by Stacy B. Williams

Photos Courtesy of Alberene Soapstone

This contemporary kitchen stove island, backsplash and bar use lightly polished American Original soapstone to great effect. American Original soapstone is sourced from the Old Dominion Quarry in Albemarle County, Virginia. When an American legacy rises from the rubble to become a major player in the stone industry, it is good news. The successful rebirth of Alberene Soapstone Company is inspirational... and this is just the beginning. 

The choice of polished or honed finish – honed American Original is used on the colonnade outside the Jefferson Scholar’s Building, UVa,  is available for most varieties of Alberene Soapstone Company products.The Alberene Soapstone Company was founded in the small town of Schuyler, Virginia in 1888.

Throughout the last century this soapstone vein, one of the largest in the world, has encountered thousands of different working hands and experienced the industrial innovations of quarry machinery. It has been used for laundry tubs, laboratories and later the scraps were carved into sculpture. 

The cutting floor at the Schuyler quarry in 1915, still the source of Alberene soapstone.Now fast forward to the 21st century. Just two years ago, some local investors (Virginia Soapstone Ventures) decided to attempt a revitalization of Alberene Soapstone Company, and they appointed Richard Coyte as Director. 

Gantry Crane outside the Schuyler,VA plant. The roof of the stone processing plant – still in use today – is just visible to the right side of this photo from 1950.“I have been given the greatest opportunity of any career: to save and elevate an American company with an historic past, helping bring it back to prominence in a market dominated by foreign competitors,” Coyte says. 

Face inspection at the Old Dominion Quarry to determine where to place the next cut.  Bottom, Right: An operator keeps careful watch on the Fantini 70S saw gauges; The 20-foot cutting bar is buried in the rock face.Coyte has worked with multiple companies over the years as a consultant.

With a background in finance and a law degree from Georgetown University, he may seem an unlikely candidate to manage a quarry.

However, since stepping in as the Director for Alberene Soapstone Company, the company has turned heads and profits.

Thanks to the alignment of several factors and the hard work of some key individuals during the past year, both peripheral and internal, Alberene Soapstone Company has risen from the rubble, literally and figuratively.

Two main goals of this revival were to increase production and target the appropriate market. The owners of the company proposed a plan to quarry full-time, reevaluate the company’s target market and hire a management team.

Peter Farley accepted the Production Manager position, even without management or production experience.

He effectively brought a new 16-member crew together, and has been an exceptional Production Manager ever since.

“He was running the plant when production made the quantum leap from under 2,000 square feet a month to over 12,000 square feet a month,” says Coyte, “It was incredible.”

A stone worker grinds a custom piece with an early version of a single-arm polisher, and above, another adds counterweights to balance the polishing arm on a rubbing bed–one of the interesting machines still preserved at the Schuyler operation, now thoroughly modernized with surface polishers and other essential processing equipment to bring industry-sized slabs to a growing market.Alberene offers four distinct soapstone types, including Old Dominion, Climax, Alberene and Church Hill.

By adhering to quarrying one product, the company can focus on maintaining the highest quality, which is also in line with its historical integrity.  

A stone worker grinds a custom piece with an early version of a single-arm polisher, and above, another adds counterweights to balance the polishing arm on a rubbing bed–one of the interesting machines still preserved at the Schuyler operation, now thoroughly modernized with surface polishers and other essential processing equipment to bring industry-sized slabs to a growing market.When it came to hiring a quarry manager to excavate this soapstone, industry experience was essential and Dan Rhoades fit the bill. Rhoades was previously Vice President for Vegas Rock, and after working there for 18 years, he made the move to Virginia to work with Alberene as the Quarry Manager, and his role and input are integral to the company.

He is involved in the hiring process, machine repair and equipment purchasing. 

“The first day Dan arrived, I mean the very first day, he had moved the machinery into place and started cutting blocks,” says Coyte.

American Original soapstone slab from the Old Dominion quarry, shown installed with a honed surface in the kitchen below, right.The shift to quarrying industry-size slabs required new and larger equipment. Per Rhoades’ recommendations these include an industry standard slab rack, a new polishing line and a new stone saw. 

“Probably the most important piece of equipment we have is the Fantini 70 Super-H with a 20 foot blade,” Coyte says.

