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Slatersville

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Most would agree that of all Rhode Island mill towns, Slatersville is the prettiest, as its final owner intended it to be. The village, which is today the town seat for North Smithfield, began around 1800 as Buffum's Mills, named for the family who owned most of the land in the area, including a grist- and sawmill, as well as a halter's shop. Richard Buffum's house (1786) still exists at 9 Main Street, but much altered. After reconnaisance by Pawtucket's John Slater, William Almy and Obadiah Brown of Providence began purchasing land here in 1805 under the firm name of Almy and Brown, with the Slater brothers (John and Samuel) joining the company partnership in 1806. They thereby pretty much duplicated the situation which had brought this group into partnership in Pawtucket, where Samuel Slater, then Almy and Brown's employee, had set up America's pioneer mechanized cotton mill in 1790 (see Pawtucket introduction and PA15). By 1807 their cotton mill was operating, at its start one of only fifteen cotton-spinning mills in the country. Their mill village was the first in Rhode Island and among the earliest mill villages in the nation. Although fire in 1826 destroyed the original mill, it was immediately replaced with the present masonry mill. On the deaths of Almy and Brown in the 1830s, the Slaters bought the mill. John Slater became resident manager of the business until his death in 1843 when his sons John F. and William acquired full title.

Through the middle of the nineteenth century, Slatersville was the purely Yankee town it appears to be today. After the Civil War a small influx of workers from overseas, then a much larger immigration of French Canadians to work in the mills made Slatersville 82 percent Catholic by 1872.

The Slater family owned Slatersville until 1900, when a Boston banker, James R. Hooper, bought the village and used the pure water at the upper reaches of the Branch for dyeing, bleaching, and mercerizing cotton cloth. (Like other such plants at river headwaters, this assured that the water downstream was considerably less clean than the water it took in). It was the purchase of the village by Henry P. Kendall in 1915 and his interest in preservation and improvement which made it what it is today. What Austin Levy was to nearby Harrisville in his effort to create a model mill village (see under Burrillville), Kendall was to Slatersville. Although both sought to resurrect the old-time village community, Levy became the slightly more progressive of the two architecturally and Kendall remained the more nostalgic. Improving on the high quality of existing building and a handsome site on a ridge, Kendall and his long-time superintendent, Arthur Blane, built, restored, modified, and moved extant mill houses to make the picture they sought, while also attempting to disguise the institutional character of the housing so as to give more the appearance of individual houses. Tree planting and landscaping, including the area around the mill, were other Kendall contributions. His idyllic vision for Slatersville did not, however, prevent him from moving his operations to the South in 1956. Subsequent owners gradually let the splendid stone mill deteriorate. Recent building in the valley around the mill and on surrounding hills looking into the town is also mostly unfortunate. Even so, Slatersville retains so much of Kendall's vision of the ideal New England village that it is now a sought-after residential community, and preservationist sentiment, never wholly dimmed, intensifies.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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