Mays painting, bell among mill items to find new home at PVPHS

Joe Bettencourt and Joe Bettencourt, local contractors; Jerry Tellier, president of the Pawtuxet Valley Preservation and Historical Society; and local historian Donald Carpenter are pictured on Saturday with a bell that's been moved to the historical society.


COVENTRY — Several relics of the Arkwright and Harris mills’ early days, each with its own story to tell, have come to rest at the Pawtuxet Valley Preservation and Historical Society. 

The items — a bell, a scale, a wagon and a painting — were moved over the weekend from the Arkwright Mill to the historical society’s headquarters in Crompton, where they’ll be displayed for years to come inside the building’s new addition. 

“I’m glad that these are being preserved,” Jerry Tellier, president of the historical society, said Saturday, standing beside a bell whose chimes were once heard throughout the area. “They’re unique items.”

Most of the items donated last week to the historical society date back more than a century to Arkwright’s heyday as a hub of textile production. 

Established in 1810, the Arkwright Company in 1883 became Interlaken Inc., a manufacturer mainly of cloth for book binding. Interlaken later absorbed the nearby Harris Manufacturing Company. 

Today, the Harris Mill has been renovated into an apartment complex. And at the Arkwright Mill, where once cloth had been produced, various printing media and paper products eventually began to be made. 

Until June 30, the building was occupied by Sihl Inc., a manufacturer of things like films and photo paper. Having acquired another company, the global corporation closed up shop in Coventry last month with plans to relocate its production. 

The building will be sold, and the various machines inside are being hauled out and shipped elsewhere. As for those pieces of history that now live at the historical society, Joe Bettencourt, a contractor who’s been doing work at the mill for nearly 20 years, wanted to ensure they remained nearby — so he talked to Stephen Conlon, vice president of operations at Sihl, and reached out to Tellier. 

“Everything is working out, because with the new addition we have a great place to show this stuff,” Tellier said of the historical society’s recent 24-by-30-foot addition. “Who knows what would have happened to it?”

For Bettencourt, whose family history is entwined with that of the local mills, keeping the Arkwright Mill’s story alive by preserving these items is a way of also honoring his own heritage.

“These mills, they were so important to the community,” said Bettencourt, whose son has worked alongside him in the Arkwright Mill. “They were a place to work, they provided housing, they had company stores… whole villages were created because of mills.” 

Once used to summon workers, the bell that’s now kept at the Pawtuxet Valley Preservation and Historical Society had its first home at the Harris Mill, where it stayed for more than 100 years. 

“The bell is symbolic of the mills here in the valley, because that’s how they called the mill workers to work,” local historian Donald Carpenter said, a black-and-white photo of the Harris Mill bell tower in his hand. “And before they even had fire stations, they would ring the mill bells hard if there was a fire.”

Cast by Hooper and Company around 1855, the bell later was used at the Fiskeville Fire Station. It eventually ended up by the loading dock at Interlaken Mill, Carpenter said, before being put on display at the Arkwright Mill across the street. 

Carpenter, who himself was once employed in the mills, still remembers hearing the bell ring at 3 p.m. each day, marking a change of shifts. He said he’s “overjoyed” by the plan to display the bell at the historical society. 

Also among the items to be relocated Saturday was an original piece by Maxwell Mays, the late artist from Coventry. 

“This is an important piece of history,” Tellier said of the painting, which until the building’s closure had been hanging inside the Arkwright Mill. Tellier added that he planned to display the painting on one of the walls of the historical society’s addition. 

Commissioned in 1990 for Arkwright’s 180th anniversary, the painting depicts the village in overlaid time periods. Three mill buildings that made up the Arkwright and Interlaken companies sit on either side of the Pawtuxet River, and rows of mill houses line the streets; a train makes its way across the painting’s bottom corner, white smoke billowing from its chimney. 

A counterweight scale once used to weigh textiles has also been moved to the historical society, as has an old wagon recently refurbished by Bettencourt and his son, its wheels and handle sandblasted, its wooden body polished. 

Tellier’s hope is that future generations will see each of these recent additions to the historical society’s collection and that their curiosity about the Pawtuxet Valley’s past will be sparked. 

“The kids today don’t know what a mill is,” Tellier said, standing among items steeped in local history. “Eventually, the younger generations hopefully will become interested — that’s why the historical society tries to preserve things like this.”


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(1) comment


.. wonderful and historic artifacts of the Valley's architecture .. thanks for its preservation value!

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