The Slater Mill Field Trip: Following the Foot Steps of Samuel Slater

Published June 17, 2021 in Pawtucket Time’s Special Supplement, 100 Years/Old Slater Mill Association

In Pawtucket’s downtown, you will find historic Slater Mill, consisting of the Slater and Wilkinson Mill and the Sylvanus Brown House, sitting on five acres of land on both sides of the Blackstone river, a mill that celebrates America’s Industrial Revolution, to generations of visiting students.

Pawtucket resident Patricia S. Zacks fondly recalls her field trip to Slater Mill almost 60 years ago. “We were escorted single file by all the machines.  Some were even operational, she said.

Looking back, the former student from Curtis Elementary School says, “it was a rite of passage for every elementary student to pass thru the old mills doors,” says Zacks. “We went home with a little piece of cotton. It was a very special day for me,” she says.”

Like Zacks found out, the Slater Mill Field Trip is as iconic as many other Rhode Island institutions. Many Rhode Islanders between the ages of 10 and 75 have experienced this “rite of passage” of sorts for elementary school students in the state, particularly 4th graders.

As Authentic As You Can Get

“Slater Mill is authentic as you can get, it’s not recreated like many historical sites scattered throughout the nation,” says President Robert Bllington, of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. “When visiting, the young students walk on 200-year-old floors, he says, actually walking on the fir wooden planks that Samuel Slater, the Father of the American Revolution” once walked on.

“It’s hard to find a museum that makes things right in front of your eyes.  Slater Mill is that place for the young students,” he notes.

Although, Older Slater Mill Association’s (OSMA) Bylaws recognized the museum’s important role in educating children to future careers in the textile industry, things didn’t happen immediately.  In 1921, the non-profit was founded, saving the historic mill. Efforts to restore the mill began in 1923, restoring the mill to its 1835 appearance.  During a 1961 Annual Meeting, OSMA President Norm MacColl recalled the mill for “nearly 30 years stood as a shell, seldom used and sparely visited.”  He suggested that there was not an education program nor much student visitation prior to this.


Student visitations began in the mid-1950s, when East Avenue School in Pawtucket and schools as far away as South Orange, New Jersey, New York City, came to the City to visit the mill.  Admission fees for the visiting students were kept affordable by the OSMA, with adults being charged 50 cents and 25 cents for children. 

In 1962, a new record was set as 28,648 visitors came to Slater Mill, half being students. By 1974, inflation and the energy crisis had an impact on student visits to the mill.  During this year, OSMA hired Cynthia Dougherty to be its first dedicated school services staffer, a position that would grew to a full-time Curator of Education.  OSM’s education staff “Museum on Wheels” program to bring Slater Mill’s history to the schools.

Tying into Educational Curriculum 

By May 2003, Slater mill staff were dressed in simple ‘period’ costumes, which were upgraded a few years later, says Rosemary Danforth, former Outreach Program Presenter, and an on-site Interpreter who joined the OSMA staff in 2002. “That became a selling point for some of the teachers,” she remembers.

OSMA staff worked closely with visiting teachers, coordinating the onsite experience with their curriculum, says Danforth, with staff fitting the tour to the specific educational level of the visiting students.  

Over the years, the number of students would fluctuate, being tied to gas shortages and the economy.  Just a few years ago state education policy advising that families should not be approached to support the cost of field trips due to potential inequities would reduce the number of student visits.

Funding to support the OSMA’s operations and programs would come from the City of Pawtucket, state and federal grants, civic groups including the Rotary Club of Pawtucket and from local businesses.  These contributions led to the first free field trip offerings for RI public schools.

Before the pandemic, Lori Urso, Executive Director of Slater Mill, recalls that “we typically had 7000 – 8000 students per year, counting those who came to the site, and those who’s schools our staff visited. Some years it even reached 10,000.  

Looking Forward

Today, visiting students don’t walk past metal railings to keep them from touching the machine exhibits.  The philosophy of hands-on experience is built into the ___ hour tour. For instance, a child is allowed to turn a small metal wheel.  An attached leather strap from its rim is connected to a smaller gear operating a drill press that ultimately drills a hole in a wooden spool.  

