Swindle in Swanton, VT
The Marble Man came in the spring, when the rushing Missisquoi River tumbles gray and white past forgotten mills in Swanton, Vermont. He could have been just another regular at Pam’s Place, swapping stories over coffee with the locals — hunters and fishermen, dairy farmers, truck drivers, border-patrol officers, and commuters to St. Albans and Burlington.
He was unassuming, tall and rangy in his jeans and baseball cap, affable and mild-mannered, with an appreciation for local history and eager to put Swanton back on the map.
He appeared one day like a miracle, driving up from Burlington in an SUV, steering past the village green with its Victorian bandstand, past the old cemetery with the Civil War monument, and stopping at Town Hall, which stands near a historic Episcopal church, fashioned a hundred years ago from rough red stone hewn from local ground.
It was the red stone that had brought John Byors to Swanton, one of only two places in the world (the other is Spain) known to produce a marble of this particular red hue: a rich, dusky, creamy-veined stone known here as Swanton Red. It was first quarried from a hill on the edge of town in the late 1800s by George Barney, who had also built the mighty Barney Marble Mill on the Missisquoi.
Once, the precious stone had been carted by boat down Lake Champlain and beyond, cut and polished to ornament the Vermont State House, the baptismal font of a church in Montreal, the Detroit Post Office, the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, Washington’s Union Station, and the Southern California Savings Bank in Los Angeles, among other sites.
But the quarry hadn’t operated on a regular basis since just after World War II. When Byors arrived in 2000 to reopen the quarry, it had been more than 30 years since any stone had been taken out. But now, in the Middle East and the Far East, there were new markets of opulence demanding Swanton Red, and serious money to be made. And Swanton would profit, too. Byors planned a magnificent marble museum to lure tourists speeding by on I-89, complete with horse-drawn carts and old-fashioned barges on the Missisquoi: a northern Vermont Rock of Ages (like the widely visited granite quarry in Barre), tinted Swanton Red.
Over the next few years, Byors’s plan progressed. The quarry came alive again, with trucks rumbling down the dirt road, carting away stone. Byors donated a polished red marble sign to Town Hall and a marble countertop to the visitor’s center at the Missisquoi Wildlife Refuge. Swanton schoolchildren took field trips to the quarry. Byors optioned several hundred surrounding acres for his museum. He dropped by Town Hall and gave the secretaries red “Barney bears” — small animal figurines carved from polished marble. When residents asked, he paved their driveways with crushed marble chips.
Occasionally, investors would come by to view the operation and leave reassured by the cool, smooth touch of the rock. The Marble Man had promised to double their money, and any doubts faded away as they surveyed the fortune at their feet.
Dick Thompson, the Swanton town administrator, was cautiously optimistic when he first met John Byors and heard his plans. Thompson, a small, wiry man of 61, is a lifelong Swanton resident. He can tell you that Swanton, six miles from the Canadian border, is one of Vermont’s earliest towns, built on the site of older Abenaki and French settlements and chartered in 1763. Town Hall, a former schoolhouse, was built eight years before Abraham Lincoln was elected president.