The biggest of the towns in the northwestern corner of Rhode Island—making the corner, in fact—is Burrillville. Its qualities and its broad historical development compare with those in Foster and Glocester. Its eastern border, too, follows the Seven Mile Line which marked the boundary between the Providence “Inlands” and the “Outlands” or “Providence Woods.” It, too, gained its separation in two stages, first, as part of Glocester in 1731, then its present identity in 1806. Indeed, Burrillville is named for James Burrill, a resident of Providence and holder of a succession of state offices before becoming a United States senator, who was foremost among those in power who supported the town in its move for independence. As in Foster and Glocester, poor soils made farming precarious, though it was dominant economically at least through 1825. Wood products and the usual sorts of small mills and forges, tavern (or inn) keepers, merchants, and a sprinkling of professionals more or less filled the roster of Burrillville's early occupations.
Transportation was more difficult than in towns to the south. A single turnpike, Douglas Pike, merely clipped the northeast corner of the town on its way to Douglas, Massachusetts. Rail service arrived only in 1873, after William Tinkham, who then owned the mills in Harrisville, led a drive to connect Burrillville's principal mill towns with the Providence-Springfield line. A spur to Woonsocket in 1893 also connected with the main New York–Boston line after 1893. Trolleys came in 1902, through Pascoag to Wallum Lake in the northwestern corner of the town. They brought the first substantial body of summer excursionists and vacationists to Burrillville's lakes, ponds, and woods. Today, sizable state forest preserves (Buck Hill and Casimir Pulaski) occupy the western edge of Burrillville (the latter extending south into Glocester), while another preserve (Black Hut) occupies an off-center position to the northeast. As in Foster and Glocester, the automobile increased the number of vacationers. And, as a result of the automobile, rail service vanished from the town: the trolleys in 1922, the rail lines in the 1930s—the latter as much because of the decline of the mills as the coming of trucks.
In one important respect, however, Burrillville did differ from Foster and Glocester. Whereas these latter towns had mere brooks and streams, save for a short stretch of the Chepachet in Glocester which made the mill village of Chepachet possible, by the time the rivulets reached Burrillville they had accumulated a considerable volume of water. The Pascoag and Nipmuc rivers join the Clear. The Clear and Chepachet rivers join at Oakland to form the Branch, which then flows eastward as a major tributary of the Blackstone. So Burrillville had many more mills than any of the other northwestern towns (even more, and many of these larger, than those which dotted Scituate before the coming of the reservoir took them out). They were located toward the center of the town in a sprawling and curving Y. The most important, and those with which this guide is principally concerned, are Mapleville and Oakland, at the stem of the Y; Glendale, Nasonville, and Mohegan, on its eastern arm; and, to the west, Harrisville and Pascoag. Although cotton mills predominated during the early decades of the century, Daniel Sayles's woolen mill, started in Pascoag in 1815, proved to be the bellwether to Burrillville's future in textiles. Woolen manufacture, which had been concentrated in the southern part of the state before 1840, thereafter shifted to the north, and especially to Burrillville and Woonsocket. As elsewhere, owners of single mills during the first half of the nineteenth century tended to be bought out by larger operators during the second half. In this town there were three. The Wanskuck Company, owned by the Metcalf family in Providence, came to control the mills in Oakland and Mohegan. Although various members of the Sayles family owned the mills at Pascoag until 1850, after this date Albert L. Sayles became dominant. Finally, in the early twentieth century, Austin T. Levy augmented his Stillwater Worsted Company from its base in Harrisville on the Stillwater River by purchasing the mills in Glendale and Nasonville.
Although this tour of Burrillville includes a number of farmhouses from various periods, its primary focus is the mill villages. Not the mills, however. Unfortunately, like most of those in Scituate and all but a tiny relic in Chepachet in Glocester, the mills of architectural interest in Burrillville are virtually gone. Two of its notable masonry mills—those in Graniteville, a satellite village to Harrisville, and the “Granite Mill” at Pascoag survived in dilapidated condition until the 1980s. Then, even as plans for reuse were underway, arson claimed both of them. So it is literally the villages that we shall see: the housing for what became a predominantly Irish, then French Canadian, immigrant work force; the mansions of some of the mill owners; a few institutional structures; and efforts at village planning. The most conspicuous evidence of such planning remains in Oakland, Harrisville, and Glendale New Town. Indeed, Henry Kendall's plans for Slatersville in nearby North Smithfield and Austin Levy's in Harrisville represent the most extensive efforts in Rhode Island to elevate the mill village to an early New England image, at least as the early twentieth century conceived of this possibility. Meanwhile, Levy's housing at Glendale New Village represents a tentative venture toward modernism.
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