RICHMOND – In 1860, 37-year-old David Aldrich decided to establish a mill village in the southwesterly part of Richmond. He purchased 36 acres of land, at a cost of less than $400, which became known as Plainville. After Aldrich constructed his mill, dam and tenement houses for the mill employees, he christened his new venture the Plainville Mill Estate.
Aldrich manufactured woolen goods until 1880 when William Walton bought the estate, took over the running of the mill and renamed it the Walton Woolen Mill. After Walton established a post office in the village, he agreed to the idea of the village being renamed in his honor, if the first letter of his surname was left off. From that time on, the area was known as “Alton.”
In 1884, Wood River Woolen Mills took over production within the mill, with Walton presiding over the company as president. But destruction of the small empire came in the form of a fire in December of 1898.
Eight years later, Alton Manufacturing Company rose from the ashes, constructed from the ruins of the old mill. In 1908, Richmond Lace Works took over and, in 1962, the mill was sold to Charbert, Inc.
More than just the story of a manufacturing plant, the history that Aldrich laid the foundation for is woven together with the threads of the schools, churches, stores, homes and families that always sprang up around successful mill towns.
Over the centuries, much has changed across the South County landscape. Many of those once-thriving mills are now only silent reminders of the past, reduced to ruins or photographs.
On Sunday, June 9, Mark Kenneth Gardner will give a presentation on the Lost Mill Towns of South County at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, located at 322 Church Street in Alton. Gardner will step back into days gone by when factories were the lifeblood of South County towns; factories that have since been abandoned, preserved, repurposed or have simply vanished.
Having received his master’s degree in history from Rhode Island College, Gardner teaches US History and Government and Politics at Chariho High School. He serves as State Coordinator of the RI Model Legislature, and archivist of the Western RI Civic Historical Society. A historical blogger, he also serves on the Board of Trustees for the South County History Center.
Hosted by the Richmond Historical Society, the presentation will take place from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free and the public is invited.