In the winter of 2019, I received an email from Professor Kiel Moe of the Harvard School of Architecture. For over a year we’d been sharing a common interest – the Bald Hill Granite Quarry in Wells, Maine and the granite used to construct the famous plaza at the Seagram Building in New York City.
“If you have photos of the Paton’s in and around the Quarry I would really like to include them if you are comfortable with that. I think it really helps readers to see these sites of production and the people involved. Otherwise I am afraid that our histories get abstracted into ‘great men and great events’ only. I am keen to show that very important work is done by everyday people and that these people and places deserve our attention. At the very least, it helps us understand much more about architecture when all of its places and people are part of the narrative of a building like the Seagram Building. I am happy that I might be able to include a more human dimension of a very impressive, but very abstract building.”(email from Professor Kiel Moe, Chair, Architecture Department, McGill University, former Associate Professor of Architecture and Energy, Harvard Graduate School of Design)
At the time, Professor Moe was writing an article about the construction of the Seagram Building. He had recently contacted Richard Bois, the new owner of Bald Hill – now Millennium Granite. Fortunately, the new owner shared a keen interest in the history of his Quarry, having grown up roaming the fields of the then abandoned property, and was happy to assist the Professor. Coincidentally, I had written to Mr. Bois myself, anxious to know what I could about the place my grandfather, George Paton, worked during the Great Depression and where my Dad, Wally Paton and his sister Doris, grew up. A family trip to Wells was planned for the following summer. We were interested in searching family roots. The Professor was interested in researching the technical aspects of the quarrying business, however, he was also looking for stories of the men who had worked there, a glimpse into life around the quarry, the working conditions – anything to add “a more human dimension.” My Nana’s diary offered the perfect narrative and her photos taken of our family while living at Bald Hill captured both the work and the family life of the Paton’s during their Depression years at the quarry.
“Thank you for sharing these emails and stories. I find the stories very touching, a very genuine glimpse of life around the quarry at that time. It is really striking how amazing that depression era WWII generation was, how they lived and what all they accomplished. These stories are a fine glimpse into that. I am finding such rich information that I think I will turn the project from an article into a book.” ( Professor Kiel Moe, email to Bonnie Paton Moon)
I was happy to share all that I had. I didn’t expect that they would end up anywhere – just provide insight into a family that once lived and worked at the Quarry. Once Professor Moe realized the rich history surrounding the Seagram Building, the article morphed into a 250 page book that has recently been published – “Unless: The Seagram Building Construction Ecology” (July 2021)
I hadn’t thought about the Professor in a while. A couple years had passed since our last email. I assumed he was off writing a book or perhaps had changed his course. But a few weeks ago, just by accident, I attended a virtual book talk hosted by the Skyscraper Museum in NYC about the Seagram Building. I didn’t realize until half way through the talk that the author speaking was Professor Kiel Moe and the book he was discussing was the one he had intended to write a few years ago.
About 25 minutes into his speech, Professor Moe began talking about the pink granite used in the construction of the Seagram Building’s famous plaza, specifically about the Quarry that it came from and a family that had once lived there. He does not mention the family by name. But I am thinking, at this moment, that this is the guy I had contact with in 2018 – this is the Professor – could he possibly be talking about the Paton’s – George and Edith Paton and their children, Wally and Doris?
So I ordered the book on Amazon. Upon its arrival I leafed through it and, sure enough, there it is near the end of the book, the last chapter called “Getting Stone,“ pages 259-272 – a detailed description of my family, my grandparents, George and Edith Paton and their children Wally & Doris at Bald Hill complete with 6 family photos from my Nana’s collection. Included were quotes from my Dad shared from my own book Journey Home: How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy, about growing up at Bald Hill. I was amazed, a bit overwhelmed, and honored to see my family’s simple story about working during the Depression on a granite quarry in the pages of a very technical and detailed book about the construction of one of the most beautiful buildings in New York City – the Seagram Building.
“Another quarryman, George Paton, lived on the site of the Bald Hill Quarry with wife Edith and son Wallace. According to communication with Bonnie Moon, granddaughter of George Paton, family records indicate that George was originally from Vermont and married his wife Edith in New Hampshire in 1918, where Wally was born. The Paton family, including daughter Doris, moved to Maine in 1929 in search of work during the Great Depression. As one indication of both the relative benevolence of the Swenson Granite Works owners and manager of the Bald Hill Quarry, but also the dire financial circumstances of the time, the Paton Family lived in a house on the property of the quarry known as the Whitman house. They were the only family to live at the quarry, an indication that George was perhaps a valued employee.
Despite this feeling of luck (at having a job), the quarry jobs were nonetheless dangerous. Edith Paton’s diary includes notes about quarry-related injuries. Both George and his friend Jake Holshouser, the quarry foreman, required back surgeries. Falls were common. Deaths occurred. Yet records and narrative accounts of working conditions at the Bald Hill Quarry lack complaint and only register a fondness for the years spent at the quarry.
‘He had a job where he made, I think, about $12 per week running the pumps, because the water would come into his excavation. His hole, where they were actively working, was over 100 feet deep, so the water would get in there, and in order to keep working they’d have to pump it out. So he had a – you wouldn’t say a good job-but it was a reasonably good job for those days.’”-Wally Paton (Excerpts from Unless, the Seagram Building Construction Ecology, pp. 259-272 by Kiel Moe)
The Paton family story at Bald Hill lives on now through their work at the Seagram Building and Professor Kiel Moe’s latest book, Unless, the Seagram Building Construction Ecology.