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Pawtucket: A Historic City Looks to the Future

Pawtucket occupies an important place in the history of Rhode Island.  Its first European settler was Joseph Jenks, a skilled ironworker who purchased some 70 acres of land surrounding the Pawtucket falls in 1671.  Jenks, whose last name has also been spelled as Jenckes and Jencks, is considered the founder of Pawtucket.  His sawmill, forge and the small town that grew up around them were burned to the ground during King Phillip’s War (1675-1676).

Starting the American Industrial Revolution

Over 100 years later, Samuel Slater arrived.  Slater had been born in Derbyshire, England.  He began as an apprentice to Jedidiah Strutt, a partner of British genius Richard Arkwright, whose inventions helped create the first successful water-powered spinning mills.  Slater rose to become Superintendent of Strutt’s mill.  He dreamed of achieving success with a mill of his own.

For years, cloth had been manufactured by hand.  In working class homes, nearly every unmarried female made homespun thread on a spinning wheel.  Those who remained unmarried and continued spinning became known as spinsters.

Arkwright and his predecessors invented machinery that could card cotton fibers, removing tangles and preparing them for spinning.  Arkwright also invented a water-powered spinning machine that created strong cotton thread.  Using it and similar machinery, Great Britain soon became a manufacturing powerhouse in the Western world.  British cloth made English mill owners rich.  To preserve their great commercial advantage, the British government made exporting textile machinery plans a crime.  Any caught taking blueprints out of England faced years of imprisonment.

Samuel Slater, however, possessed a photographic memory.  He boarded a ship for America with the plans for Arkwright’s water-driven textile machinery locked safely in his brain.  Sponsored by merchants Moses Brown and William Almy, Slater built America’s first water-powered spinning mill at the Pawtucket falls.  They built a short dam across the river to create a waterfall that allowed Slater’s mill to take water from the top of the dam, use its weight to turn a large waterwheel, and discharge the water at the bottom of the dam.  Slater’s artificial waterfall is a familiar scene in downtown Pawtucket today.

Soon, other textile mills sprang up across Pawtucket.  These prospered into the 20th century.  The Great Depression, though, took a big toll on the textile industry in Pawtucket.  Some mills closed due to declining sales, while others moved south to lower costs.  However, other industries have continued to do well.  The best known company is powerhouse toy maker Hasbro.

Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc. began in the 1920s selling cloth remnants. They soon began manufacturing school supplies like pencil boxes and then pencils.  In the 1950s, the rebranded Hasbro introduced classic toy Mr. Potato Head and began producing Disney character toys.  By 1960 it was one of the largest toymakers in the world.  Toys are just one of hundreds of different products made by Pawtucket manufacturers.

Sights to see in Pawtucket

Besides the Slater Mill Historic Site in downtown Pawtucket, there are a number of interesting places to visit in the city.  One of these is undoubtedly Slater Memorial Park.  Slater Park, as it’s commonly known, is one of the oldest public parks in America.  Located on the site of the old Daggett Farm, Slater Park contains the Daggett House, the oldest dwelling in Pawtucket.  It was built in 1685 after the original farmhouse was burned down in King Philip’s War.

The Looff Carousel at Slater Park, under renovation until August of 2019, was chosen as the National Historic Carousel of the Year in 2018 by the National Carousel Association.  Master carousel maker Charles Looff built it in 1895 for a carnival in New York State.  In 1910, the carousel was brought to Slater Park and later purchased by the city.

It features carved horses, dogs (rare), chariots, a camel, lion, and giraffe.  Loof superbly carved them in the ornate Coney Island style.  The carousel boasts an organ that plays Wurlitzer player piano rolls.  It is one of the fastest carousels in the nation, whirling along at 9 mph.

The Hope Artiste Village occupies the historic Hope Webbing Mill on Main Street.  It now contains the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, retail shops, artist lofts and the state’s only indoor Farmer’s Market, held every Saturday morning.  The site also features a concert hall, bowling alley and restaurants.

Pawtucket’s Future

While Hasbro remains the largest Pawtucket-based manufacturer, there is a diverse group of companies, from low-tech to high tech, in the city.  The textile industry lives on in the specialty textile manufacturers that continue to thrive there.

Pawtucket is developing a reputation as a craft beer brewer’s mecca.  A number of breweries have sprung up in the city.  This gives beer drinkers an opportunity to enjoy some outstanding and unique brews in craft brewers’ taprooms and sometimes in local taverns.

While history will always be a key part of Pawtucket, the city continues to grow and develop.  New uses are found for old buildings.  Artists are moving into newly created loft space in historic mills that are old but still structurally sound.

Pawtucket’s growth began thanks to Samuel Slater’s photographic memory.  It will continue to grow due to the vision of people who, like Slater, use imagination and drive to turn the city’s resources into a profitable future.

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