According to Urso, the Field Trip has evolved to a more STEAM-based, and place-based objective. In response to educator feedback asking for more hands-on activities at the museum, a fiber art studio component was introduced, with a participating artist, to compliment the science and tech aspects. It was a highly-praised program that unfortunately came to a halt with the onset of the COVID Pandemic, closure of schools, and elimination of field trip programs.”

“The timing of the return of the Slater Mill Field Trip remains unclear at the moment,” says Urso. “The National Park Service is eager to welcome students back to the mill in the future, but much of this depends on the policies of the individual school districts, and priorities for student and teacher safety,” she says.

Throughout the Years at the Pawtucket Arts Festival

Published in Pawtucket Times, September 5, 2015

It was over 16 years ago when Kristine Kilmartin married Pawtucket Rep. Peter Kilmartin. The Smithfield native had lived in the city for a few months and. while she was driving through Slater Memorial Park in January 1999 with her new husband, she asked, “Why doesn’t the City take more advantage of its green space?” She wondered why Pawtucket couldn’t plan an event like the Scituate Arts Festival in its vast 209-acre park.

Ultimately, the Kilmartins turned to Mayor James E. Doyle with the idea of creating an arts festival. The green light was given and the work began. After a month of meetings, discussion and planning, the City’s 18-person committee kicked off its first arts festival in June 1999.

“It is hard to believe that 16 Pawtucket Arts Festivals have gone by so fast,” says Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, who has served as an honorary co-chair with his wife, Kristine, since its inception. “When we began in 1999, there was a lot of uncertainty about the event’s success and longevity, as with any new venture,” recalls the lawyer and former Pawtucket police officer. My how the Pawtucket Arts Festival has grown.

Kilmartin remembers the Opening Gala was scarcely attended. However, the organizers were not discouraged, he says. “Everyone involved felt we had a good product, and as long as we stuck with it we would be successful,” he added.

Over the years city officials and many dedicated volunteers continued to work hard, he notes, stressing that it “now feels like the Pawtucket Arts Festival is a permanent part of our community.”

With the diversity and quality of programming over 16 years, Kilmartin finds it hard to single out one particular favorite event. But, when pressed by this tenacious columnist, he admits, “We enjoyed the Philharmonic in the Park and the Dragon Boat races,” noting that these two signature events provide “great family fun.”

Looking forward, the fifty-two-year-old lifelong Pawtucket resident believes that new forms of community outreach must happen to attract more people to the festival, this being vital for the Arts Festival’s continued growth and future success. The Attorney General also calls for the broadening of the artistic diversity and ethnicity of its programming, keeping the month-long Arts Festival “fresh.”

A Look Back: Just a Small Sampling

Since 1999, Pawtucket’s Arts Festival organizers have created a citywide showcase of visual and performing arts, interactive workshops, music, theatre and dance performances. Where else could you enjoy a wide variety of music, from blues, jazz, Zydeco, classical, folk, and even pops? Over the years 50,000 people came to listen to the Rhode Island Philharmonic Pop Orchestra, the event concluding with a dazzling firework show over the park’s pond.

Over 15 years, what a listing of musical groups that have played the Pawtucket Arts Festival. World famous Jazz artists Dave McKenna, Scott Hamilton and Gray Sargent, Grammy-nominated Duke Robillard, the internationally acclaimed “Ambassador to the Blues,” and Consuelo and Chuck Sherba’s Aurea, a performance ensemble thrilled the audiences. Many came to dance to the tunes of French-Canadian Conrad Depot, Celtic group Pendragon, folk musicians Atwater & Donnelly and Plain Folk to name a few. Many of these groups appeared on the stages at Slater Mill’s Ethnic and Labor Festival and the Stone Soup Coffee House at Slater Memorial Park or at the folk group’s home venue at St. Paul’s Parish House.

Both young and old alike enjoyed watching the Big Nazo Puppets, clowns or listening to story tellers, including Mark Binder and Valerie Tutson. Parents and their children even packed Shea High School’s auditorium to watch the incredible Dan Butterworth’s Marionette show.

