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Carl Balestracci Jr. poses with his award-winning book John Beattie and His Quarrymen: Building America Stone by Stone. (Photo by Zoe Roos/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Wandering through the old quarry land off of Route 146, most residents and visitors might notice some old drill holes or grooves in the stone, but of the many who pass through, few are familiar with the fact that they share the pink granite they are standing on with a very famous lady. More than 100 years ago, aided by a team of immigrants, John Beattie cut the granite stones in his Leetes Island Quarry that were used for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Beattie’s business, successes, and failures all made for an exciting story and one Carl A. Balestracci, Jr., was ready to tell, and to tell right.
Carl, a retired teacher, current selectman, and former first selectman, is a lifelong resident of Guilford with a deep passion for history—a passion he developed at a young age. His parents moved to Guilford in 1937 and were maybe the 14th of 15 Italian families in town, according to Carl. The family managed a small grocery store on Route 1 for 20 years and the store had quite the list of notable customers.
“It was so great because most of our customers were the old Yankees,” said Carl. “Elizabeth Adams was one of our regulars. It was a great experience for me growing up in that environment because these people were fabulous and they loved the idea that I liked history.”
One customer in particular, a woman named Ruth, wanted to feed Carl’s interest in history. She began bringing books to him from her own collection and one day brought him a two-volume biography of John Beattie.
“That was when I first started to get interested and when I first realized that the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty had been built from Guilford granite,” he said. “Then I started to research.”
While at high school age, Carl certainly wasn’t ready to start writing a book, his interest had been piqued. That interest held on for decades, finally culminating in his book John Beattie and His Quarrymen: Building America Stone by Stone. The book was first published in 2016 and is now getting ready for a second run after receiving an Award of Merit from the Connecticut League of History Organizations this past June.
Carl said he started to get serious about writing a book back in 1999, but things didn’t really take off until 2003. That year Carl lost re-election as first selectman to Gene Bishop and while, he was still serving as a selectman, he had a little more time on is hands.
The town clerk at the time asked him for help cleaning out the old file vault in the Town Hall and while pitching in Carl stumbled upon the probate case of John Beattie. That’s when the information started to flow.
Beattie and His Quarrymen
Over the years, Carl combed through old articles, historical documents, and consulted with some of Beattie’s relatives including his great-granddaughter Elizabeth to start to pull together his book, complete with photos, maps, and graphics.
Beattie’s Leetes Island Quarry was in operation for more than 50 years and provided stone and for building and monuments all over the world. It was a successful business, but by no means an easy one. Carl described the backbreaking and sometimes deadly labor performed by the men to blast and cut the stones. In his book, Carl notes men who died from a gunpowder explosion, falling derricks and stones, and silicosis, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of stone dust.
“My father and my grandfather even remembers that in Stony Creek that they would cough and spit up blood, but when they started to spit up blood, they would start to carve their own gravestones because they knew the end was coming,” he said.
Family ties also helped shape Carl’s book, which is dedicated to both of his grandfathers, Aldo Balestracci and Anthony Perna, both of whom worked in quarries. Perna was killed while working on a stone saw in Milford, Massachusetts. He was only 45 years old.
While the work was hard, Carl says Beattie was unique in the way he cared for his workers. Carl described it as an almost paternal instinct. As Beattie brought men in from across the world, from the British Isles to Scandinavia, he found a way to establish his own community in the quarry, one comprised of men of all ages, backgrounds, and religions.
All of the new faces at the Quarry were not exactly greeted with a warm welcome from the predominantly Anglo, Congregationalist Guilford residents at the time. Many immigrants were so shunned that the Swedes even had to live out on one of the Thimble Islands and row to work, but however shunned, the immigrant community helped bring together one of the largest projects ever completed by Beattie: the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
Beattie was awarded the contract for the pedestal in 1882 after beating out dozens of other quarries across New England. The work was a challenge—every single stone had to be cut to specification and shipped down to New York according to Carl.
“It was difficult for Beattie because he had to work though politics and he had to work through some dangerous sabotage and he did all of that,” he said. “He finally got it all done and when they delivered the last stone he said, ‘Thank God.’ I mean it was a big, big job and it was a difficult job.”
Just recently Carl found the actual site north of the tracks where the specific pedestal stones were cut. While the project itself was impressive, Carl said what sticks with him most about the pedestal is the quarrymen.
“On of the great things about this story, when you think about it, was that the Statue of Liberty was quarried and built by 500 immigrants from all over the British Isles, Scandinavia, Eastern and Western Europe,” he said. “I mean it is such a poignant part of the story.”
Carl said it is this part of the story that is still relevant today.
“To build this most significant monument to America and I think particularly today, with this political climate and all of the talk that we have about immigration and whatnot, that this story is important because these people really did help build America.”
With an award-winning book now ready for its second run, Carl said he has added in a bit more information and a few new pictures in the second edition. Books are available for sale and proceeds all go to the Guilford Keeping Society.
“Now that this is done, I have a whole drawer full of pictures and stuff that I will bring down to the library and the Keeping Society to make sure that they each have a good file,” he said. “New information comes and new pictures that we have never seen before and someone else will add to it.”
For Carl himself, after years of public service, his current term as a selectman will be his last. He jokingly said he is getting old and it is time to let some younger people take control.
“I am so pleased with all of the people who are running,” he said. “I think they are terrific…I think Guilford is going to be in good shape for a lot of years.”
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