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A hard stop: New owner closes Swenson Granite quarry in Concord after 140 years | History

This 1983 ad celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of Swenson Granite Co. Kurt Swenson, who later became president of the company, is pictured at right during his summer job as a quarry worker in the 1960s. The Swenson family owned the company for more than 130 years until selling it to a private equity firm in 2016. Collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society

CONCORD – It seems unthinkable that the time could come when the Granite State would no longer produce granite.

But last month, New Hampshire's last commercial granite quarry quietly closed and laid off its quarry workers.

Kurt Swenson was the fourth owner and operator of the Swenson Granite Co. and its quarry on Rattlesnake Hill in Concord. The company has been part of New Hampshire's history and landscape since 1883.

Swenson had worked every job from quarry worker to company president and CEO before selling the company to a private equity firm in 2016. At a recent presentation at the New Hampshire Historical Society, he brought the past to life through a series of historic photos and his own memories of the company that still bears his family name.

Swenson first asked the approximately 100 people present how many of them were his customers.

It seemed like everyone in the room raised a hand, which brought a smile to Swenson's face.

“My philosophy has always been that the most important assets of a company are its employees and its customers,” Swenson told those present. “It's the customers and employees that count.”

But when he announced that the granite quarry had just been closed, there was a loud gasp.

Swenson Granite's retail stores remain open and its curbside demolition operation in Concord continues to do profitable business.

But the quarry workers are gone.

This historic photo from 1905 shows the Swenson Granite quarry on Rattlesnake Hill in Concord. Company founder John Swenson is seen at bottom left. Collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society

'It was hard work'

Brian Wheeler worked as a quarryman for Swenson Granite for nearly 23 years. He was just weeks away from retirement when he received notice that the Concord quarry would close effective June 6.

“It was like turning off a light switch,” he said.

He was convinced that this job would be permanent. “I thought that if I worked with stone, the stone would stay there for quite a while,” Wheeler said.

“The quarry was a place where, if you worked hard and got by, you had to have a certain amount of common sense, but not necessarily be particularly literate,” he said.

This photo, which shows the Swenson Granite Co. in operation, dates from around 1900. Photos and memorabilia from the company are now kept in the collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society. Collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society

He'll be fine, “but I feel sorry for the others,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes you don't get a job right away.”

“There must be jobs for people who don’t fit everywhere.”

Kurt Swenson and his brother Kevin worked in the quarry as teenagers.

“It was hard work,” he said. “You sweat and it was hot. So you had a lot more respect for the people who did it than if you had never done it.”

This has made the brothers value their workers throughout their lives, he said. “You get the feeling: we have to make sure that these people are doing well. They have worked hard, they have worked for us for years.”

When Swenson sold the company in 2016, he paid workers $500 for each year of service. One longtime employee received a check for $20,000.

Her company has always been employee-friendly, Swenson said in an interview. “Honestly, it's very simple: If you're loyal to them, they'll be loyal to you, it's as simple as that.”

This 1955 photo shows an aerial view of the Swenson Granite Company's operations in Concord. The photo is part of the New Hampshire Historical Society collection. New Hampshire Historical Society collection

'Things have changed'

Swenson Granite was founded in 1883 by Kurt's great-grandfather, John Swenson. “He came from Sweden and didn't speak a word of English,” he said – but someone persuaded him to move to Concord, NH, and get into the granite business.

Swenson has donated photographs and memorabilia from his family's business to the New Hampshire Historical Society, of which he has been a longtime board member. This includes the original 1883 bill of sale for “Stone Shed” and its contents, which was transferred to John Swenson for $750 by Charles E. Ballard of Concord.

“At that point … we had no quarries or factories,” Swenson said. “It was just a stone manufacturing operation.”

Although no longer locally owned, Swenson Granite continues to operate retail stores throughout New England, including this one in Concord, but the Concord quarry on Rattlesnake Hill was shut down in June. SHAWNE K. WICKHAM/UNION LEADER

That soon changed. The Swensons bought their first quarry in Hollis in 1885 and the granite quarry in Concord in 1904.

