For the four years that we lived in New England while I was working on my doctorate we would go for walks and bike rides with our children and friends along the banks of the Blackstone river in southern Massachusetts.
It’s a beautiful, textured geography, especially in the fall with all the oranges, reds, and yellows…the rich mix of various varieties of New England hardwood trees on display.
The Blackstone river drops more per mile than any other river in New England, an average of nearly ten feet per mile over its entire 460 mile long course. That fact doesn’t mean much to us today. But in pre-industrial America mill operators powered their mills with water from rivers that had a fast flow rate. This river is the cradle of the American industrial revolution.
I am thinking of all of this because the other day I was reminded of three brothers who I knew quite well there: Robert, Harold, and Howard (Hoppy). By the time I knew them – over twenty years ago – they were all long retired. The first time I was in Robert’s home he said, Let’s go for a walk. And he took me a couple blocks from his home. And we came upon this…
It’s the Draper factory/mill in Hopedale, Massachusetts. This factory is not on the actual Blackstone river. But it is a part of the Blackstone river watershed and shares in the river mill history of the region. As we walked he told me about the 130 year history of the factory, the work that was done in each area, the people who worked there, and what he and his brothers had done over the course of their lives there. In the early 1800’s Ira Draper, a local farmer, made an improvement on the Moody power loom and began to manufacture them. With the invention of the Northrop power looms in England, Draper became wildly successful and then the largest manufacturer of power looms in America until the factory closed its doors in the mid-1970’s:
Here’s photos of the plant taken from the Blackstone river, showing the river passing under the power plant of the building…
All three of these men – my friends – are now dead. But they are not gone from my mind. I now wish that I had paid much more attention to them, to Hopedale, and the stories that they told. And I will be thinking of them as I load my warping board today. It was an honour to know them.
Here’s a clip showing power looms in action in the movie Norma Rae, a film about union organizing in a southern textile mill in the 1970’s, starring Sally Field. The movie won her an Oscar.