By Austin Crosier
Honoring local history, celebrating generations of families and culture and informing curious minds is what the Slate Valley Museum at 17 Water Street in Granville aims to achieve.
Friday at noon marked the reopening to the public for the museum for the first time since March because of COVID-19.
“The mission of the Slate Valley Museum is, the official one, is a pretty standard museum to collect, conserve, preserve and interpret the history of the Slate industry in the Slate Valley and the people and the landscape and the technology and all those things,” museum interim director Sarah Kijowski said.
“I, personally, would describe it as we are a museum that tells the history of the slate industry and the slate valley, which means we tell a human story, we tell a story of the land and we tell a story of technology and industry. Everything we do is rooted in this product.”
The museum will be open for self-guided tours Tuesday through Friday in pods at noon and 2 p.m. and on Saturday at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Interested guests must reserve a visit by calling or emailing the museum.
For more than 20 years, the museum has served as a site of reflection, admiration and genuine thought for both residents of Granville and people passing by wanting to learn more about the unique colored, layered rock that has become the identity of the small town in upstate New York.
Originating in the 1850s immigrant workers of primarily Italian, Irish, Welsh, Jewish and Slovakian descent who had prior experience working in slate quarries discovered the massive quarries in Granville.
Museum Board of Trustees president Molly Celani, who comes from an immigrant family of slate workers in Granville, described the difference between quarries in Ireland and Wales compared with Granville.
“The only difference was their quarries are open-pit quarries, where here, you have pits but the slate is only in veins. The slate runs through the Earth the same way veins do in your body,” Celani said.“ They say you have to chase the vein, it lays a certain way in the Earth and you just keep following it,” chimed in Kijowski.
Throughout the building were examples of both early forms and modern uses of colored slate. Some included a gorgeous black mantle, pieces of roofing and even a fan.
Slate is deceivingly heavy in weight. A large piece of rigging machinery with chains used in the quarries in Granville is evident in the museum to show how brave and strong the workers were to be hauling the daunting form of rock.
Across the back end of the museum is a long, beautiful mural painted in 1939 by Martha Levy, depicting the back-breaking, strenuous and often forgotten process of retrieving and transferring the collected slate from quarries. This mural serves as a historical gem, being a result of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) project as a product of the “New Deal” under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Kijowski is fully aware of the possibility of having to shut down again but remains optimistic the museum and area will be able to celebrate a special milestone.
“What we’ve been trying to do the whole time as well, we’ve been developing plans on how to be more nimble with our offerings so that even if, God forbid, everything shuts down again, we have plans for programs that will unroll over the course of our 25th anniversary year,” Kijowski said. “Ironically, we open today. One year from today, we’re hoping to have our big anniversary event, so it will be the arc of a year.”
Celani said she wants to see people use the facility for different kinds of activities and special events in the future.
“Celebrations, family celebrations, which is one thing that we did have to cancel,” Celani said. “There was a family that was planning on honoring some of their ancestors by having an event here, but we had to cancel that because of the COVID-19.”
Kijowski explained people love seeing the origins of products.
“Have you ever seen the show, ‘How it’s made’? People like to see how it’s made… For us to be located in an area where the industry is still active and thriving is an interesting context.”
Celani is excited and eager to see what’s next in the progression and utilization of slate, not only in Granville but around the world as a valuable resource and commodity.
“I think that the world is understanding that this is a growing industry, it’s a green product, and so I see that as one of the reasons why we are expanding, and there are more people interested in the stories that we tell,” Celani said. “I see the future.”