Grapes and granite
A scene of my childhood that fond recollection now presents to view was from the tippy-top of a great maple tree as I looked down into the old ``querry.'' Querry is the way Mainers say quarry, and reference is to many holes in the ground where, in times past, great activity prevailed with the taking of granite, feldspar, limestone, and slate. Maine is pockmarked with abandoned quarries. The one I saw from the top of my tree was awesome deep, and I was suddenly some old scairt of my high position. I w as up the tree picking wild grapes and I was maybe 10 years old. Just lately I came upon a boyhood chum who had been a wild-grape picker with me, and I asked him if wild grapes still grow on the fringe of the old quarry. Burdened with years, wisdom, and money, he smiled in recollection of our numerous youthful forays and said, ``No -- that's all built up around there now and you wouldn't know the place.'' I have, since grape days, never returned to the quarry.Skip to next paragraph
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The wild grapes of Maine caused Leif Ericsson to call the region Vinland, likely evidence that in his time our climate was less severe than now and wild grapes prevailed. I don't know of any wild grapes today, but 60 years ago they still flourished in the vicinity of our abandoned quarry.
Grapes fruit on new growth. Since the time of Ericsson, at least, these vines by our quarry had put forth new growth each year, and each year the bunches of grapes were farther and farther from the root, so the intermingling vines made a jungle that ran up into the trees around about. There wouldn't be too many grapes to be had from the ground, but high above in the branches the clusters were plentiful. The wild grapes were small and not all that palatable out of hand, but they were prized for jelly. As
I picked that day, I was somewhat unaware that the lip of the quarry was so close to my grape-laden maple. Away down there, below-below, I saw the great slabs of granite the quarry workers had left the day the whistle blew for the last time. Granite had its day. Our quarry used to keep 150,000 paving blocks in inventory, ready to supply Boston, New York, Philadelphia whenever a dirt street was to be paved.
So our quarry workers and our grapevines must have departed together. A crew of 30 men worked at paving blocks, clattering with their hand-hammers to make a shattering noise as the pieces of granite were shaped.
The hammers were called reels, and they gave Mainers a word for any sustained hubbub -- reelin'. Youngsters squealing at play in the dooryard will be subdued by Mother: ``Hark that reelin', now, you'll wake the baby!''
Not all our granite went for paving blocks. Before the age of cement, granite was important in construction, and not a few buildings in the ``big cities'' got stones that were hewn, squared, and numbered in our town. When the quarry first opened, rock was taken to tidewater, and shipments of granite went by sea in special vessels called droghers.
There is a Maine story about a ship laden with lumber that left Bangor as a storm was making up, and shortly heavy seas caused leaky seams. The crew manned the hand-operated pumps and kept the vessel afloat until reaching Boston. It turned out the entire bottom of the ship had been torn away by the storm, but with her cargo of good pine boards she wouldn't have sunk anyway. The crew had merely pumped the Atlantic Ocean over the side.
Not so with a drogher. Full of paving blocks, construction stone, or blocks for memorials and statues, a drogher that sprang a seam would go kerplunk, leaving the crew afloat in dories that were kept ready on deck for quick departure. The lack of buoyancy when a drogher leaked also gave Mainers an expression -- to ``go down like a drogher'' is the way to describe the sudden end of a venture, as when a bank fails.
The wild Maine grapes that I picked from a maple tree on the fringe of our deep quarry as a boy are not really extinct. When a scourge of some sort struck the vineyards of Europe, it would have brought an end to viticulture except for our wild vines. They, for some reason, were resistant, so new vines were grafted on our roots. Almost as good as a granite memorial.