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

Published June 21, 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.

Slater Mill Showcases Classic Rock ‘n’ Roll Flick  

Published in the Woonsocket Call on October 11, 2015

When planning the 2nd Annual S.A.M. Fest, in conjunction with this years Pawtucket Arts Festival, Slater Mill’s Executive Director, Lori Urso scheduled a showing of Jim Wolpaw’s “Complex World.” Urso, also a professional musician, knew featuring the film at her event in August was a great way to both promote a local Providence filmmaker and give homage to The Young Adults, a popular rock band playing at the nonprofit’s weekend festival, too.

Rediscovering a Classic Film at S.A.M. Fest

On Aug. 30, more than 80 people gathered early evening at Hodgson Rotary Park to watch on a big outdoor screen the 81-minute offbeat cult rock ‘n’ roll comedy filmed at Providence’s Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel. While the film attracted the curious, many adoring and loyal fans of The Young Adults came to check out the flick, too, says Urso.

The Complex World captures one night at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, with its zany plot involving terrorists, political conspiracy, 100 pounds of explosives in the bar’s basement and drugs, with music from iconic Providence bands such as the Young Adults, NRBQ and Roomful of Blues. The film had a brief two-month run in a Boston and one week in New York City, and it garnered good reviews. However, a distribution deal with Hemdale, a major film distributor that released “The Terminator” and the “Last Emperor,” fell through, ending up in a lawsuit. Even though Wolpaw won his case and a small settlement, the legal battle sealed the film’s fate. Over the years, the filmmaker’s DVDs have been sold on a website, and the last public showing was in 2010, for two days at the Providence-based Cable Car to raise money for a local charity.

Urso, 51, remembers being an extra during the 1987 film shoot, “a biker chick hanging out in the bar’s parking lot” at 79 Washington St.  “Quite a few people that I knew showed up to be extras that night. I’m glad I was able to be part of it,” she said.

Rudy Cheeks one of the founders of Young Adults and co-writer of the Phillip & Jorge column published in “Motiff Magazine,” was in attendance during the S.A.M. Fest screening, and he observed people of all ages in attendance, many of whom watched the film for the first time.

Even though the film was produced about 25 years ago, “it’s held up pretty well over the years,” says Cheeks. “The strongest part of the film was its ‘mise en scène,’ the capturing of the inside atmosphere of the bar.”

Adds, Rick Bellaire, Chair and Archive Director of Pawtucket-based Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, the Wolpaw’s Indie film produced outside of the major film studio system, is a great Rock and Roll documentary.  “It was a snap shot of what was happening in the Rhode Island music scene at the time the film was shot,” he says.

The Making of a Classic Film

While it took about two-and-a-half months to shoot the film in 1987, it took more than two years to bring “Complex World” to the screen of the Cable Car Theatre in 1990, says Wolpaw, noting that it ran for a record four months. The veteran filmmaker, who was nominated for an Academy Award for a 1985 documentary, was brought into this film project by Rich Lupo, the owner of Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, who just happened to be his roommate at Brown University and later a bartender and manager at the Providence bar.

In 1970, when both young men graduated from Brown University they shared their dreams. Lupo planned to open up a bar with music while Wolpaw wanted to become a filmmaker.  Wolpaw agreed to use Lupo’s bar in film if he opened on up.  “I never would have believed at that time we would both end up at that place,” says Lupo.

According to Wolpaw, the efforts to create and fund a film began a year before the bar was going to be torn down to make way for condos. The film was to use Lupo’s as a basis for the movie to “explain the spirit of the bar,” he said, noting that it would be shot like a documentary film.

Lupo invested the most to produce the film, but with increased costs, other friends chipped in, said Wolpaw. The unique film stood out among films that were produced in Hollywood, he said, “noting it was not the typical movie.”

Two years of editing and reshoots would later result in the final film, says Wolpaw, noting that over the years and even at the Slater Mill screening he “had trouble watching it.” Shooting the film like a documentary just did not work for the plot, he said, but it captured an early era of the Providence music scene.

Even after more than two decades since being released, orders for “Complex World” keep trickling in, says Wolpaw, who has worked as an adjunct film professor at Emerson College in Boston, the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island School of Design. He is pleasantly surprised that orders come in from such faraway places as British Columbia and France.

A Prolific Filmmaker  

Besides his Classic “Complex World,” Wolpaw is known for innovative approaches in considering artists and issues in the arts, and he has an impressive number of films under his belt:  “Cobra Snake for a Necktie” (Showtime 1980), a portrait of rock ‘n’ roll legend Bo Diddley; “Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson” (PBS 2003, INPUT 2004), a quirky look at poet Emily Dickinson that was chosen by “The Library Journal” for its list of Best Poetry Films; and “First Face: The Buck Starts Here” (PBS 2011), an accounting of the dollar bill portrait of George Washington.

Even at 67, Wolpaw, who has won awards at more than a dozen film festivals worldwide, has not slowed down. He is still working on three projects, a film about Cleveland poet and activist Daniel Thomson, one detailing the history of Rhode Island’s Ladd Center and a fictional narrative film about poet Dickinson. Hopefully, they will have a long shelf life and audience like “Complex World.”

