By Alex Cornacchia, Contributing Writer
Grafton – The revolution started with a river. The Blackstone River had no idea, of course, that it was to become a tireless laborer, the driving force that would keep the wheels of industry turning. But with a staggering drop of 438 feet over a 46-mile course, its powerful flow proved irresistible. Wherever the river went, so men and mills would follow.
If the story of the Blackstone River is that of a ceaseless stream, then the story of the mills along its banks is something more akin to a phoenix that finds itself in flames more often than it might like. South Grafton is home to three of those mills. Like the phoenix, they too have found themselves engulfed in flames (quite literally) on more than one occasion. Yet they also embody another aspect of that mythical bird: a strange ability to always find a way back to life.
Between 1827 and 1831, the mills of South Grafton popped up in quick succession. First came Peter Farnum with four stories of stone; two years later was David Wilkinson with a small structure of wood; another two years and Peter Farnum was back to build four more
stories, this time of brick.
Like in the fable of “the three little pigs,” just as soon as the mills had been built, two were quick to fall the stone mill to fire in 1830, and the wooden mill to financial problems in 1835. There followed a brief period of rebuilding and rearranging, and by 1840, the three mills had each been reborn. Peter Farnum’s stone mill became four stories of brick for manufacturing woolens; David Wilkinson’s wooden mill was sold to the three Saunders brothers, who made it a three story granite mill for manufacturing cotton goods; Peter Farnum’s brick mill changed hands to the Fisher brothers, where cotton cloth and toweling were the products of choice.
These were the mills that became the focal points of South Grafton’s three villages Farnumsville to the east, Saundersville to the west, and Fisherville in the middle all taking the name of their respective mill owners, and all growing fast. The opening of the Blackstone Canal in 1828 sped up business a good deal; the opening of the Boston and Worcester Railroad in 1835, and later the Providence and Worcester Railroad in 1847, made it soar.
Around these mills were built houses and schools, post offices and churches, baseball fields and bars, all to accommodate the new workers who were appearing in droves. Word had spread of steady work and good pay, an irresistible promise to families facing land loss or agricultural crises around the globe. The concept of working indoors with clamoring machines rather than outside with the land was odd, but the benefits seemed to outweigh the costs. As the mills continued to pick up their pace, the latter part of the 19th century brought wave after wave of immigrant families, the majority from nearby Canada and distant Poland, with a smattering from Ireland, Italy, and Greece, as well.
But honeymoon periods are never long to last. The first hiccups came in the form of an 1890s depression, bringing with it a dangerous dip in cotton prices. When workers’ wages were slashed, weavers brought the Fisherville mill to a grinding halt with strikes, hissing at “scabs” and demanding better pay. When product supply far surpassed demand, the owners themselves brought the mills at Saundersville and Farnumsville to a standstill, sometimes for weeks on end.
Then came the steam. While the earliest mills had relied on water as their main source of power, steam engines allowed mills and factories to function as far from water sources as they pleased. The South boasted a plentiful supply of coal and cotton that the North simply did not possess, making the geographical shift in the epicenter of cotton good manufacture both logical and inevitable.
The final blow to the South Grafton mills was the Great Depression. Though the workers fought valiantly through all manner of odd injuries bobbins striking eyelids, reed-hooks piercing noses the financial strain proved too much to bear. The three mills fell silent; for the mill at Saundersville, it would be for good.
There were a few more half-hearted hurrahs for the two remaining mills: making cotton bandages, wool blankets, and nylon parachutes during World War II; housing the manufacture of everything from novelty yarn to lawn furniture to the original Tupperware containers. Despite all this, nothing ever stuck. Workers gradually drifted off in search of jobs at supermarkets and state hospitals, leaving behind broken promises. The granite blocks of the Saundersville mill became fill for a Worcester shopping mall. The Fisherville mill burned all night in a 1999 fire. By morning, all that remained was a skeleton of brick.
But bones in this case aren’t just relics, the sad aftermath of decay. They’re also a foundation from which new life might grow. The Farnumsville mill still stands on Depot Street, home to yet another business. An Eco-machine across from the old Fisherville mill uses plants to clean polluted Blackstone Canal water: the root structures break down industrial waste, leaving purer water in their wake. Grafton residents and elected officials have a vision for that mill complex, too, one that hopes to blend new residences and commercial interests with the rich history of the site. What it needs now is someone with some money and perseverance, someone who, not unlike the first mill owners, sees not just some land by a river, but the future and what could be.
And through all this, still, the Blackstone River flows.