And where else could your children learn the art of making glass, raku pottery or carving stone and wood? Of course, at the City’s Arts Festival. Children workshops, led by Lee Segal, taught tile painting. Youngsters learned how to create sculptures out of junk pulled from the Blackstone River. Only in the City of the “Industrial Revolution” if you had attended one of our art festivals over the last 15 years.

Every year at the City’s Festival Pier thousands of spectators have lined up along the Seekonk River to watch the Dragon Boat races. Art lovers visited one-of-a kind exhibits in art galleries and artist studios throughout Pawtucket. Those attending the City’s Arts Festival watched performances by the Everett Dance Theatre, Fusionworks, Cadence Dance Project, and great plays at the Sandra Gamm Feinstein Theatre, Mixed Magic Theater and Community Player. Film buffs came to meet writers and filmmakers at the Pawtucket Film Festival, questioning these individuals about their film-making techniques.

For movie buffs, Pawtucket-based Mirror Image, has organized its Pawtucket Film Festival for over 15 years in the 100-seat theater in the City’s Visitor Center. Rhode Islander Michael Corrente was one of the more notable film makers who accepted an invitation to attend, and many others followed. The film organizers even brought the internationally-acclaimed Alloy Orchestra to perform a live, original score for Man With a Movie Camera at Tolman High School.

You were also able to watch classic films at other Arts Festival venues, too. One year dozens came to watch Cinema Paradiso (with English subtitles) by Giuseppe Tornatore, projected on the walls of a mill building on Exchange Street, with live music.

Hundreds also gathered at Slater Park to watch chain saw-toting environmental artist and sculptor Michael Higgins Billy Rebele create pieces of artwork on salvaged tree stumps.

While focusing on bringing artistic and musical events, festival organizers did not forget to bring public art into the City. In 15 years, six permanent sculptures were donated to the City of Pawtucket. An original oil painting of the Hope Webbing Mill in Pawtucket, painted by internationally-recognized Artist Gretchen Dow-Simpson, was purchased and donated to the City in 2004, and is now showcased in the Mayor’s Office.

Some Pawtucket Arts Festival Trivia…

As Kilmartin remembered, the first opening gala, held in the City library is 1999 attracted a small crowd, around 35 people. At the end of the evening each person was given Ronzio pizzas to take home. Last year we saw over 2,000 people gather at this long awaited opening event. Crowds at the Dragon Boat races have also held steady over the years, bringing thousands to the City’s Festival Pier. For over a decade, over 6,000 people have attended the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra Concert in Slater Memorial Park. The Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance, with their very generous $15,000 donation continue to make this event happen.

For 15 years, Patricia Zacks, of the Providence-based Camera Werks and lifelong Pawtucket resident, has organized a photo contest at every arts festival, which includes participation from students from Pawtucket Public Schools, where winning photos are judged by some of the State’s top recognized photographers select their favorite photos that will appear in the City of Pawtucket’s Photo Calendar. Thousands of Pawtucket students also learned the art of photography from Zacks and over 180 scenes of Pawtucket have appeared in these calendars.

During these years, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in Boston also sponsored the Chinese performances that were held throughout the day of the Dragon Boat races. Pawtucket’s annual race is now being promoted nationally by other Dragon Boat festivals. In its second year, in 2000, the Dragon Boat races second year, American Airlines donated 18 free round trip tickets to Taiwan to the winning boat, an estimated value of $60,000. This year the winning professional team will take home $10,000, while the local team winner will receive $5,000.

In the early years trolley tours led by Zacks of the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative and Len Lavoie, of RICIR, initially organized trips to mill buildings throughout the City. Because of these trolley tours, at least two couples have relocated to Pawtucket to live in mill lofts in the City’s historic downtown. The trolley tours, showcasing Pawtucket artist’s one-of-a-kind works, would later be replaced by XOS- Exchange Street Open Studios and Arts Market Place Pawtucket at the historic Pawtucket Armory.

In 2005, from an idea sparked by then program chair, Patricia Zacks and community activist and Stone Soup President, Richard Walton, led them to meet with Paw-Sox executives to ‘go big’ which set off a series of acts to perform at McCoy Stadium beginning in 2006. These artists included: Bob Dylan, (twice), John Mellencamp, Counting Crows, Drop Kick Murph’s; Kenny Loggins and the Boston Pops Orchestra; Further and Willie Nelson.

