Student collaboration with museum to tell story of Slate Valley quarry workers
An oral history and photography project involving high school students in Granville, New York is telling the stories of the regional quarry industry. As WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports, an exhibit will showcase the people that live and work in the area known as Slate Valley.
With the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains to east, the Slate Valley stretches for 24 miles on the border of New York and Vermont.
Nicknamed for its geology, the region has supported a slate industry that grew out of the mid-19th Century.
Now, a collaboration between Granville High School and the Slate Valley Museum is involving students in interpreting the history of the region.
Ninth grade English teacher Ann O’Brien said students interviewed the people who worked in the industry that for more than a century attracted folks from the around the world.
“So much of our community is built on the immigrants who came here from Wales and Ireland and Italy and other places and worked in the quarries, that we were able to develop a set of questions with the students that we could then take to interview these current residents of our community,” said O’Brien.
Some of the students knew people prior to the project who were a part of the industry that now sends slate products around the globe.
Madelaine Wilson interviewed her uncle.
“It was really interesting to find out, especially from him, what was, like, what's been around here and what where he came from, because I never knew about that before,” said Wilson.
Other students were less familiar with the industry that makes the local economy tick.
Siblings Renad and Elyas Alasseri moved to Granville from Saudi Arabia just a few months ago. Renad said they spoke with an immigrant who is believed the first woman to work in the quarries of Granville.
“So, talking to her made me realize that she gave a big opportunity, and she is like her coming from a different country and emigrating all the way to America and, you know, doing this was like, a big thing. And I realized I was talking to someone who was, like, really important, and that was…I learned a lot,” said Renad.
After the interview was completed, Elyas said organizing the lengthy interview into a write-up suitable for the museum exhibit was a learning process.
“It was a little bit hard because, like, she had a lot of stuff that, to her life. And, you know, getting it all in order, trying to understand everything, going over the voice recording – we had multiple times – it was a little bit of a challenge. But in the end, it was fun to see the outcome of our work,” said Elyas.
Student Tristin Warner said the project has made him feel closer to his hometown.
“I feel like I'm more connected to the area than I was before,” said Warner.
With some students collecting interviews, others took portraits of the local workers. They will be combined with write-ups based on the interviews.
Granville photography teacher Todd Houston said the portraits are more than just simple photos.
“The work that we're doing, it's documenting history. So, it's looking at photographs, less like kind of like, an extra thing, like, ‘Oh, yes, it's really great. Like, we have pictures of ourselves and have other people.’ But really kind of freezing time and not taking things for granted,” said Houston.
In the style of Welsh photographer Carwyn Rhys Jones, the photos taken by the students are digitally combined with rocky textures from within the Slate Valley Museum. The result is an image that aims to tell a more complete story.
Inside the museum, Executive Director Sarah Kijowksi points to the large panels featuring Jones’ depictions of Welsh quarrymen and the space where the student works will be displayed.
In a museum filled with interpretive panels detailing the history of the region’s slate industry, Kijowski said the project is about more than just documenting an industry, but also teaches the students a number of skills.
“It's nice to have something on a wall. And I always appreciate my visitors that come in and view it. But what am I going to do with that to make it meaningful and relevant to the next generation? And I think we found that here. I think that this is something we can emulate in the future, that the teachers are interested in emulating in the future,” said Kijowski.
Kijowski says the exhibit will also create a meaningful experience for visitors too – both in its educational value about the region and its people, and its display of cross-generational interaction.
“In terms of society, and what we can create beyond content, we can create humanity in this little sphere. You know? Where we can connect together and we can talk together and the elders feel validated. Their life is meaningful. And the kids have a better understanding of what that is. And isn't that better for all of us?” said Kijowski.
There’s more information at SlateValleyMuseum.org.