RHODE ISLAND/MASSACHUSETS - The largest historic preservation conference in New England, with hundreds attending, began at the historic Stadium Theater in Woonsocket on Saturday and then spread out into communities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Though the official title was “The 27th annual Rhode Island Statewide Historic Preservation Conference,” the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island are connected by a river with a reputation to regain – the Blackstone River was known as the hardest working river in the United States and responsible for the Industrial Revolution in this country.
It is becoming known today as a reason to be outdoors, fishing, canoeing and kayaking its waters, biking along its banks, and visiting the historic mills and villages that remain as a testament to areas history and growth.
History and environment were the reasons more than 25 years ago for the formation of the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park which has become the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. Preservations and environmentalists hope the next step will be national park status, a decision expected to be made in this Congressional session, according to keynote speaker Stephanie Smith Toothman, associate director for cultural resources for the National Park Service.
Combining history and nature was “kind of an experiment,’’ noted Jan Reitsma, executive director of the National Heritage Corridor. It’s an experiment that worked and now is ready for the next step – national park status, he said.
A resource study for the National Park Service clearly makes the case that “Blackstone Valley has the resources to be the best place in America to tell the story of industry in America,’’ he said. “We need to let Congress know that.’’
The formal session also included remarks by Woonsocket Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, Edward F. Sanderson, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, Maia Farish of Roger Williams University, and video remarks by Sen. Jack Reed.
Following remarks, participants broke off into groups to attend any of the 23 discussion, bike, bus or walking tours throughout the Blackstone Valley, among them bus tours around the historic areas - in Massachusetts the town of Hopedale and village of Whitinsville.
The Whitinsville tour was titled “Industry Makes Community,’’ its topic the role mill owners, particularly the Whitin family, had in the creation of a community in the 1800s. The tour covered the Whitin Machne Works mill and the mill villages surrounding it, the library and Town Hall, built by the Whitins, and some of the community’s many churches built by the immigrants who settled here, drawn by employment in the mills.
The tour ended for lunch at the Whitin Mill, restored by Alternatives Unlimited, Inc. and now used by Alternatives to service its clients, adults with physical and mental disabilities.
Park Ranger Valerie Paul continued to answer questions from the 65 tour participants and said Whitinsville is one of her favorite stories. It’s rare, she said, to be able to directly connect a particular group to an area. That isn’t so for the Dutch population in Whitinsville.
Castle Hill was a “hobby farm’’ for the Whitins, she said, and when all the cows died because of a disease, the Whitins sent to Friesland, an area of Holland, for new cows. “James Bosma came with the cows to take care of them,’’ she said, “and he was the first of a large population of Dutch” now livng here.
Unlike the Rhode Island end of the Blackstone Valley, where French Canadians were the first populate the area, the Irish came first to the Massachusetts, hired to work on the Blackstone River Canal. They stayed to work for the Whitins who needed skilled laborers in their mills.
Housing grew around the mills, and the Whitins built “high quality’’ housing, Paul said. “Some mill owners built housing for retention; the Whitins saw housing as recruitment.’’
Tom Saupe, community outreach director for Alternatives, and Dennis Rice, executive director, talked about the Whitn Mill and its role in the Blackstone Valley when it was a mill village and today. Alternatives is houses in what was the Whitinsville Spinning Ring Co. and it receives power today just as it did in the 1800’s – by a water-powered turbine.
The mill still has a forge building. Alternatives is looking for a blacksmith or glass blower to use it. The mill has housing for some Alternatives’ clients, an outdoor pavilion overlooking the Mumford River where summer concerts are held, a theater, an art gallery, and gift shop.
Alternatives first used the mill as a sheltered workshop where people with disabilities did piece work for which they were paid. “It was good they got a paycheck, but bad they never got out into the community,’’ Rice said.
That workshop closed about 10 years ago and clients are employed in various locations around the Blackstone Valley community. Alternatives considered selling the mill, but chose instead to restore the various buildings that make up the complex.
It cost about $9 million to restore the mill, about $5 million of that was fundraised. The building is heated, cooled and powered by its water turbine and geo-thermal system. It was expensive to restore, but is easy to maintain and saves Alternatives about $60,000 a year, Rice said.
“When everything is working, we’re 93 percent self-sufficient,’’ he continued.
The day-long conference ended at 6 p.m. with a reception at St. Ann’s Arts and Cultural Center, a former Roman Catholic Church with more than 40 stained glass windows and an interior decorated with fresco paintings by Italian-Canadian artist Guido Nincheri.