Since 1999 the steady growth of participating artists, corporate sponsors, volunteers and attendees indicate quality programming and a well-managed event that has become a permanent fixture in the Pawtucket community. Over 16 years, the Pawtucket Arts Festival has awakened the pride of Pawtucket’s residents and continues to stimulate the creative energies of its artist community, and have an economic impact on the City.

Chair John Baxter and his hard working Board of Directors (Rich Waltrous, Keith Fayan, Lori-Ann Gagne and this columunist), Arts Festival Manager Joe Giocastro, Artistic Director Mary Lee Partington, and Volunteer Coordinators Patricia Zacks and Paul Audette, prepare to unveil this year’s Arts Festival tonight at the Blackstone River Party/Taste of Pawtucket at 6 p.m. at Slater Mill. Let the show begin. See you there.

For a complete event listings go to http://www.pawtucketartsfestival.org, or 1-800-454-2882.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, medical and health care issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com. He serves as the Pawtucket’s Economic & Cultural Affairs officer and sits of the Board of Directors of Pawtucket Arts Festival.

Regular Folks Give Advice to Graduates

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 23, 2014

This month, commencement speakers at Rhode Island’s Colleges and Universities will give the Class of 2014 their tips on how they can successfully find their professional niche, in a state with the distinction of having the worst employment rate in the nation and continues to be one of the last states to see an economic revival.  Rhode Islanders are also known for their inferiority complex and general attitude about the quality of life in the state.

Robed graduating seniors will sit listening closely to commencement speeches, given by very well-known lawmakers, judges, television personalities and Business CEOs, detailing their observations and advice, and how if closely followed, just might give the graduates a more rewarding personal and professional life.

 Typically a commencement speech (the length being about 10 minutes) is given by a notable, successful, stimulating figure well-known in the community, nationally or internationally. While some colleges and universities may enhance their prestige by bringing in high-profile speakers (University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, Roger Williams University, and Providence College) sometimes at great cost, others like Brown University, unique among Ivy League institutions, features graduating seniors, rather than outside dignitaries, as their commencement speakers. This year, Rhode Island College,
under graduate and graduate commencement speakers are Rhode Islanders.

So, I say to Presidents of Colleges and Universities, with your tight budgets you can save a little money by not bringing in high paid commencement speakers. As can be seen below, there are many potential    commencement speakers in local communities throughout the state who fly below the radar screen and can give college graduates sound strategies for success gleaned from their life experiences. They give road maps on how one can live a more healthy fulfilling life, mature in a way to realize their potential and age gracefully in a challenging and quickly changing world.

Jesse Nemerofsky, 60, Providence, Professional Commercial Photographer. “Always remember that everyone you meet in life can be a potential or future client. This being said, a positive introduction of yourself is a valuable way to be called to work together on projects, even to be hired for future jobs. George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, has stated in interviews that when he meets someone he gets their business card, and at birthdays, Christmas time, or when the person is honored, he sends them a personal note. By taking time to acknowledge people over the lifetime of his career, the former President is highly respected by those he has encountered, even if his political position or business venture was successful or not.   Honesty and representing your capabilities is of course of the utmost importance, and small gestures like sending a personal note can ultimately have great impact, but excellence in your work should be your main goal.”

Michael Cassidy, 66, Pawtucket, Retired. “As you go into the ‘real’ world from the sheltered ‘world of college’ don’t be too quick to judge the new people you meet in the work place.  People come in all types, sizes, shapes, temperaments, personalities, ages, and backgrounds; and they all have their own experiences from which you can learn. If you are smart enough to listen to what others have to offer, you can learn from them not only what to do, but what not to do. And most times learning what not to do is the most valuable lesson you can have.”

Olon Reeder, 55, North Providence, Reeder Associates Public Relations. “Become adaptable to constant changes in your life. Today’s global environment demands that you must become faster, better and smarter and compete with yourself and everyone else to survive socially. You have to embrace non-stop learning, empower yourself with your own resources, have an independent attitude and create value for who you really are and what you want to be to shape your quality of life for the future!”

