Barre: Ethnic Bouillabaisse

by Robert C. Lagor

Barre, Vermont, began attracting Scots and Italians almost a hundred years ago. The city's booming granite industry offered a fine opportunity for workers skilled in the stone trades to start new lives in a new land. Evidence of the skill of these worker artisans can be seen all over the country. A visit to the beautiful Hope Cemetery in Barre is like a stop-over in an outdoor museum of sculpture.

Barre is a unique Vermont community in many respects. No small part of this uniqueness is the unusual mixture of nationalities which makes Barre a colorful patchwork of cultures and languages. This mix of people has helped Barre grow into the exciting place it is today.

On any day, a visitor to Barre may hear several languages spoken freely on the streets and in the stores. It is a pleasure to see faces which reflect roots in different lands and yet somehow fit into a pleasant mosaic of peoples.

In 1976, the groundwork for a program of Ethnic Studies was laid, and the following year, the Vermont State Department of Education recognized the efforts in Barre and secured a $43,000 federal grant. In November, 1977, Karen Lane, a gifted folklorist, was hired.

Operating from space provided by the Aldrich Public Library, which served as project sponsor, the work of the new team began. In short order, their headquarters had begun to be called the "Roots Cellar." Rare books, pictures and other materials were gathered from families, individuals and private and public records.

Interviews with senior citizens were taped, and school children undertook special projects.

In July, 1978, a two-day Ethnic Heritage Festival was held that attracted 5,000 people. The downtown area was blocked off from traffic and became a pleasant mall. Lebanese, Spanish, French, Swedes, Scandinavians, Poles, Italians, Scots - in all, twelve nationalities celebrated together. The foods were authentic and delicious. Store owners were proud of lovely window displays portraying Scottish, Jewish, German, English or other cultural treasures.

The real message of the Barre Ethnic heritage project lay in the building of a community which celebrates life in all its various forms of expression.

Old suspicions and separations often kept the various national groups in Barre socially distant although they worked together each day. At times, there was open hostility as new immigrant groups came to the area and job security was threatened. As in other places, the melting pot concept was taught in the schools, not always with good results. On a more positive level, particularly in recent years, Barre citizens have begun to realize the immense potential for growth and the common good which rests in their diversity of culture and national origin.

This is a condensed version of the article appearing in Central Vermont Magazine Winter 1978-79 issue. For information on where to locate these magazines contact the chamber at 229-5711.

Thanks are extended to Earline Marsh, Alan Noyes, Elizabeth Ralph, Sally Finn and Jack Belding for their time selecting and editing Central Vermont Magazine articles for publication on the web.

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