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Posts tagged ‘Mill’

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.

The Story of the Lonaconing Silk Mill

Lonaconing, Maryland lies in the far western panhandle of that amazingly diverse state.  You should think “West Virginia” if you really want to understand the terrain.  It’s mountainous.  Coal is the mineral.  You shouldn’t be surprised by a bear crossing the road.  The economic situation is, perhaps not so good.  We recently had a chance to visit a most interesting, and historic location nestled in these mountains, the Lonaconing Silk Mill.  This was the last silk mill in the United States, in operation commencing in the early 1900’s.  It was an important employer in the area and it’s story mirrors that of so many businesses throughout the United States.  You can read more about the history of the mill here.  We had an opportunity to go through the Mill and photograph courtesy of someone I’ve mentioned quite a bit in the blog, Tony Sweet.  This wasn’t a workshop, just a photographic get together.  Many photographers are drawn to abandoned places.  The Silk Mill in that regard doesn’t disappointment.  The outside of the building is quite striking, with a reddish-orange tint.

This part of the Mill, which is most accessible (by appointment only let me stress) actually has a pleasant, warm appeal, from the outside.

Once you enter though, you’re in a different world, an abandoned one, one of big machines from another industrial time.

The workers, for about half a century, spun silk thread onto bobbins for shipment around the country.  This is what it was all about.

Time stopped for the Mill in June of 1957.

Since then, the story of the Mill has largely been one of decay.

It probably wouldn’t be fair to attribute this completely to neglect, however.  Thirty-three years ago, Herb Shepard bought the Mill, using personal funds, with the hope of preserving and restoring what he felt was an important site in the story of American industrial history.  In part, this had to do with his own feelings about those who worked there, he’s from the area and even though the factory closed more than 50 years ago, still remembers some of those who worked there, and knows something about their lives at the Mill.

Alas, though, his efforts so far have not been successful.  He’s received interest, but no real help from the political establishment.  Without on-going sources of funding, abandoned buildings decay structurally.  The roof is now leaking, windows are broken and nature is taking over.  Preservation work is tough.  What’s the old saying in real estate, “location, location, location.”  How many people would pass this way to see a restored silk mill, even if it was the last one in the United States? Preservation work is much like entrepreneurship.  (I’d argue that preservation work is inherently entrepreneurial, but that’s a discussion for another day.)  One important ingredient of successful entrepreneurial activity is that of timing.  You can be right about everything, but if you’re right at the wrong time, you may not be successful.

Editorial and technical notes:  (1) Abandoned buildings that are visited with some regularity by photographers can present a newcomer with an abundance of what are called “set ups.”  Set ups are staged to look as though they reflected the reality at the time, but in fact, reflect the photographers’ re-enactment of that reality. Was the calendar you see actually the one left there in 1957?  I don’t know.  In addition to the impact of photographers, Herb and others have actively tried to maintain some of the historical artifacts that were, in fact, a real part of the story.  I tried in these images, to stay away from any that were obvious set ups, but I can’t guarantee that I was successful. (2) Obviously, I switched color schemes when I went inside.  The interior of the building screamed black and white, but I also obviously used a tone, a very light sepia, on the images.  The use of this warm tone for black and white imagery was a suggestion made to me by Brooks Jenson, publisher of LensWork magazine.