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.

Art Can Jump Start the State’s Sagging Economy

Published in the Pawtucket Times, February 22, 2013

Rhode Island may be known as the nation’s littlest State. But if Governor Lincoln D. Chafee, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and House Speaker Gordon D. Fox have their way, the Ocean State may be called the “State of the Arts.”

Even with the occurrence of a massive blizzard just two days before the February 11th Art Charrette, 110 art supporters (including 10 Senators), from government, the business community, academia and the nonprofit sector, did not let huge snow piles in some spots up to two feet high keep them off the streets. They traveled to Fidelity Investments headquarters in Smithfield to tell top State elected officials how art and creativity can rev up Rhode Island’s sputtering economic engine.

Fidelity Investment’s 500-acre campus off Route 7 features three buildings, including a 577,000-square-foot office building. It was the perfect place to talk seriously about art. Carol Warner, who has served as Fidelity’s Art Curator for more than 30 years, says her company has purchased over 1,200 pieces of art from 433 Rhode Island artists. The collection is showcased throughout the campus and is installed on the surrounding grounds. Warner enthused that the art “both enhances the work space and invigorates its employees,” in her comments to the gathered legislative and arts and cultural leadership attendees.

During her opening remarks Warner noted that Fidelity Investments supports local artists in Rhode Island and wherever they have a presence at nine regional campuses and 180 investment centers throughout the nation.

The Political Stars Align for Arts

Chafee, whose demonstration program put murals on four visible highway retaining walls and abutments along Interstate 95, noted that staggering statistics “underscore the plain fact that the arts are clearly one of Rhode Island’s premier [economic] assets.” He cited a New England Foundation for the Arts study, published last fall that found that 2009 direct and indirect spending by the non-profit arts sector totaled $673 million and supported nearly 8,000 jobs.

According to the Governor, just last year, a Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts study found over 12,000 Rhode Island jobs were created in both the State’s private and nonprofit art sectors. The economic impact in Providence alone was greater than that of Delaware, Hawaii, South Dakota and New Hampshire…states with larger populations, he said.

“The arts and culture are also deeply intertwined with our state’s appeal as a tourism destination. They make Rhode Island a place where people want to spend time and – quite frankly – spend money,” added Chafee, whose proposed 2014 budget provides additional funding for the State’s Tourism Division.

“Rhode Island’s creative sector encompasses over 3,248 arts-related businesses and jobs that employ more than 13,000 individuals,” stated Paiva Weed, who spear headed the efforts to organize this idea gathering session. “Despite the lingering effects of the recession on most sectors of the economy, the creative sector in Rhode Island added 770 jobs and enjoyed a 16 percent growth between 2011 and 2012.”

Fox acknowledged the fact that Rhode Island needs to play to its strength in the arts, an observation that he garnered from a speaker at a recently held economic development workshop at Rhode Island College.

Don’t expect the final report generated from the Art Charrette to sit on a State bureaucrat’s dusty shelf. Fox, whose chamber initially hammers out the State’s budget, asserted that he will work closely with the Senate and Governor to review the final suggestions to ensure that arts are a key component of Rhode Island’s state’s economic turnaround.

For Executive Director Randy Rosenbaum, who has led the State’s Council for the Arts for 18 years, the gathering was a “pinch me” moment. For years his mantra has been “the arts are important for the economic vitality of Rhode Island.” With Chafee’s opening affirmation that Paiva Weed and Fox are “unified” in their belief that the arts are key to economic growth in Rhode Island, the State’s Arts Czar saw all the planets in alignment for bringing his “arts and economic vitality” mantra closer to a political reality.

RISD President John Maeda came bringing his greetings, too. Maeda, a designer, computer scientist, academic and author, took the opportunity to announce the February 14th, launching of STEM to STEAM, a new RISD-led initiative to add Art and Design to the national agenda of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Co-chaired by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), the bipartisan caucus focuses on furthering the incorporation of art and design into STEM education for American students. The new Congressional Caucus also includes Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Jim Langevin (D-RI).

Neil Steinberg, President of Rhode Island Foundation, views arts as a “twofer” with the jobs that the sector creates and the quality of life for the people who come here and for those who stay. He notes that his group, one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation and the only community foundation serving the Ocean State, is committed to building the arts sector,

Break Out Session Generates Ideas

With the larger group split into three discussion groups, more than 85 suggestions were compiled by the Art Charrette organizers.

One suggestion was to create a branding campaign to establish an art identity for Rhode Island. It was recommended that state policy makers make the most of the State’s small size and high density of artists and art groups. Visual branding of arts districts along with art trails with eating establishments would promote incredible art work and great restaurants.

It was noted that the State is already known as a design State. Given the presence of RISD and other education institutions, Rhode Island is in a position to become a leader in the nation’s design community. The State might easily become a workshop for the arts and industry.

Strategically use the State’s marketing budget for arts branding and to promote the tax free purchase of one-of-a-kind art in the certified Arts Districts throughout the Ocean State.

It was suggested that all municipalities incorporate the arts in their Economic Development Comprehensive Plan. All Cities and Towns should have an arts advocate who specifically serves as the person responsible for economic development activities.

Use the State’s taxing and bonding authority to advance the arts in Rhode Island. Rhode Island has nine legislatively created arts districts. Expand this tax policy to every city and town.

Also, better data must be collected. One recommendation called for the compiling of the true economic impact that includes not just data from restaurants, but from hotels, parking, art and entertainment activities, too.

Next Steps…

For this columnist: For more than 14 years I have seen the arts revitalize Pawtucket’s stagnant economy, bringing new life to its mills and tax dollars into the City’s coffers. Yes, redeveloped mills increase property values that bring in more property tax dollars to run a cash strapped city.

It is clear from last week’s Arts Charrette, the state’s political leadership now see the arts as a key sector in bringing dollars to the State’s coffers by attracting more tourists and convention business. Leadership must now sift through the dozens of suggestions and craft a comprehensive arts policy to be funded in Rhode Island’s 2014 Budget. If lawmakers walk their talk, Rhode Island truly will become the nation’s Art State, where artists make a living with their creative talents and Rhode Island becomes the newly emerging renaissance State.

For a detailing of Art Charrette suggestions, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMx45FXkVEs&list=UUMCPC8hUqIQQeq107tm5VAQ

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He promotes the arts by serving as Pawtucket’s Economic & Cultural Affairs Officer.