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Posts from the ‘Sustainability’ Category

Deindustrialization Opening

Deindustrialization Invitation for web

If you’re in the Boston area, I want to invite you to the opening of my exhibition, “Deindustrialization,” taking place Thursday evening, November 7 from 5 – 7 PM.  The exhibition consists of twelve large scale portraits of textile mills from the Blackstone Valley region of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There will be an artist talk shortly after 5, mingling, and I believe free food!  The opening will take place on the campus of Babson College, in the Hollister Gallery.  Directions are here.

I want to thank BabsonArts and Associate Director Danielle Krcmar for making this all possible.  This work was sponsored in part through a sabbatical grant from Babson College, for which I’m also most grateful.  The work was printed on metal, an amazing process, by the wonderful folks at Blazing Editions .  Working with them and more specifically Juliette Pascale was a joy.  The results were stunning.

On another note, this exhibition is really a bit less of a celebration and more of a remembrance.  The industrial revolution in the U.S. and indeed around the world, a revolution that is still going on in many places, brought with it a tremendous upsurge in wealth.  At the same time, it brought with it massive sacrifices on the part of those who did the work and the communities in which these mills were built.

The raw materials for the cotton mills prior to the U.S. Civil War were farmed by enslaved workers kidnapped from Africa.  Even after the Civil War the combination of share cropping arrangements and terror enforced by organizations like the KKK imposed the most severe hardships on those involved.  Working conditions in the mills, though not as bad as one would find in England at the time were extremely harsh.   The environmental degradation that occurred because of the mill industrial waste and the repeated damming of the rivers of the Blackstone Valley is still with us today.

At the same time, mill employment helped to create, at least in part, a melting pot, bringing people together from much of the world, into what became in many places a real community.  Some of those communities still exist today as well.  The boom and bust phenomena, a phenomena which continues unabated, is ultimately a harsh developmental path for our society.

What Next?

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.

Deindustrialization, Uxbridge 1

Uxbridge, Massachusetts

 

Deindustrialization, Hopedale 1

Hopedale, Massachusetts

 

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Hopedale, Massachusetts

 

Deindustrialization, Woonsocket,  Rhode Island, 1

Woonsocket, Rhode Island

 

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Woonsocket, Rhode Island

 

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South Grafton, Massachusetts

 

Deindustrialization - Providence 1

Providence, Rhode Island

 

Deindustrialization, Whitinsvillle, 1

Whitinsville, Massachusetts

 

Deindustrialization, Smithfield, Rhode Island 1

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Anthropocene

Relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.  

Have we crossed into a new geological and biological epoch?  Perhaps.  There is some debate as to when humans began to overpower the earth, at least the surface 1% of it.  Global warming has only been on the radar screen, for most of us, for a few decades.  Some scholars though date the anthropocene from the onset of the industrial revolution, and perhaps even the dawn of agriculture thousands of years ago.

Traveling around the Blackstone River Valley of central Massachusetts, one gets the definite sense that it’s been going on for a while.  I’ve been immersed in issues related to sustainability for the past year or so as part of my work at Babson College.  This valley, where I now live, reveals an interesting story of the industrial revolution and its impact, one that I will be talking and photographing more about over the next several years.

I’ll with just a simple image of a rather iconic location in the Valley,  the dam at the Mumford River that created the mill ponds that powered Whitin Machine Works.

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The Whitin Machine Works was founded in 1831.  It ultimately became one of the largest textile machinery factories in the world, employing over 5000 people at its peak in the late 1940’s.  It’s been out of business since 1976, victim of changing business conditions.  Obviously, here, there was an impact on the environment, though nothing we aren’t used to seeing.  Perhaps not such a big deal, though we can imagine that the river was ultimately quite polluted. Consider though, courtesy of Google Earth, the bigger picture.

Whitten Machine Works

When I took the first image I was standing on the sidewalk of the roadway you see in the lower right hand corner.  Note how the dam has changed the surrounding geography, for miles.  The dam no longer provides power for the mill, but it shaped a landscape that those in the community came to accept and with which they are now powerfully linked.  The next time you see a dam, consider what’s behind it.  This is one dam.  More to come.

(I want to give full credit to my colleague at Babson College, Professor Joanna Carey, for the fundamental ideas behind this series on dams in New England.)

Blackstone Heritage Corridor NPS Calendar

I’m honored to have had two images chosen by the Blackstone Heritage Corridor and National Park Service for inclusion in their 2018 Calendar.  Both are from the River Bend Farm National Heritage Corridor in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.  I’ve mentioned this location before.  This portion of the National Heritage Corridor explores the Blackstone Canal, which was constructed in 1827-28 running from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island.  The Canal was open for only two decades and was considered a business failure.  Inspired by the success of the Erie Canal in New York, the Blackstone Canal was to provide relatively inexpensive and fairly rapid transportation along this developing corridor.  It’s history turned out to be torturous as it was initially thought to be a boon for the growing cotton mill industry along the Blackstone River.  Soon however, the Mill owners were suing the Canal owners over the use of water from the River.  This on the heels of the conflicts between the areas farmers and industrialists over water use.

This section of the Canal has been restored.  The tow path runs along the Canal and was used by Ox and Mules to power the boats that navigated the canal.  For July:

Blackstone Canal and Towpath in Spring -  2016

Both of these images show an unusually wide portion of the Canal which was for the most part extremely narrow.  For November:

Dock along the Blacksstone Canal in Fall - 2016

The work of the National Park Service as well as the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts here in the Blackstone Corridor helps us to try and grapple with the very complex intersections between the natural environment, entrepreneurship, social policy and social justice that took place and still are in play in the Corridor. As I’ve pointed out, the Blackstone River was one of the Rivers that actually provoked the Clean Water Act, signed by that noted environmentalist, Richard Nixon…(hey, he signed it, so good for him).  The lessons from the Corridor are lessons that evolve over hundreds of years.  It is not easy for us to understand those lessons for that very reason, but by holding the discussion, we can perhaps make progress.

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of attending the second annual Biodiversity Festival hosted by the Corridor, in Lincoln, Rhode Island.  It was inspiring to see so many people, including our wonderful daughter Molly, who are engaged in trying to protect our environment.  Molly works at the Northern Rhode Island Conservation District. These folks engage in a wide variety of environmental and educational activities with the goal of protecting the drinking water for a large number of Rhode Island citizens.  Drinking water….kind of important I think.  One lesson is clear:  protect that which is essential to our lives.