When I was growing up my family told many stories about my great-great-grandfather William Griffith, the “Slate Quarry King” who emigrated from Wales to Poultney, Vermont, in the mid-1800s. There were stories about the beautiful home he built complete with maid’s quarters, and the fireworks that he used to provide to the town on the Fourth of July, his son Willie’s birthday.
Our home was filled with antique dishes, furniture, paintings, pictures, and clothing that belonged to the Griffiths. I remember dressing up in my great-great-grandmother’s Victorian clothing for Halloween and certain historical events. My interest in antiques and genealogy was fostered by the many artifacts and stories that surrounded me. William, I was told, was a bard. In 1905, he became famous as a composer, singer, and choral director of Methodist music in Vermont, composing and publishing choral music in the form of anthems, duets, solos, and hymn tunes. His music was performed throughout Wales and in Welsh communities in the United States and Canada.
Fast forward to the 1990s when I began researching my Welsh ancestors. I visited the Slate Quarry Museum in Granville, Vermont, to find out more about “Gwilym Caledffrwd” and his history. When I visited the museum, I learned that they had not actually received any artifacts or information about him. I realized it was up to me to donate some pictures, clothing, and antiques from the Griffith family. Sifting through and organizing my boxes of Griffith treasures gave me an opportunity to delve into my research.
Fast forward to 2014, when James P. Cassarino, a music and Welsh professor at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, contacted me. Cassarino was fascinated by my great-great-grandfather and had spent 10 years researching his history as a slate quarry owner and his musical background. This included Griffith’s involvement as a judge of Welsh Methodist music at eisteddfodau, an annual festival of Welsh literature, music, and performance. I supplied Cassarino with family pictures of William for a dissertation he published in the Vermont Genealogy magazine in the fall of 2015. His generous sharing of knowledge further fueled by interest in learning more about my great-great-great grandparents.
As we became fast friends, Cassarino showed me where the Griffiths had lived; the slate quarry, where William, Catherine, and their two deceased children were buried; as well as the church where William was choirmaster for over 40 years in Poultney. While Cassarino was a professor at Green Mountain College, he had purchased William’s personal musical handwritten manuscript (llyfr pricio) from a rare and antique bookstore in New York City. This serendipitous find proved Griffith’s strong understanding of music composition and solid musical training. It was common in Wales for singers and musicians to make notations in manuscript books of the tunes and harmonies that were used in their chapels.
In addition to my research here in the States, I have been to the ancestral town of Bethesda, Wales, twice over the past 20 years. During one of these trips, I found the original Methodist Church where William attended Sunday services and where he composed his first hymns. Sitting in the same pew where he attended Sunday school was a profound experience that made my research more meaningful. Looking over the valley, I could view the vast Penrhyn Quarry where he labored for 11 years before coming to America. I knew I had to return eventually to spend more time in Wales.
This past March I finally went back for a longer visit. Using the internet and what information I had already gathered, I focused on visiting the ancestral farm, William’s two schools, the small town of Bethesda, and the Penrhyn Quarry. I contacted Cefyn Burgess, a friend of professor Cassarino. Burgess had grown up in Bethesda and suggested I post an inquiry and photo of my ancestors on a Bethesda Facebook site entitled “Atgofion Bethesda/Memories of Bethesda.” Within ten minutes, a Bethesda resident posted a picture of William’s father’s family farm and some family census documents. Burgess suggested I book a room near his home at the Gwynfryn Bed & Breakfast in the nearby town of Conwy, which was close to the train station, Penrhyn Quarry, and Bethesda, to conduct my research and take pictures.
The Penrhyn Quarry was the world’s largest slate quarry at the end of the 19th century.
Currently, only a small section of the quarry is used for slate extraction. The abandoned and partially flooded part of the quarry now operates an adventure tourism facility featuring the largest zip line in the world, go-karts, and trolley tours with views of Snowdonia in the distance.
I was fortunate to experience a ride on the zip line over the quarry where William worked in the mid-1800s.
Thanks to Burgess’ knowledge of the area, his research, and his offer to drive me around, we were able to find my great-great-great grandparents’ farm in Tregarth, outside of Bethesda. The cottage was called Penisarallt (which means “bottom of the incline”) because at one time it was situated at the bottom of an incline of the Penrhyn Quarry railway en route to Port Penrhyn in Bangor, Wales. The farm and cottage now partly encompass a caravan park called Dina’s Farm. Part of the property includes open land to accommodate caravans (small mobile homes) and tents. The original slate stone home and barns were in surprisingly great shape. Looking across the majestic farmland as baby sheep came running to the edge of the farm fence to greet me, I felt at home.
The drive and walk around the scenic village were magnificent. The sheep dotted the farmland, the Penrhyn Quarry sat off in the distance, and many original homes made of slate lined the hill town streets. We found William’s original primary school, Rachub National School, which is deserted but still standing. We also found the spot where his secondary school, a private school at Penygroes Church Chapel, once stood. Only a gate remains today. Walking the route William would have taken to school was surreal and a memory I will never forget.
The final visitation of the day was Penrhyn Castle, home to Lord Edward Gordon Douglas. Douglas developed small local quarries (including Penrhyn) into a global industry thanks to money made from sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Jamaica. The lord owned the quarry and surrounding land, and my great-great-great grandfather Griffith was beholden to the lord for the farm and his employment.
The next segment of my research will be William’s journey and history when he moved to Vermont, opened up his slate quarry, became choirmaster at the Poultney Methodist Church, and participated in eisteddfod festivals of music and poetry. Eventually I hope to coordinate with Cassarino and publish a book.
Finding the ancestral farm, William’s schools, and the family’s church was much more than I expected to experience when I started this family roots journey years ago. I still receive posts and information on the Bethesda Facebook website. This may eventually lead to finding relatives still in Wales and therefore another visit.
Northern Wales is a step back in history. A magical place where mostly Welsh is spoken and distinctive traditions abound, this area of Great Britain is still steeped in myth and custom. Although Bethesda has made changes to keep up with modern times, it remains a true juxtaposition of the bygone religious ancestral village and quarry with successful modern hiking and tourist venues designated to promote the local economy.
Main photo: Penisarallt Cottage and farm in Tregarth, Wales. All photos by Donna Langley-Peck.