Glimpses of Our Past:  The Kelly House

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Kelly House Facing New Features

 

Think back to the early 19th century, when America’s Industrial Revolution, begun in the Blackstone River Valley, expanded to new horizons. In the 1820’s, as mills and new villages were built, so was the demand to connect the inland to the ports of Narragansett Bay to transport people and products.
 
The Captain Wilbur Kelly House Museum, located inside Blackstone River State Park, along the Blackstone River Bikeway, near the George Washington Highway Viaduct, presents the fascinating background of early intermodal transportation.
One the home of a canal boat captain, the Kelly House is where all of the transportation stories of the Blackstone River Valley come together. Situated between the Blackstone River and the Blackstone Canal, the museum shows the history of the river and canal as a means of transportation from the Native American peoples to the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution.
The site is open April through October 9 am to 4:30 pm daily. Enter to the Kelly House site by the park entrance on Lower River Road in Quinnville. Call 401-333-0295 for more information on the Kelly House Museum.
 

At the entrance of the Kelly House is a common icon, the pineapple,  used frequently as a symbol of hospitality and signaling returned ship members in the early seaports of New England.  The banner is displayed currently at the Kelly House as a connection with that early tradition. The Kelly House represents the historic tradition of blending millwork with farming traditions and also gives us a dynamic look into our changing methods of transportation.  The entire infrastructure demonstrates the movement patterns of Indian paths becoming roads, cart trails to the Lime Industry, stage coach routes and turnpikes, then the construction of the Canal, followed by the Providence to Worcester Railroad, trolleys, the automobile and state highways and now the bike bath.  Reusing the canal with kayak/canoes and walking along the bike path relives our earliest traditions. The dramatic arch bridge, the Ashton Viaduct, depicted below is an awesome display of the range of time. 

In 1809, Simon Whipple, upon whose farm the Kelly house is located entered into an agreement with six others to dam the River at Pray's Wading Place and build a small textile mill, under the leadership of George Olney. This pursuit was based on the similar larger scale operation, the Slater Mill, in Pawtucket started more than fifteen years earlier. This small textile mill began operation in 1815.

Captain Wilber Kelly was a well-respected sea captain involved in successful commercial exchange with China on a ship named Ann & Hope. This ship was owned by the Providence merchant firm, Brown and Ives. Sea Captain Kelly purchased land along the River, built a modest but sturdy home for his son, Christopher, which has now been restored as the Kelly House under the auspices of the R.I. DEM.

Kelly started a cloth mill and searched for a way to compete with English goods using the water power of the River. But the transportation by horse and wagon or oxcart was very limited.  Over the next few years, the Olney textile mill, known as the Smithfield Cotton and Woolen Factory, the Kelly mill and almost all other small mills along the River, began having financial troubles competing against cheap goods from England after the Napoleonic Wars. Transportation costs were very burdensome as the horse and wagon was slow and couldn't carry much weight. 

However in 1823, Kelly purchased the struggling Olney Mill, also known as the Sinking Fund Factory, and became a strong proponent and leading figure in the vision of building a canal link from agricultural Worcester, Massachusetts to the Port of Providence.  Edward Carrington, a China and South American Trade merchant was also a strong proponent of the Canal idea which would allow much swifter, less expensive transport of mill  goods to Worcester and Boston.

The history starts to come alive when presented by a knowledgeable local historian, Albert Klyberg,  who lives right nearby and whose love of the history and environment evolves into further historical importance.  And within eyesight of this small, modest  home and its gardens is a beautiful arch bridge, the Ashton viaduct (seen below),  to gaze upon along the canal and the River. The bike path across the canal hosts a nearby, small parking lot for easy access, too. 

Klyberg explains how Kelly was hired by Brown and Ives to purchase much land under the company name of Lonsdale Water Company with about four miles of parcels on both sides from Ashton south to Scott's Pond. This began the mill villages of Berkeley, Lonsdale, and Ashton - all in Cumberland.

Even larger was the canal construction - allowing boats to rise almost 450 feet upstream through a series of locks from 1828-1848 when eventually, the faster transportation of a railroad took over. Investors of both transportation modalities, the canal and railroad, were often the same mill owners since the benefits of moving goods quickly and cheaply were tremendous. 

Mill products changed with the times from cloth to other textiles to a more recent fiberglass product up until the 1980s. Owens Corning Fiberglass made materials for the Navy during World War II and then for commercial products or aeronautics. Labor always included men, women and a large number of children from throughout the mill villages scattered throughout throughout the communities of Ashton Mills, Quinnville, Albion, and Mannville. The old mills are mostly intact, from beautifully refurbished to stylish elderly homes  to vacant and in disrepair but hopeful for new life in the near future. The River surges past these mills with some  offering fly fishing, bird watching and ubiquitous scenic treasures and sounds. 

These areas are still very visible as a living lesson in history. The mill houses lined in brick around the large mill complex along the River, repeated throughout these numerous communities. The land from flood plain meadows to industrial brown fields now returned to recreation and parks land is a historical cycle. 

Nearby, the retail Slater Fabric Mill and even more gargantuan Ryco Mill for knick-knacks, sewing materials, and home decor items cannot be paralleled!  The nearby Ashton mill, Ann & Hope, became a sprawling marketplace and currently houses outlet stores and it is known that Sam Walton took a careful look at the expansive operation before launching his Walmart chain nationally. The plans for a renewal in the Ann & Hope factory leans towards affordable housing in the near future, according to a report released in summer 2003. 

Blackstone Daily/ Discover The Valley

 

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