I live in the Blackstone Valley of central Massachusetts which continues into Rhode Island. I’ve written here about the Valley in previous posts. I love it here for many reasons, but one of which is that history is so visible, nearly everywhere. That’s a feeling I appreciate. I grew up near Williamsburg, Virginia. You could drive to the historic region there and if you could find a place to park, you could walk right out onto Duke of Gloucester St., and back into time, at no charge (then, not sure now). By that time, the 1960’s, Williamsburg had been fixed up, restored as it were to its former architecture. In the early 1900’s you would have seen the same buildings, but not in nearly so pristine condition.
The historical artifacts of the Blackstone Valley lie somewhere along that continuum. Those artifacts, specifically mills, or we what might be more generally termed factories, stand out from the otherwise rural or suburban landscape. The mills were built along the Blackstone River or one of its tributaries. They were located to take maximum advantage of the flow of the rivers and their ability to turn water wheels. Those water wheels connected to the machines that for the most part spun and weaved cotton and wool fabrics. The connections involved elaborate sets of gears and belts. The mills were usually built up, not out, in order to create a more compact operation and take advantage of the strengths of such power systems. The industrial revolution in the United States began here, in the late 1700’s. The textile industry boomed, creating considerable wealth. In the twentieth century though, the industry largely succumbed to competition first from the southern U.S. and then from off shore. The businesses located in the mills ultimately failed or moved, for the most part. The mills and the ancestors of those that worked in them (and didn’t relocate) remained.
It can be pleasantly jarring to drive along a relatively rural street, or walk through an old New England style center of town, and suddenly come upon a mill or what is left of one. They were frequently quite large. Not as large as those built along the Merrimack River in northeastern Massachusetts, but impressive nevertheless. Some have burned (one hundred years of toxins can set the stage for quite a fire). Some sit idle and some have been repurposed to mix use or most successfully it appears, as housing.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island
Woonsocket, Rhode Island
South Grafton, Massachusetts
Providence, Rhode Island
Ashton, Rhode Island
The mills tell a story that highlights the power of economic development. These are just buildings though. Obviously there’s more to the story.