The era of the great textile mills of South Grafton lasted from the early 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. During those years, the mills located along the Blackstone River provided employment for thousands of Polish, French Canadian, and other immigrants, and produced millions of yards of cloth for a growing nation. The Fisherville Mill was one of the largest of these mills.
In addition to textiles, in later years a company called Prest Wheel that produced tubular aluminum webbed chairs and other fabrications was located on the site of the Fisherville Mill. Here are some comments from people who actually worked there. These comments may take some of you back!
Larry Legassey shares, “They manufactured lawn chairs and made their own foam rubber in the basement. I worked in the foam department making foam buns and all the various jobs required to make foam cushions.
They employed most of the kids in town at one time or another.
The open pit was the end of the conveyer belt. That is where they brought the freshly made buns of foam rubber up to the first floor. When they were making foam they would cut to a certain length downstairs and run it up through the floor. We would grab the buns and flip them up on their sides on these little wheeled dollies They couldn’t stop the conveyer once they started making foam, so we would have to keep up.”
Gail Witham offers, ” I worked there in High School screwing the webbing onto lawn chair frames. It was a dirty, greasy gross job, we made 35 cents a chair, so if you wanted any real money, you had to bust your ass! This was around 1978 or ’79. You learned real quick to wear your worst shirt, those drills sprayed a mist of oil everytime you put in a screw Hot as hell in there too!”
Ann Leblanc shares, “I still have the scars on my thumbs to prove it….was in 1969…worked there during the summer….3rd floor and so hot! I’m sure we all smelled like the Mill when we left. Student hours were 3:30 to 8:30.”
Fisherville Mill Fire
After Prest Wheel closed its operations in South Grafton, the mill remained empty until the devastating fire that destroyed it in 1999. This was the Fisherville Mill fire, Grafton’s largest fire on record, which destroyed the abandoned mill on Aug. 3, 1999 and required assistance from fire departments in 22 towns — an estimated 250 firefighters were on the scene.
Brownfields Site to Park
According to this Grafton Daily voice article from 2009, “The mill site is a state Brownfields site due to contaminants in the soil and the centerpiece of a plan to revitalize South Grafton through the development of both business and residential units, as well as green space, on the property.”
Today, after much hard work by the Fisherville-Farnumville Streetscape Committee and former mill owner, Gene Bernat, a lovely park for the public to enjoy called the Mill Villages Park sits on the former brownfield dumping site across the street from the Fisherville Mill.
This year on Flag Day a dedication and concert was enjoyed by the public. Other public events and concerts are scheduled at this site once considered a hopeless wasteland.
Adjacent to the park is the Living Systems Laboratory, located on the banks of the Blackstone River and historic Blackstone Canal, the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and nicknamed “the hardest working river in America”. Generations of use and misuse have left the Blackstone contaminated with diverse industrial pollutants. LSL is utilizing innovative green science techniques in effectively cleaning up the river
Project partners include the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, the National Park Service, Clark University and Brown University.
This area is perfect for informative educational field trips and should be a top priority project supported by the people and businesses of the Blackstone Valley. The practices presented here can be duplicated to clean up polluted waters across the country.
Hope you enjoyed our trip down memory lane!