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 Industrial Revolution.”
The young Englishman learned the mechanics of cotton spinning machines as an apprentice, and carried the designs with him in his head when he emigrated to the new world in 1789 after reading an American advertisement that offered a reward for the invention of textile machinery. Given that the American Revolution was still new and skilled mechanics were not permitted to leave England, Slater’s action was daring, perhaps treasonous.
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 the Samuel Slater, the man, and the many families his mills have impacted these last two hundred years.
Let us begin, then.
Who is Samuel Slater?
By Richard Cazeault
With plans in process for creating a Samuel Slater Museum in Webster, many people are wondering why? There are many reasons: an economic attraction, a repository for artifacts, an educational resource, etc. The most important is to revive our fading history. Slater’s legacy is wide ranging and touches each of us. Unfortunately, some of the story, especially at the personal level, is being lost. The museum will tell this story and clarify some of the misunderstandings of the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
Here is my family’s story.
My Polish grandparents and my (French) grandfather were immigrants. They were not well educated and they all worked in textile mills. My maternal grandparents came over from the Polish areas of Austria and Russia during their teenage years by themselves. Their parents scraped enough money together to send their children to the U.S. for a better life, never to see them again. They arrived with little money and did not speak the language. When I was younger, I could not understand the motivation for such a drastic action.
My grandparents learned English, became citizens, married and had several children. My Polish grandparents had a dream of owning land and farming it. This kind of opportunity was not available in the Old Country. They reached their dream by working in the textile mills. They saved their money and bought the land and a home. Unfortunately, they ended up losing their savings before they could pay off the purchase, due to the bank closings during the Depression. Both would go back to the mills. My grandfather would work on the farm during the day and the mill at night. My grandmother would work in the mill during the day. Not long after, my mother quit school at 14 to go work in the mill to help her family pay off the new farm.
In my younger days, I would work on their farm during the summer and got to know the story of my grandparents. There was a lot to farming. I learned to be prepared to work hard, learn as much as I can, whether in or out of school, and to always have a great attitude.
After I was accepted to an engineering college in Lowell, my mother encouraged me to get a summer job at Cranston Print Works (CPW), because it was one of the higher paying jobs in the area. It was a cloth printing operation. My job was to mix colors for the printing machines. Little did I know that as I entered the door under the clock tower into the plant, that I was entering the original part of the Slater Green Mill. This was the first mill that Slater built in in 1812 in Webster (Webster was still Oxford at that time). The location of the mill was in the East Village area. Although I knew about Slater being the Father of the Industrial Revolution in America, I had no idea of the historical details.
This is the same East Village mill at a later date. Today only the clock tower remains at the intersections of Route 12 and 16 and 193. In 1935 it would become Cranston Print Works
While in college, I took courses in Textile Engineering under a Professor Goodwin. We studied the mechanisms and designs of Slater. The Professor also gave us an understanding of the importance of Slater’s methods and history. This all happened in Webster? I was shocked.
Every summer I would work at CPW during the night shifts and spend part of the day on the farm. I earned as much as I could during the summer so I could focus on my studies during the school months. CPW also gave me the opportunity, during winter school vacations, to work in the mill.
Some people have the conception that I was working in a mill sweatshop. Granted, the work was hard, hot and tedious, but not as back breaking as getting up before sunup to milk the cows, harvest hay all day, and then milk the cows again before turning in for the night. My grandparents, mother and I never complained about the mills. It was all about taking the opportunity to take the next step in attaining a better life. I also hoped that getting a college education would allow me to see more of the world than New England.
An important side benefit of the mill was meeting a lot of hard working people. I would always have an appreciation of these people, who form the bedrock of our country.
After graduation in 1968, which my family and grandfather proudly attended, I was hired by a company that was building the wiring system for the Apollo Moon Program. Some of the machines used to protect the wires in the capsule were originally developed during the Slater years. Slater had his hand in the voyage to the Moon!
After the moon landing in 1969, our government decided that it was time for me to get into better shape, meet more great people from all over the U.S., and see the world. The U.S. Army provided all these benefits for free!
On the other side of the world I would see the horrors of war, and finally come to understand how parents could send their children to a strange foreign country. Vietnam and Cambodia, at that time, were third world countries. I never really knew what poverty was all about. The children of those countries had very little, if any, education, medical attention, clean water, or basic sanitation. The life span was very short, and the simplest medical problem could be life ending. In short, very little opportunity. Any volunteers for a sweatshop in the U.S?
In the next issue, we’ll address Slater’s life in England and his trip to the newly formed U.S. in 1789.
Note: All pictures are by Carlton Engraving Company in Worcester, Massachusetts, and are included in the centennial booklet “The Slater Mills at Webster 1812--1912”, published by S. Slater & Sons Inc.