Polished finish Church Hill Black soapstone counters from the Old Dominion quarry complement this well-appointed country kitchen. Expanding their product size allowed them to expand their market, and this development is considered a natural extension of the company’s history.

“It allows us to focus on the clients that we can best serve -contractors, fabricators, installers, specifiers, and architects,” Coyte says.

Honed finish Traditional Dominion soapstone counters feature a natural rounded edge & a matching soapstone sink.Coyte also explains two external elements that have also contributed to Alberene’s rise. The first is a market uptrend in the stone industry. Stone is popular and people are spending money on home renovations. In the last five years, interior design (for kitchens, in particular) has become incredibly trendy in American media and society.

Coyte and representatives of Alberene attend home shows, trade shows and conferences on home design and architecture throughout the year. These opportunities to connect with clients and meet homeowners who are interested in soapstone have been beneficial to the company’s budding reputation. Additionally, American quarries and American stone have been increasingly popular with clients.

“I think I first noticed the trend when Stone World Magazine announced that it was dedicating a feature every month to American quarries,” says Coyte. Since then, it seems that everyone is talking about American stone and buying from American companies. 

“It’s like that phenomenon of buying a certain model car and then all of a sudden you see one everywhere you look,” he jokes.

Whether you call it synchronicity, projection or the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon, Alberene has been proactive in promoting its national legacy and playing a part in the local movement.

After all, Alberene is the oldest and only soapstone supplier in the country, which allows the company to claim the lowest carbon footprint. Natural soapstone does not require chemical sealants or stains, and this is important to the company’s fabricator client base. Eco and environmentally friendly labels on home materials continues to be a significant factor for fabricators and homeowners.

Alberene’s largest client base is on the east coast, stretching from Virginia to Maine. In line with its legacy, the company seeks to maintain loyalty with its many partners.

Coyte notes Alberene’s appreciation for Tennessee Marble, who has been supportive and provided loads of useful industry advice. Another distributor, in particular, has been an invaluable aid for Alberene to break into the New England market, a historical haven for soapstone and stonework. 

“We could not have reached such a large market in New England without EleMar,” says Coyte, “They have been a huge supporter of Alberene and we are incredibly grateful.”

The second external factor contributing to the company’s success is a recent decrease in the supply of soapstone from other sources. In the past, Brazilian soapstone has controlled the market by exporting much of its stock to the United States.

However, the supply has slowed over the last few years, and Alberene’s leadership team saw this gap in the market as a perfect opportunity for them to step in.

So everything was falling into place for Alberene. But this company’s recipe for revival has an in-house secret ingredient, and it is leadership.

The smart management, industry expertise and marketing savvy of Alberene’s leadership team have been a keystone for Alberene’s rapid success. It takes a lot of faith to jump into a company with a long history. But Coyte, Farley and Rhoades had good reason to believe in the legacy the company had sustained over the last hundred years. 

Although profits and numbers are a positive indication of growth, Coyte’s most rewarding honor has been boosting employment in the community.

“Adding 25 jobs to this area was really important to me and meaningful for the company,” says Coyte. He expresses gratitude for being in a “community that cares.”

The Albemarle County area that has supported this soapstone quarry and production plant for over a century has a lot of pride in the industry, and history as well.

The town of Schuyler is a popular tourist destination for Appalachian history buffs, and anyone who watched the famous Walton family on TV.

The Walton’s House, now a museum, is a unique blend of antiquity, nostalgia and entertainment. During the summer months, tourist buses flock to the region to visit Alberene for the “Lunch & Learn” tours and to catch a glimpse of John-Boy’s bedroom and Ike Godsey’s store.

In March, Alberene hosted their first Stone Fabricators Alliance (SFA) Workshop. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and more than half of the attendees placed orders for stone before the workshop had ended. Honed and polished soapstone seem to be the most popular finishes with fabricators.

The next big debut for Alberene will be honed soapstone in the kitchen of a new Southern Living home in Charlottesville, Virginia later in the summer. 

And wait, there’s more! Alberene will be expanding this year in quarrying a new section of the soapstone vein, which will yield mostly Church Hill black soapstone. 

Be prepared to see a lot more of Alberene in industry news, trade shows and homes around the country.

Part of the company’s mission at Alberene is that the public know about American soapstone and where to get it. 

For more information, visit Alberene Soapstone Company website or call 434-831-1051.