime Barre residents about them, I got blank, unbelieving stares. When I asked key people in the local arts community the same thing, I got, “What are you talking about?”

    I was dumbfounded. How could they be in Barre and no one knew about them?

    So I blame Shawn for what I can only describe as my month-long obsession. I read everything I could find about the Rock of Ages’ Rockwells. I hounded Rock of Ages’ staff, including Bob Pope, its president, and Paul Hutchins, its vice president. I got to know the staffers at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, and I interviewed former granite industry employees and their relatives. I consulted local oral histories and even visited the gravesite of the model for “The Craftsman,” George Seivwright. I consulted a local insurance broker, who handled the Rock of Ages account at the time.

    And, to my great pleasure and honor, I read Rockwell’s own letters and correspondences about the Barre projects.

    Shawn got to hear every twist and turn of my “historical journey,” and we both became more and more astounded by the depth of the local history, the significance of the works, and that seemingly “unknown factor.”

    In the end, I researched and wrote the feature story, which appeared in Sunday’s edition, because it’s an important story to tell. It epitomizes Barre’s uniqueness. It celebrates Americana, American history, our granite heritage and the resilience of the industry here.

    I will admit, a part of me is sad the project is over. And I will admit that I believe the Rockwells should be out for every citizen and friend of Barre to see.

    But I’m actually quite grateful for Shawn’s nudge. It’s important to stumble into the past like that, and walk around in the shoes of people like George Seivwright, his war hero son, the illustrious Norman Rockwell, and all of the other people whose lives were touched by such significance.

    Like good art, it offers wonderful perspective.

    Steven Pappas is the editor of The Times Argus.

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