Michelle Godin, 50, Vice President, New England Economic Development Services, Inc. “Live each day of your life with integrity. Whether in your personal life or professional life, integrity will define you as a person.  Never waiver.  When your days on earth are ended, it is your integrity that others will remember.   Those who live with integrity will be fondly remembered and missed, because with integrity comes many other admirable qualities such as compassion, empathy, tolerance, and understanding.  Those lacking integrity will be discussed with disdain and quickly forgotten.  Choose to become exemplary.”

Paul Audette, 85, Pawtucket, semi-retired businessman.The Youth of today — from puberty to whatever age one reaches maturity – tend to see life as it pertains to them, yet each person is responsible for him or herself.  While the youth may have the knowledge, they lack the life experience which is the main factor in making good sound judgments that ultimately affect (your) well-being as well as that of your loved ones. While experience cannot be taught, it cannot be overlooked as a major component in making sound decisions that affect your future.experience comes from living – and life is a journey.”

Joan Retsinas, 67, Providence, a writer. “Savor, savor, savor. Savor the sunshine, and the rain. Savor your friends, your family, your colleagues. Nurture the people close to you. Be a friend. Fall in love. If you fall out of love, fall in again. Read “Winnie the Pooh” to a child. Eat ice cream. Ride a bike. Swim in the ocean. Laugh. As for fame, fortune, and success, don’t fret. They don’t really matter.”

Rick Wahlberg, 61, Senior Project Manager, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. Be Useful, there is no feeling like making the world a better place. Be Aware, strike a balance between career, family, friends, and community. Be Grateful for what you have, don’t be jealous of what you don’t have, and share.

Wendy Jencks, 61, Cumberland, Visitor Center Manager, Blackstone Valley Visitor Center. “There may be a time in young people’s lives when they are nervous to take a risk, don’t be afraid to take a chance. If an opportunity/life experience arises and you want it, take it even if it is unconventional. You may not get another opportunity again. Also, a person’s first job is not the end all be all. Your dream job may actually be something you did not study. People confine themselves to their own walls.”

Larry Sullivan, 49, Pawtucket, Director, Net Compliance Solution’s technical & consulting services. “Recognize opportunity. If you can’t identify opportunities, then they are very likely to sneak past you unnoticed. Most people’s search criteria is so narrow in focus that it can essentially blind them to opportunities available right in front of their face. It’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” scenario. Also, see yourself as a valuable asset. Your self-image will make a huge difference in the type of opportunities you attract to yourself. If you see yourself as a valuable asset, and you present yourself as such, others will see you that way as well.”

Denise Panichas, 50, Woonsocket, Executive Director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island. “Respect cannot be given when asked for, it has to be earned.” This is something you learn later in life. How do you earn respect from those around you? By being true to yourself – your values, beliefs and most importantly to your commitments to family, friends and the community.”

Ken McGill, 51, Pawtucket, Register of Voters, City of Pawtucket. “Find time to give back to your community. In the years to come you will be looking for a good job, getting married, having children and getting on with life. Never forget those in need in your community. Mentoring children, giving time to a soup kitchen, volunteering to help civic groups in your city or town or just helping a neighbor will give you more reward than any salary or position in the corporate world.“

Gail Solomon, 59, Pawtucket, Gail Solomon, Inc., a graphic design company. “You’re not the most unqualified or least knowledgeable person in the room. Everyone else thinks they are. And anyway it’s much more elegant to ask questions than to behave like you know all the answers. Because nobody does. Ever.”

Susan Sweet, 72, Rumford, former state administrator, non- profit lobbyist and advocate. “In the short space that we are in the world, we must create meaning in our lives by contributing to the happiness and well-being of other people and other sentient beings. To do good and useful work, caring and acting for the betterment of others is the true goal of life.”

Bob Billington, President of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council who received his Doctorate in Education from Johnson & Wales University in 2005, says that “Star Power Sells” when seeking out a commencement speaker. “We have regular people walking amongst us who do very extraordinary things everyday but they may never get a chance to give a commencement speech at a college or university,” he notes.

If so, I say that it’s a shame.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.