A turn-of-the-century photograph shows a horse-drawn wagon hauling a load of granite. Back then, it was better to wait until the ground was frozen to make it easier for the horses to haul, Swenson said.

“A lot has changed since then,” he said.

Over the years, Swenson Granite Co. added more quarries in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Canada. “Swensons always bought things that broke because they were cheaper that way,” he said.

Concord granite is gray—the kind you see on public buildings and curbs—and became the foundation of the business.

Swenson granite was used to build parts of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Library of Congress, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Pentagon, and Civil War memorials.

Still in operation is the “world-class curb plant” at the top of Rattlesnake Hill. “It's probably the most modern and efficient curb plant in the country,” Swenson said.

But now the processed granite is transported by truck from Vermont and Maine.

The company never really entered the granite countertop business, Swenson said.

“We didn’t have the colors that women wanted,” he said.

Kurt Swenson stands at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord. Swenson donated memorabilia from his family's granite business to the society when he sold the company in 2016. Swenson is a longtime supporter and board member of the society. SHAWNE K. WICKHAM/UNION LEADER

“It’s a miracle that we survived”

As markets changed, Swenson Granite bought quarries across the country that stocked granite in other colors sought by architects, such as pink and black, Swenson said. But the stonemasons in Italy had an advantage because they had equipment that could cut the granite thinner than the New Hampshire company could.

“It was a very, very tough business to compete against the Italians,” he said.

In the 1970s, the company was in trouble. “Let's put it this way: It's a miracle that we survived,” he told the Historical Society audience.

Swenson had attended college and law school and worked as a lawyer, but when his family needed him, he took a leave of absence and became executive vice president and general counsel of the granite company.

In 1979, after his father's death, Swenson became president and CEO and the company celebrated its 100th anniversary under his leadership. That year they also purchased the Rock of Ages quarry in Barre, Vermont, a much larger operation. “Barre granite is probably the finest memorial granite in the world,” he said.

In the following years they opened additional retail stores in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

With a vision of getting into the retail headstone business, they took Rock of Ages public while Swenson Granite in Concord remained private and focused on the landscaping business. They bought quarries in Georgia and retail headstone operations across the country. “That would give us a huge head start. We would control most of the export market for North American gray granite,” he said.

But their ambitious plan failed, he said. “It was a disaster.”

Eventually they sold the monument stores and bought back Rock of Ages in 2010.

Kurt Swenson's license plate reflects his pride in his family's heritage. Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader

Closure “short-sighted”

Swenson, who has two grown sons and two granddaughters, said the younger generation is not interested in getting into the business. “They are interested in much more exciting things,” he said.

And the industry is changing, Swenson said. “The largest buildings in the world are no longer built in the United States,” he said. “They're basically all sawed and cut in Italy or China.”

“They finally come to the conclusion that the only good solution for us is to sell.”

In 2016, Swenson sold the company to TorQuest, a large private equity firm in Canada, and its partners.

In 2022, they sold to Birch Hill Equity Partners, which quietly closed the Rattlesnake Hill quarry on June 6.

Swenson said he did not know in advance that the new owners would close the quarry. He got the news from a longtime employee. “He called me and said, 'They're going to close it.'”

“I think he was more worried about me,” he said.

Retired quarry worker Wheeler said he also felt sorry for the Swenson family.

“These people have just been so generous,” he said. “I'm sure it's heartbreaking to think that the store is no longer operating.”

What is Swenson most proud of in his long career?

“I guess we've come this far,” Swenson said. “Considering that all those years from 1883 to 2016 is a pretty good accomplishment for a family-owned business.”

Despite the challenges facing the industry, Swenson believes the decision to close the Concord quarry was “shortsighted,” but he is optimistic that it can one day reopen.

“Because what are you going to do in the future?” he asked. “Granite doesn’t grow on trees.”

swickham@unionleader.com

Anna Harden

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