“Complex Word” can capture viewers who wish to relive their experiences at Lupo’s, and purchases of the DVD benefit the Gloria Gemma Foundation and Advocates in Action. For details, go to www.complexworldthemovie.com.

 

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Wolpaw’s the Reel Deal

Published in Senior Digest on September 2015

When planning the 2nd Annual S.A.M. Fest, in conjunction with the Pawtucket Arts Festival, Slater Mill’s Executive Director, Lori Urso scheduled a showing of Jim Wolpaw’s “Complex World.” Urso, also a professional musician, knew featuring the film at her event last month was a great way to promote a local Providence filmmaker and give homage to The Young Adults, a popular rock band playing at the nonprofit’s weekend festival.

 Rediscovering a Classic Film at S.A.M. Fest

On Aug. 30, more than 80 people gathered early evening under the large white tent at Hodgson Rotary Park to watch on a big outdoor screen the 81-minute offbeat cult rock ‘n’ roll comedy filmed at Providence’s Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel. While the film attracted the curious, many adoring fans of The Young Adults came to check out the flick, too, says Urso.

The story captures one night at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, with its zany plot involving terrorists, political conspiracy, 100 pounds of explosives in the bar’s basement and drugs, with music from iconic Providence bands such as the Young Adults, NRBQ and Roomful of Blues. The “Complex World’ had a two-month run in a Boston and one week in New York City, and it garnered good reviews. However, a distribution deal with Hemdale, a major film distributor that released “The Terminator” and the “Last Emperor,” fell through, ending up in a lawsuit. Even though Wolpaw won his case and a small settlement, the legal suit sealed the fate of the film. The filmmaker’s DVDs are sold on a website, and the last public showing was in 2010, for two days at the Cable Car in Providence to raise money for a charity.

Urso, 51, remembered being an extra during the 1987 film shoot, “a biker chick hanging out in the bar’s parking lot” at 79 Washington St.  “Quite a few people that I knew showed up to be extras that night. I’m glad I was able to be part of it,” she said.

Rudy Cheeks one of the founders of Young Adults and co-writer of the Phillip & Jorge column published in “Motiff Magazine,” was in attendance during the S.A.M. Fest screening, and he observed people of all ages in attendance, many of whom watched the film for the first time.

Even though the film was produced about 25 years ago, “it’s held up pretty well over the years,” says Cheeks. “The strongest part of the film was its ‘mise en scène,’ the capturing of the inside atmosphere of the bar.”

 The Making of a Classic Film

While it took about two-and-a-half months to shoot the film in 1987, it took more than two years to bring “Complex World” to the screen of the Cable Car Theatre in 1990, says Wolpaw, noting that it ran for a record four months. The veteran filmmaker, who was nominated for an Academy Award for a 1985 documentary, was brought into this film project by Rich Lupo, the owner of Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, who just happened to be his roommate at Brown University and later a bartender and manager at the Providence bar.

According to Wolpaw, the efforts to create and fund a film began a year before the bar was going to be torn down to make way for condos. The film was to use Lupo’s as a basis for the movie to “explain the spirit of the bar,” he said, noting that it would be shot like a documentary film.

Lupo invested the most to produce the film, but with increased costs, other friends chipped in, said Wolpaw. The unique film stood out among films that were produced in Hollywood, he said, “noting it was not the typical movie.”

Two years of editing and reshoots would later result in the final film, says Wolpaw, noting that over the years and even at the Slater Mill screening he “had trouble watching it.” Shooting the film like a documentary just did not work for the plot, he said, but it captured an early era of the Providence music scene.

Even after more than two decades since being released, orders for “Complex World” keep trickling in, says Wolpaw, who has worked as an adjunct film professor at Emerson College in Boston, the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island School of Design. He is pleasantly surprised that orders come in from such faraway places as British Columbia and France.

 A Prolific Filmmaker  

Besides his Classic “Complex World,” Wolpaw is known for innovative approaches in considering artists and issues in the arts, and he has an impressive number of films under his belt:  “Cobra Snake for a Necktie” (Showtime 1980), a portrait of rock ‘n’ roll legend Bo Diddley; “Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson” (PBS 2003, INPUT 2004), a quirky look at poet Emily Dickinson that was chosen by “The Library Journal” for its list of Best Poetry Films; and “First Face: The Buck Starts Here” (PBS 2011), an accounting of the dollar bill portrait of George Washington

Even at 60, Wolpaw, who has won awards at more than a dozen film festivals worldwide, has not slowed down. He is still working on three projects, a film about Cleveland poet and activist Daniel Thomson, one detailing the history of Rhode Island’s Ladd Center and a fictional narrative film about poet Dickinson. Hopefully, they will have a long shelf life and audience like “Complex World.”

“Complex Word” can capture viewers who wish to relive their experiences at Lupo’s, and purchases of the DVD benefit the Gloria Gemma Foundation and Advocates in Action. For details, go to www.complexworldthemovie.com.