Stanley Woolen Mill by Carol Masiello

 

The Blackstone River is called the "hardest working river in America". To a few skeptics those words are nothing more than hyperbole spread by the tourism council and the local chamber of commerce. But let's think about it. The river and its tributaries spawned at least one mill in every town they passed through. These mills in turn spawned a vast transportation network, first the Blackstone Canal then a system of railroads. Operating these mills were generations of new immigrants brought into the valley by the lure of the American Dream. So the Blackstone deserves its label as a hard working river; not only because of the turbines it powered, but also because of the cultural change it effected.

Now the looms in the mills are quiet and the noon whistle no longer crowds the downtown with workers. But the Blackstone River has not been laid to rest. The Blackstone will be called on to again be a hard working river, but now its job will not be powering looms. Its job will be to entertain and educate visitors to the valley via the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.  Tourism is seen to be the economic shot in the arm the valley has needed since the end of the mill era. Hopefully on the heels of these tourism dollars will be the commercial ventures that will find success here. Rehabbing old mills along the river bank seems to be the perfect way to accomplish both goals set for the river: tourism and the re-birth of economic viability. Abandoned and dilapidated mills are hinging their future on the success of bike and nature trails rather than the stock market; it is dreamed they can be a bridge between passive recreation and active commerce. Investors are hoping that once again mills can draw talented individuals from across the country, individuals willing to take a chance on restoring a piece of history. If successful, these entrepreneurs will be the new legends in the valley; their names will stand alongside the names of the capitalists who originally staked their claims during the industrial revolution.

In Uxbridge, one of the town's many mills, (and perhaps one of its better known), is the Stanley Woolen Mill. Located on Mendon Street, it was a large and prolific woolen mill that produced cloth for some of the premier designers like Pierre Cardin. Stanley Woolen was the longest locally owned mill in Uxbridge. From its origins in 1833 when it was the Luke Taft Mill, until 1989 when it was lost by the Wheelock's in bankruptcy court, the mill was always owned by Uxbridge people. Generations of Uxbridge residents grew up alongside the families who owned the mill and most called these families friend. The mill's role in the community extends beyond the hand hewn wood beams, steel girders and dye vats. It stands for the people who once punched the time cards or cashed the paychecks that litter the floor of the old business office.  It is the memory of warm summer nights falling asleep to the sounds of the looms spinning away at the mill. Today it sits a hulking mass of peeling paint and neglect, a prime example of blight. For years, passersby and neighbors held their breath as the old water tower in the rear slowly leaned ever so close to the ground. It was as if the fate of the mill hinged on that tower defying the power of gravity; as long as it stood, the mill would have a future. The tower is down, but the mill may still have a future. This future is generating a great deal of anticipation and excitement in the community. The old building could have tenants who will bring the property back to life; not as a mill, but as a viable commercial complex.

There is a sentimentality attached to the mill by some in the community. They love the old girl and hate to see her wasting away like she is. This emotion is most likely because Stanley Woolen was the last of the Uxbridge mills to close. It reduced its work force slowly over the years, holding on like the last oak leaf on a blustery fall day. It was lucky enough to survive the 1970's when the downtown was boarded up and many in town lost their homes. But the eighties, with the changing fashions and uncontrollable interest rates, began the death watch. In 1987 the first shiver of fear went through the town, the mill filed Chapter 11 with over two million dollars owed to creditors. It would gasp for air in '89 but the gasp was its final breath. A mill that had always been owned by Uxbridge people fell. In 1989 a Canadian with big ideas, big loans and a ray of hope made the offer to buy it in bankruptcy court. Could Uxbridge keep its reputation as a textile town, could the last leaf on the tree survive? People drove by daily desperately straining their ears for the sounds of the looms. The state made loans totaling $750,000 to purchase high speed looms, considering this an investment in a community and a business. A small workforce kept the machines working but they fell silent in 1990 and were sold at auction, stripped out of the building and sent to third world countries. Taxes piled up on the property, the paint flaked and drifted everywhere and everyone wondered what its fate would be. Scavengers roamed the inside taking everything of value including all the old records, ledger books, photos and fabric samples. Over the years big plans came down the rumor mill, especially when the corridor was established and the canal path was finished. There was hope the park would buy it and turn it into a museum, then rumors of it becoming a police station and municipal center ran through town. But nothing happened. Taxes piled up higher, more paint flaked down, river water seeped in and hope no longer sprang eternal.

In 1998, a successful Boston developer would see something in this mess that would get the locals hopeful. The town's Industrial Development Commission approached Nick Deane and suggested the mill will be an excellent opportunity for a man with his skills.  When Deane saw the mill, he did not see an ugly structure; he saw a piece of commercial property that could shine like a beacon to the future of the valley. Mr. Deane came into this town and for six years has had the same dogged perseverance that the leaning tower did.  A feasibility study to ascertain the environmental and structural issues associated with the site was funded with money from the town of Uxbridge, the heritage corridor and Deane himself. Everyone involved wanted to see one of the last wooden mills of its kind saved. The corridor was excited about the project since it would be a perfect fit for the River Bend Park adjacent to the mill and have given the project their full support over the years. Despite several roadblocks thrown in his path, Deane stuck with the project; a project that was a gamble on its best day, and the dream of a mad man on its worst. He finally consummated his dream this fall with the Board of Selectmen of Uxbridge. He will give the mill its best and possibly last chance at survival. The town will forgive the back taxes (approximately a half a million dollars) and Deane will invest a minimum of $206,000 towards the redevelopment. It will not be a fairy tale story; it will be a story of hazardous waste clean up, demolition, and a lot of visioning to get the job done. The immediate work will be to cover the roof to prevent any more damage, fix approximately 80 windows, and install a fire suppression system; all necessary to stabilize the structure. A section of the mill will be set off and marketed to potential tenants so that they can envision their business calling this building home. On one floor Deane pictures a restaurant overlooking the river and he is sure that the small business office in the front (in relatively good condition) will rent immediately and help offset the taxes on the property. Everyone from the local to the state level has worked to make the dream become a reality. Area legislators were instrumental in working out an agreement between Deane Redevelopment LLC and the corridor for parking where the mill abuts the park. After more than 25 years in the business of restoring old buildings, Deane is optimistic about the chances for success.

If Nick Deane can make this work, he will be remembered as the man who could achieve the impossible dream. Crews are currently cleaning out the mill to get it ready for its big moment. Soon the lead paint, asbestos and garbage will be gone, and the mill will have a chance to fire the imagination of potential tenants. One can only wonder if the cleanup crews hear the sound of the looms or the laughter of the workers in the break room as they go about their business. As for the old water tower, it too has a second lease on life. The cypress wood from it has been taken by the mill's only business tenant, Jeff Hollis of Eagle Eye Antiques, and turned into beautiful hand made furniture. So maybe the locals were right, as long as the tower lives on, the mill is safe. Maybe if this venture works, on quiet summer nights, neighbors can once again sleep happy in the knowledge that the mill is again lit and filled with the sounds of happy people.

 

Carol Masiello: Dairy Farms      Rene Thibault: Photos of the Valley Dairy Farms  

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