Two hundred years ago, everyone in Webster knew the name Samuel Slater. He had just sited the country’s very first woolen mill here, after establishing the American cotton spinning industry in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Slater’s textile business pioneering ventures earned him the name “Father of the American Industrial Revolution.”
Samuel Slater’s legacy can still be seen here and there in Webster-- several mill buildings, the salvaged Clock Tower at the Price Chopper Plaza, and most memorably, his gravesite in the Mount Zion cemetery. The Slater name will soon become more prominent, however, when a local businessman’s idea becomes a reality. Christopher Robert, owner of Webster Ventures and Indian Ranch, has proposed to create a historical museum that will chronicle Samuel Slater’s far-reaching impact on both local and national textile manufacturing.
It will take some time to obtain all the necessary local and state approvals to transform the former Webster National Guard Armory into the Samuel Slater Museum, but the goal is to have it open by the end of the year.
Until then, The Yankee Xpress will publish periodic columns about Samuel Slater, the man, and the many families his mills have impacted these last two hundred years.
By Richard Cazeault
With the arrival of Samuel Slater’s younger brother in 1803, more background on Samuel’s character was revealed.
John Slater arrived from England in 1803. John had, like Samuel, studied under the teacher, Thomas Jackson. John became a millwright’s apprentice and learned the latest textile technology in Manchester and Oldham, England. He was an expert in the “Spinning Mule,” which improved the production and quality of the spinning process. Upon arrival to Pawtucket, he worked in the mills owned by his brother and Almy & Brown.
The Spinning Mule, developed by Samuel Crompton in England, was a hybrid that combined the Spinning Jenny with the Arkwright Water Frame. The result was a machine that allowed the spinning of different yarns, including very fine yarns, with the increased benefit of greater production.
Why was John allowed to work in the high tech English textile industry after what his brother Samuel had done? When Samuel had left England 14 years earlier, no one, including his family, knew. Once in the U.S., he wrote his family and his ex-teacher, Thomas Jackson to let them know where he was. His whereabouts was probably kept a secret, to lessen the negative aspects of his actions on his family and friend.
By 1803, Slater owned two mills in Pawtucket in partnership with Almy & Brown. Although they were doing well, their factories were inconsequential compared to the huge English production of cotton yarn and thread. Samuel was probably still living a more or less anonymous life. Other than his family, no one in England paid attention to him. This allowed his brother, John, to follow in his footsteps in more distant English cities, where he learned his trade.
From Samuel’s letters to his family and ex-teacher, we know that he was able to write well, and probably was well spoken. His later portraits indicate that he was a good-looking man. Like most successful men, he probably had a charismatic personality that attracted people to him. He was smart and ambitious. All these characteristics allowed him to advance quickly, when he was an apprentice to Strutt before he left for the U.S. Remember, he also lived with the Strutt Family during that time, so he must have impressed them as a good person. Strutt may have even encouraged Samuel to go to the U.S. Strutt died in 1797, when Samuel was still struggling in the U.S.
Many people in England supported the newly formed U.S. Some thought that the old colonies had received bad treatment from King George III. Others thought that if the U.S. was successful with the “People” running their government, then more reforms would eventually happen in England to shift more benefits to the common people. The world was in turmoil after the American Revolution, followed by the French Revolution.
I believe the education of John Slater was orchestrated by his brother Samuel. This plan would allow Samuel and his partners to benefit from the latest English technology gains, and also offer John an opportunity for a better life.
In 1805 a new plant was planned by the two Slaters and Almy & Brown, which would be built in the northern part of Rhode Island on the South Branch of the Blackstone River, in the new village, that is now called Slatersville, named after John. Building commenced in 1806 and the plant went into production in 1807 with John being the superintendent. Eventually John bought out his partners and the mill and village were inherited by his grandson John W. Slater.
At the time, the Slatersville Mill was considered the most modern factory in the U.S. Slatersville was considered the first mill village created in the U.S.
The next article will discuss Slater’s fourth mill created in Oxford, Massachusetts, later to become Webster.