Will and I spent a day in his hometown of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. On my visits to Pawtucket before, I had noticed Slater Mill, and knew it was a historic building of some kind, and thought it was pretty and wanted to take a look. Will agreed that it was a place that should be visited. I was not prepared for what a great stop it turned out to be, with a guided tour of all the on-site buildings that are maintained by the National Park Service as a museum and part of the Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park. It was inexpensive, and the Ranger tour guide was knowledgeable and excited about the site’s history. I highly recommend this experience to anyone.
There’s a scandal to the story. Samuel Slater was apprenticed at a cotton mill as a young man in England, eventually becoming a superintendent very familiar with how the whole operation worked. Slater had a dream of creating his own mill, and memorized the water powered machines. It was against British law for textile workers to share information or to leave the country (which explains the memorization), but Slater left for America to try and build a textile industry of his own.
After failing his own attempts and bankrupting himself and other investors, Slater was put in touch with Moses Brown who was looking for someone to help him build a mill with his partner William Almy. By 1790 they had built the first water-powered cotton mill in the United States. Thank you England!
When Slater first arrived, Brown had suggested that he might board with the Wilkinson family, business associate of Brown. Slater moved in and met Hannah Wilkinson, one of the daughters of the household. They were married. Hannah disovered a way to make better thread and applied for a patent. Some people believe she is the first woman in America to be awarded a patent. It’s under the name “Mrs. Samuel Slater,” reflecting conventions of the time.
We went upstairs above the water wheel and came into a huge workshop powered entirely by belts! I was in awe. I’ve never considered how machines were run before electricity, but here was one amazing example. All the machinery in the shop/museum is currently functional, and the guide powered up the belts (on electricity since the wheel is not moving) and the whole place came to life! All the belts were connected, so across the entire room, the ceiling was alive and noisy! The guide then drilled a few holes for us to demonstrate that the machines were working.
I love all that old stuff, and had a fun time just poking around, picking up iron pieces and wooden pieces and trying to work out how it was all part of the Wilkinson family operation that built and repaired machinery in the whole region.
Up close it was hard to get a good photo of the yellow-painted Slater Mill. This was our last and final stop of the tour. We stood outside in the shade beside the Blackstone River while the guide told us more about the innovative history of the place. For example, he explained how Slater designed his textile mill and thread-making machines so that children could easily work them. While that is distasteful to us now, at the time, people were grateful to be able to place their children into employment for the family. Slater also created small company villages, where he built cheap housing for the workers, and a company store, all on site with the mill. Then he hired entire families and brought them to his mini-villages. This system, called the Rhode Island System, was then copied around the country. On the surface it seemed to be a help to the workers, but many of you know that it was really a way to make more money for the owners and to keep employees in debt like indentured servants.
After our tour we walked to the bridge above the river. From there we got a good look at the mill buildings from a distance.
We met a friend of mine for lunch after our tour, a classmate from Brandeis University. Then with the remainder of the day, we went to Roger Williams Park. It is one of several Roger Williams Parks, as the man is quite beloved in Rhode Island. This park is certainly the largest (at 435 acres) and most impressive, hosting a zoo, a botanical park, a carosel, a museum and planetarium, trails, wide lawns and barbecue areas, and a huge meandering lake that means one is almost always next to a beach. We drove for a long time so that I could see the extent of the place. Then we parked and walked in the pleasant evening.