6 Special New England Mill Towns

By Joe Bills

Apr 11 2019

Rhode Island

Color is Coming On Strong Across Rhode Island, and the Scene at Slater Mill Should Peak This Weekend

Photo Credit : Susan Cole Kelly
On the third episode of season three of Weekends with Yankee, cohost Richard Wiese gets a thrill from custom-built Ducati motorcycles, made in the charming town of Harrisville, New Hampshire, and shipped to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Since the decline of the New England textile and paper industries, many former mill towns like Harrisville have been forced to redefine themselves for a new era. In many of these communities, the old mill buildings remain central to the community’s identity. Here’s a list of six special New England mill towns.

6 Special New England Mill Towns

Pawtucket and North Smithfield, RI: The Birthplace

Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket, RI
Photo Credit : Susan Cole Kelly
Small-scale sawmills and gristmills were part of the American landscape almost from the time the first Europeans arrived. Large factory mills, however, did not exist here until the 1790s, when an Englishman named Samuel Slater moved to the U.S., bringing all the knowledge he had gained as an apprentice under a prominent British industrialist. To the British, who had a law against exporting industrial knowledge, he became known as “Slater the Traitor.” In his new homeland, he became the “Father of the Industrial Revolution.” Teaming with local businessman Moses Brown, Slater launched his first factory mill in Pawtucket in 1793. The success of that enterprise prompted the building of a second mill in rural North Smithfield in 1807; this mill was the first to need a village to house workers. Slatersville, as it was called, was America’s first mill town. Today, the area around Slatersville has been developed, but a portion of the core village has been preserved. Pawtucket’s Old Slater Mill is now a National Historic Landmark and operates as a museum that is well worth a visit for anyone interested in New England’s industrial evolution.

Harrisville, NH: Classic Mill Town

Harrisville, NH
Harrisville, New Hampshire
Photo Credit : Aimee Seavey
Harrisville is often lauded as the most authentic 19th-century mill town still in existence, and that honor is well earned. A sawmill and gristmill existed here as far back as the 1770s, and the first textile mill was in operation before the century’s end. The mill that really created Harrisville, though, was built by Bethuel and Cyrus Harris in 1822. The complex continued to grow over the following decades, and much of that infrastructure remains intact and largely unchanged today. The mill closed in 1970, but the following year Harrisville Designs was created as a retail operation that would preserve the mill’s history of yarn- and cloth-making. More important, the nonprofit Historic Harrisville was formed to preserve the town’s history while also shaping its future. Today, many of the mill buildings have been renovated into business spaces and artists’ studios. Across the street from the main mill complex, Historic Harrisville runs the Harrisville General Store, which opened in 1838 and, like the mill, has found the perfect balance between staying current and harking back.

Lowell, MA: Classic Mill City

New England Mill Towns | Weekends with Yankee
Lowell, MA
Photo Credit : Photo by Galen Anderson / CC BY-SA 2.0
If Harrisville is the quintessential small mill town, Lowell claims the title of New England’s classic mill city. The textile mills, trolleys and boarding houses at the heart of Lowell were put to various uses as the industry that birthed them died out. In 1978, some forward-thinking locals worked to tranform the downtown mill complex on the Merrimack River into a national historic park, which captures the evolution and history of an early industrial city and illuminates the lives of the workers who powered it all.

North Adams, MA: Art Mecca

New England Mill Towns | Weekends with Yankee
Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA
Photo Credit : Photo by Downtownstreets / CC BY 2.0
Arnold Print Works, a maker of printed cloth, operated in North Adams from 1860 to 1942, and for much of that time it was the town’s largest employer. When the textile factory closed, Sprague Electric Company moved in for a 43-year run of its own. But when Sprague closed in 1985, North Adams found itself without a central industry, which meant it was time for some reinvention. In 1999, the town’s long period of readjustment culminated in the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). The museum’s sprawling 16-acre campus repurposed multiple buildings from the Arnold/Sprague complex and transformed North Adams into a major cultural destination.

Brattleboro, VT: Tourist Gateway

Guide to Brattleboro, Vermont
Brattleboro, VT
Photo Credit : Kelly Fletcher Courtesy of Strolling of the Heifers
Located along the Connecticut River, Brattleboro became one of the region’s early industrial centers, thanks in large part to the mills that cropped up on the river. Early sawmills and gristmills soon gave way to textile and paper mills, which laid the groundwork for other businesses as well, including the Estey Organ Company, which at one time was the largest organ manufacturer in the United States. When the mills declined, they dragged much of the city’s industry down with them, though Estey lasted until 1961. The city has had its ups and downs since, but its most recent reinvention, as an artistic hub and a tourist gateway to southern Vermont, has successfully rebranded this now-vibrant community.

Brunswick, ME: College Town

The Androscoggin in Brunswick, ME
Photo Credit : Jill Aaron
The story of New England mill towns is slightly different in Maine, where the paper industry far outlasted the textile industry elsewhere in the region. The post-mill identities of many Maine communities, therefore, remain very much a work in progress. Brunswick, though, was lucky enough to have something else to fall back on. Strategically located along a succession of Androscoggin River waterfalls that powered a few dozen sawmills, Brunswick became an early pillar of Maine’s lumber trade. In 1809, Maine’s first cotton mill, the Brunswick Cotton Manufactory Company, opened here and eventually grew into the Cabot Manufacturing Company. However, after the mill industry declined, the Brunswick Naval Air Station picked up much of the economic slack, growing to become the state’s second-largest employer before its closure in 2011. Today, the town leans on another of its foundational roots, Bowdoin College, and has evolved into a lively, artistic college town with top-notch museums and restaurants and a downtown culture that runs around and through many old mill buildings.