A short history of the Alberene Soapstone Company
The story of soapstone in central Virginia was set in motion millions of years ago with the creation of the Lynchburg Formation. This geological feature defines the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains and contains within it the beds of soapstone that have over time influenced the economic history of Albemarle, Nelson, and Amherst Counties, as well as the technical and industrial history of the nation as a whole.
While the soapstone was used by the native peoples and early Colonial settlers of the area for countless years it was not until the late 1800′s that it found its place in American commerce. At this time technology and the needs of industry combined to allow for the development of large scale commercial soapstone quarries.
Into this mix came James H. Serene and his partner Daniel J. Carroll. These two successful business men from New York combined their talents and in 1883 formed the Albemarle Soapstone Company. After many legal battles they began quarrying on the 1,950 acre tract known as Beaver Dam farm in southern Albemarle County. In an effort to distinguish themselves from other soapstone producers, Daniel Carroll coined the name "Alberene" by combining Serene and Albemarle. The Alberene trademark was first used around 1890 and became synonymous with high quality American soapstone for over 120 years.
Alberene also became the name of the company town that grew up around the quarries. By 1890 Alberene contained all the facilities and services that a prosperous self contained village needed including a post office, several churches, a two story school and the requisite company store or commissary.
In 1901 the Albemarle Soapstone Company acquired, through merger, control of the holdings of the Virginia Soapstone Company (their chief rival). This included their modern factory and mill in Schuyler and resulted in the total control of the of the soapstone deposits in Central Virginia.
The 1920′s were to be the Golden Age of soapstone in Central Virginia. Growing from the original 1,950 acres in S. Albemarle to 6,000 acres spread all the way across Nelson County and south into Amherst County. Alberene had become the largest employer in the area. The mill town of Schuyler had a higher population than Lovingston, the county seat, and the mill employed as many as 2000 people in its plant and quarries.
The products produced by the company over the years have been wide ranging and well received. Due to the physical properties of Virginia soapstone it has found its way into many facets of American life. In the early years the most popular of the product line were laundry tubs – no house wife would be without one in her modern home. These were produced in a workshop that made nothing else. Along with the standard architectural applications the stone was also used for griddles, bed warmers and ice melters. Even the scrap was ground into powder and used as a filler in rubber products and roofing shingles as well as a lubricant in the tire industry.
It can safely be said that every modern laboratory build before 1960 used Alberene stone for counters, sinks and fume hoods. In one instance during WWII, a secret order for laboratory equipment was processed and then shipped to an undisclosed location. After the war, the destination of the sinks was found to be the secret factories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Pasco, Washington – in this way Alberene played a small part in the Manhattan Project.
The post war years were good to Alberene, the company was profitable and had yearly sales in excess of $2 million. New quarries were opened to supply the dark polished soapstone that was popular with architects as facing for buildings in these boom years.
This prosperity attracted the attention of the Georgia Marble Corporation and in 1956 Alberene sold out and became a wholly owned subsidiary. Under Georgia Marble the company continued to prosper, although various parts of the plant, such as the crushing operation, were moved to Tate, Georgia.
1969 proved to be a year of change for Alberene Soapstone and the town of Schuyler. The Jim Walter Corporation purchased Georgia Marble and set about making a series of management decisions that proved to be anything but sound, causing a great deal of turmoil at a time when demand for soapstone was already at an ebb.
To add insult to injury nature stepped in and dealt another blow. On the 19th of August Hurricane Camille traveled up from the gulf and crashed into Nelson county like the proverbial freight train. Four inches of rain fell in eight hours over a 40 square mile area and in some coves and hollows upwards of 27 inches fell. At the plant, Ivy Creek rose and filled the plant and block yard with so much mud an debris that it took two months to clean up and return to operation.
As a result of these occurrences Jim Walter Corp. decided to draw down the operation rather than modernize the factory after the flood. The crews and production were scaled down dramatically and in 1973 the mill was closed and the remaining workers laid off. Working with a crew of seven men, Kenneth Carroll, then General manager continued to work the quarries for the next three years.
Fearing that the Jim Walters Corp. would scrap the remaining equipment and seal the companies fate for good Carroll set out to engineer a rescue. The rescue came in the form of a local business man named S. Vance Wilkins who, after a two hour telephone call in early 1976, arranged for the outright purchase of all the Alberene holdings, including the plant, 9000 acres of stone reserves and dozens of company owned houses.
With control of the assets firmly in local hands Carroll continued his quest for a buyer / investor who would be in a position to re-grow the industry and put Schuyler back on the map. After lengthy negotiations during the early 80′s, the Finnish company Suomen Vuolukivi Oy was enticed to expand their masonry heater production into the North American market by taking over the plant facilities in Schuyler.
Marketing their line of contraflow soapstone heaters under the name Tuli Kivi (fire stone) they had resurrected the industry in Europe and saw the potential for doing the same in the US. In 1987 the plant reopened as The New Alberene Soapstone Company.
Unfortunately, Tuli Kivi found it difficult to educate US consumers about the value of their products and unlike the European operation they did not enjoy the tax and subsidy support that helped lower the end user costs. This, coupled with the lowering of energy costs, made their business model unsustainable and in 1991 the decision was made to phase out American production and divest themselves of their holdings.
After years of searching for interested buyers with little luck they were approached in 1996 by a long time customer, Kierk Ashmore-Sorensen, who had been providing sculpture-grade Virginia soapstone to artists under the name Soapstone for Sculpture. They were able to settle the sale of assets and transfer of mineral rights leases in October of 1998.
Without breaking stride, the mill was renamed New World Stone Company and continued operation in a different direction. Concentrating on the production of finished counter tops and architectural elements, New World Stone sourced its materials from the leftover and rejected blocks that lay strewn across the 1400 acres it controlled. While this stockpile provided a steady flow of material for internal use, it was not adequate for large scale production or the supply of wholesale material to other fabricators. It became obvious that the quarries would need to be reopened in order to grow.
The search for the necessary capital culminated with the formation of Virginia soapstone Ventures by a group of local investors in 2004. This diverse group of developers, bankers and professional managers began the process of modernizing the plant and quarries and returned the company to its historical name – Alberene Soapstone Company.
Copyright © 2012 Kierk Ashmore-Sorensen – used by permission