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Penn Big Bed quarry, the last slate quarry in Pennsylvania

The owner, Pete Papay, is “THE LAST MAN STANDING”

Article by Tim Underhill – Executive Director of the National Slate Association

“It takes a Welshman to find slate, a Pennsylvania Dutchman to dig it up but a Czech to make any money out of it !”

Pete Papay laughs at the old quarrying saw. He’s a genial guy, in his mid-sixties, sitting comfortably in his office. Dressed in a tee-shirt, shorts and boots—summer uniform for quarrying guys—he talks slate, gesturing occasionally with his Swisher Sweet cigar. He has the air of someone who has seen it all, and soon enough you get the idea that maybe he has.

His workspace looks like a quarry. An ancient computer teeters on the edge of a large desk, papers rising like a slate rubbish pile, to shoulder height. A phone call interrupts our conversation, verification is required. Pete deftly sweeps half the pile to one side and extracts the required slip of paper. It is a filing system suited to a man who has operated 40-ton digging equipment since the age of twelve.

Jacob Papay, Pete’s grandfather, came to Slatington, Pennsylvania, in 1903. He and many others were fleeing the failing Austro-Hungarian Empire, looking for a livelihood, where effort would be better rewarded. He and his wife were mere 17 year-olds and arrived to find central Pennsylvania teeming with activity.

The original settlers of the region arrived much earlier, in the late 1700’s. They were German farmers who saw no reason to dig for slate in rich farmland. But word got out and quarrymen from North Wales arrived in the early 1840’s.  They soon located the slate, but the farmers resisted. They liked things the way they were—ploughing, planting and harvesting. It was a typical immigrant cultural clash, but the Welsh prevailed.  The farmers gained easy income, leasing land and earning royalties on the slate, and quarries sprung up across Lehigh County. Cornish quarrymen from Delabole, England, moved across the river into Northampton County and opened up the famed Chapman quarries. By the turn of the century, the region boasted 160 companies.

This melee of activity required a labor force and new waves of immigrants threw themselves into it wholeheartedly, grateful for a means of sustenance, including Jacob Papay. His son John, and son-in-law Steve Babyak, soon followed in his steps, a proud and self-sufficient family who ignored the Depression. They pooled resources, and with a rumored second source of income (the moonshine variety), accumulated the great sum of $700.00. Enough to get started. They leased and worked the Lehigh Gap quarry, the Berlinsville, Slatington and Slatedale quarries and finally bought the land for the future Penn Big Bed quarry. In 1937, they formed the company Papay and Sons, soon revised to Papay and Babyak, and in 1942 to The Penn Big Bed Quarry. The slate-belt of Pennsylvania boasted enormous beds of slate and “Big Bed roofing slate” was a common sales name applied to their product. The name “Penn Big Bed” embodied the wild first century of the industry in Pennsylvania, but the Papays had their sights set far ahead.

They had to wait. The second World War stopped everybody. Mike, the younger brother, signed up with the army, John and Steve went to Boston to work in the shipyards and Jacob, with his daughters, took their place, the girls running loaders and machinery as well as their brothers. The war ended in 1944 and everyone returned home eager to work. The Slatedale quarry was by then 750-ft. deep and becoming unworkable. The time had come, and they were ready to move to Penn Big Bed.

It was architectural slate products that they had in mind. Pennsylvanian slate was ideal for blackboards, mantels, lintels, coping and many other products. Penn Big Bed acquired the National Schools Company, The Blue Vein Company and the Mountain quarry. All had assets they required: rubbing beds, grinders, planers, shaving machines, the tools for finishing slate. This was the hey-day of Penn Big Bed, into which Pete Papay stepped as a 9-year-old boy. Pallets were stacked so he could reach the tools and by the age of 16 he could operate every machine in the mill. By 17 he was married (like his grandfather) and a family favorite. He was groomed by his father, uncles and mill-workers until at age 30 he took over the entire operation.

A booming period of production followed. Penn Gray, one of the many names for the slate produced, was shipped to every part of the country. Through the years, they roofed innumerable churches and colleges; hundreds of school science labs made use of their countertops, and their product tiled the floors of West Point and Carnegie Hall.

In the quarry, the years rolled by. The older generation gave way to the next. Some, tragically, lost their lives in quarry accidents, as did Pete’s uncle Mike. Some stayed on as listeners* or to give morale support. Penn Big Bed, at its height, supported 76 employees, often friends and family working alongside each other.

In 1959, the giant Chapman quarries shut down, and one by one the Lehigh quarries followed suit, overwhelmed by the dangers and expense of production. John Dally and the Pen Argyll quarry merged with Penn Big Bed in 2005, leaving them the sole survivors of the 160 quarries of a century before.  

Then the catastrophe. In 2010 Hurricane Earl swept through the region and filled Penn Big Bed’s main quarry, burying slate and machinery in 275 feet of mud and water. The quarry was abandoned. Sixty men were laid off. Work moved to a new bed, years away from production.

Pete is digging for another cigar.

What’s next ?

It’s not like the old days. Regulations are onerous, banks don’t like quarries, little value is placed on a man’s word and hard work. Those are the first things that come to his mind.

There are fond memories: a drinking contest in a Florida bar with some Marble quarriers (Steve Taran was there and the slate guys won), visiting Spanish quarries with Joe Jenkins and their families, his father’s and then his great friend, Joe Turoscy, Pete’s kids and grandchildren.

Eric Eitner and Pete’s son, Pete Jr, walk into the office, their hands black with grease and engine oil. We shake hands. Now in their thirties, they have both been in the business since teenage and look the part. There’s hope, too.

And Pete is still here, still genial, despite everything, holding out for the future. But for now, at least, he is the last man standing.

 
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