The story of soapstone in central Virginia was set in motion millions of years ago with the creation of the Lynchburg Formation. These beds of soapstone within the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge Mountains have influenced the economic history of Albemarle, Nelson, and Amherst Counties.
James H. Serene and his partner, Daniel J. Carroll, were two successful businessmen from New York who combined their talents and in 1883 formed the Albemarle Soapstone Company. In 1890, they coined the name “Alberene” by combining Serene and Albemarle.
The 1920s were Central Virginia’s Golden Age of Soapstone, as Virginia stone found its way into many facets of American life. Laundry tubs were the most popular item in the product line—no modern housewife would be without one. Even soapstone scraps were put to use, ground into powder and used as filler in rubber products and roofing shingles.
Alberene became the largest employer in the area, with as many as 2,000 employees in its plant and quarries. This prosperity attracted the attention of the Georgia Marble Corporation, which purchased Alberene in 1956 and made it a wholly owned subsidiary.
1969 proved to be a year of change for Alberene Soapstone and the town of Schuyler in Nelson County, Virginia. The Jim Walter Corporation purchased Georgia Marble, and entered into a series of management decisions that proved to be anything but sound. The result was a great deal of turmoil at a time when demand for soapstone was already diminishing.
To add insult to injury, nature stepped in and dealt another blow to the company on August 19, as Hurricane Camille churned north from the gulf, crashing into Nelson County like the proverbial freight train. As a result, the Jim Walter Corp. decided to scale back its operations rather than modernize its factory after storm-related flooding.
Fearing that the Jim Walter Corp. would scrap the remaining equipment and seal the company’s fate for good, Daniel Carroll set out to engineer a rescue. It came in the form of a local businessman named S. Vance Wilkins who purchased all of Alberene’s holdings in early 1976.
In the early 80s, Suomen Vuolukivi Oy, a Finnish producer of masonry heaters, was enticed to expand into the North American market. It took over the plant facilities in Schuyler. Unfortunately, Tuli Kivi (as it was known internationally) found it difficult to communicate the value of its products to U.S. consumers. In 1991 the decision was made to phase out American production and shed the U.S. facilities.
The search for interested buyers stretched on for years. In 1996, long-time customer Kierk Ashmore-Sorensen, who had been providing sculpture-grade Virginia soapstone to artists under the name Soapstone for Sculpture, came forward. Without breaking stride, the mill took on the name New World Stone Company and refocused on producing finished counter tops and architectural elements.
In 2004, another search for needed capital culminated in the formation of Virginia Soapstone Ventures, a diverse group of local investors that included developers, bankers, and professional managers. They began the process of modernizing the plant and quarries, and restored the company’s historical name: Alberene Soapstone Company.
In January 2014, Polycor—the largest and most diversified natural stone manufacturer in North America—announced the addition of the Alberene Soapstone Company and products to its portfolio. Polycor’s investment and acquisition have brought American Soapstone full circle, back to the North American market.
Polycor is proud to play a role in the future of Alberene Soapstone.