Mills and Dams – The Bernat Mill
Chris, my wife, remembers going to the Bernat Mill store in Uxbridge, Massachusetts to buy yarn. She certainly isn’t alone. If you were into knitting, that was what you did in this area. At one point, the mill was the third largest yarn mill in the U.S. (Note, the brand still exists and is in use by another yarn manufacturer, Bernat.) The mill itself had a long and exemplary career in the Blackstone River Valley. The first iteration of the Mill was built there in 1820 by John Capron. Why that location? Falling water. This is the current dam along the Mumford River that creates Capron Pond. It’s quite a lovely place with a very nice park, a nice place to think, or have a picnic.
Capron evolved to the Backman Uxbridge Worsted Company. They were the first manufacturers to utilize power loops in the U.S., a staggering change moving the industrial revolution forward. Their ability to engage in mass production doubtlessly lead to their ability to land contracts for the production of Civil War uniforms, World War One Khakis and World War Two U.S. Army uniforms. Those familiar with the U.S. Air Force dress blue uniform can take note, it was probably manufactured in that mill. That blue was chosen from the Backman Uxbridge catalogue.
As it did with so many large manufacturers in the Valley, the bust stormed into town in the form of international competition, technological change and an aging plant. In 1964 the assets were sold to the Bernat Company which refocused the mill on yarns. As manufacturing declined, the mill was repurposed over time in what was actually a very successful conversion. The class mill repurposing involves creating small spaces for retail, office and creative studios. They must have worked quite hard on the conversion because by the night of July 21, 2007, something like 400,000 square feet which had been devoted to manufacture was productively employed by numerous small businesses. Hundreds were employed there. Unfortunately, that night and for several subsequent days the mill burned.
Hundreds of firefighters fought the blaze. The complex was almost completely destroyed. Most of the businesses, worth millions, were lost. There are I would stress still a number of businesses remaining in a portion of the mill complex, but nothing like the number there prior to the fire.
The damage is still stunningly visible. Government on several levels planned to help but those plans seem to have floundered. This is of course not the first mill to burn in the Blackstone Valley. Many of those mills absorbed a century or more of a variety of chemicals. Some thought the fire at the Bernat Mill was almost inevitable. The bust of an economic surge, particularly one that lasted as long as large scale manufacturing in the Blackstone Valley is extraordinarily difficult to manage. These were very big businesses, not just for their time, but for any time.