Swindle in Swanton, VT
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.
The son of a St. Albans railroad man, Thompson played as a boy in the abandoned shafts and tunnels of the old Barney plant, now Marble Mill Park. He worked 30 years for IBM in nearby Essex Junction, while marrying and raising a family in Swanton, and then became the town administrator in the mid-1990s. “Best job I ever had,” he says.
Driving a reporter around town, past neatly tended homes and a downtown still struggling to come back, he points out signs of progress. The local industrial park contains a cheese processor, a manufacturer of maple-sugaring equipment, a precision-tool company, a maker of doors and windows, a pharmaceutical company, and Vermont’s first biodiesel facility. The U.S. Border Patrol has a regional headquarters in town. Swanton retains its rural flavor, with dairy and agriculture, but has grown from 4,000 residents when Thompson was a boy to 6,400 today, thanks to an influx of commuters.
Thompson knew that there had been a quarry years ago on the edge of town, on a long, low ridge off Route 7. But it wasn’t in his blueprint for economic development until Byors showed up.
Byors said he’d traveled in China and Saudi Arabia cutting deals, and that Swanton was the only place in the world that possessed this grade of marble — that it was prized not only for its color but for its hardness and durability, “almost gem-like.” Later, he agreed to buy land in the town’s industrial park for his marble museum, and maybe a hotel, too. He even contacted the Discovery Channel about producing a documentary on the history of the marble industry.
“It sounded quite grandiose and aggressive for Swanton, but we had a responsibility to pursue it, to do what we could to maximize the town’s tax base,” says Thompson. “It seemed too good to be true. I thought, ‘Wow! This could put Swanton on the map.”‘
Much of the Marble Man’s past is shrouded in mystery, but this much is known: He said he came from Massachusetts — from Marblehead, of all places. He said that his father and his grandfather were in the construction business on the North Shore. He worked for a time in the family business, specializing in ductwork, but he didn’t get along with his father and struck out on his own.
In the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-twenties, Byors was a student at a carving studio in Proctor, Vermont, a hub of the marble industry. In the early 1990s, he was a hair stylist, with a salon in Swampscott, Massachusetts, with his own line of hair-care products that he peddled to area salons.
“John had a lot of artistic ability,” recalls Frank Macrina, a Salem hair stylist. “He had marble busts that he had sculpted for sale in his salon.”