I’m very gratified to announce that Black and White Magazine has just published portions of my “Deindustrialization Portfolio.” (June 2020 issue)
Posts tagged ‘Mills’
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.
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.
Readers know that the story of the Blackstone River has been a major focus of my work over the past year or so. Much like the Quabbin Reservoir area, I find the mix of nature, history and environmental struggle compelling. For first time callers, the Blackstone River runs from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island, a span of just under 50 miles. The fact that it falls 500 feet along the way created the story of the River as resource, place of exploitation, place of growth, place of social change, place of pollution, place of neglect and place of beauty. That’s quite a list I know, but I do believe it is actually a rather conservative list.
The Blackstone River was the home of the industrial revolution in the United States, beginning just after the signing of the Constitution. Entrepreneurs powered mill after mill with the falling water. The landscape changed from agrarian to industrial. Massive numbers of workers and their families came to work in those mills from all over the Europe as well as Canada. Times were good for many. Global competition intervened and the factories moved. Jobs were lost and the river was left as a dumping ground. It became a poster child for the Clean Water Act and since the Act’s signing, the quality of the water is improving, albeit slowly. To those of you who have read the same material before, sorry for the review session. Now we move on.
We recently took another journey with our friends from Blackstone River Cruises, this time along the stretch of the River that runs through northern Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The era of the mills began south of here in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, but this is where that era exploded, before imploding. The River as it runs through Woonsocket was home to some of the largest mills in the United States. The River also flooded here, repeatedly, sometimes with devastating results. As you cruise along the River, you can see the history of nature and man and their impact here. I think it’s useful just to absorb the scene before drawing conclusions, so I start with the River itself.
The River is quite lovely, especially on a day like this. In the background you can see the industrial past and present. Looking more closely, you’ll see that the River has been “channeled.”
Rock has been placed along long stretches of the river bank on both sides by the Corps of Engineers. That river bank is not supposed to move in the wake of a flood event. Other actions by the Corps, the opening and closing of flood gates, are meant to control the water level.
The abandoned mills pre-date the rock channeling, but not the flooding. When a mill is flooded, jobs are lost, sometimes thousands of them. The Alice Mill was once the largest rubber factory in the world, built in 1889 and continued to function as a rubber factory until the 1960’s with a few interruptions. After its main activity ceased, efforts were made to repurpose the building, but it burned, as abandoned mills tend to, in 2011.
The former homes of the families who worked in these mills are still readily apparent along the River.
Parts of Woonsocket are quite nice, but the city payed a high price for the experience of boom and bust.
Further north, in spite of the rock channeling, nature is making a comeback as it always does when left to its own devices.
One problem we face is understanding the impact of actions that can take hundreds of years to play out. We’re not terribly patient as a rule. Boom and bust appears from this vantage point to be a hard way to go.