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FROM:  The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, August 15, 1971        

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THE CROWN AND EAGLE MILLS

A remarkable Massachusetts Relic of the Industrial Revolution now in danger of destruction

Text and photographs by (c) Randolph Langenbach, 1971

 

 

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Not only are the Crown and Eagle Mills complete and unaltered, but even in their own time were considered of outstanding design and unusually extravagant construction.

 

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Early print shows mills before brick portion was built between them. The 'Crown Mill' was built in 1825, the 'Eagle Mill' in 1830, and the brick connector in 185 1. Machine shop is to the right of the Crown Mill.

 

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above and below: The machine shop includes a complete metal working shop, woodworking shop and forge, all with tools on the hooks left as if they were put up only yesterday.  It is the only complete textile mill machine shop known to exist from the early industrial period.

 

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T HE idea that a factory could be a beautiful thing comes hard in New England where so many remain as a grim reminder of depression and failure. Also the idea that they were, in many instances, carefully designed when they were first built seems particularly hard to believe in a period when the soundness of one's investment in a business seems to be measured by how cheap, temporary, and ugly its buildings are. But the depression and demise of the New England textile industry was preceded by an era of exuberance and growth, and many of the early industrialists viewed this effort as the symbol of America's potential greatness. As a result, many of the nation's early industrial buildings have a strength and dignity found in no other buildings of the period, except for the most important public edifices.

 

The most outstanding early mill still surviving sits in a forgotten corner of the Massachusetts countryside in the town of North Uxbridge. The "Crown and Eagle Mills," as it was first called was built with a particular concern for design, and survives virtually intact, providing a unique opportunity to preserve a building which is not only one of the last of its kind, but also probably the best of its kind ever built.

Robert Rogerson, who built the mills beginning in 1825, was a scholar, a musician and for many years, the president of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society. At that time industry was the newest, most progressive effort that the nation could pursue. Rogerson, however, was unusually extravagant in the construction of the mills and the landscaping of the village. The granite blocks were cut and fitted with a rare precision, and the layout of the canals had a formality and grandness more like that of a Renaissance Chateau than a textile mill. The mill with the tower was named the "Crown Mill" by Rogerson, in reference to his English roots, and the mill opposite became the "Eagle Mill" in reference to his adopted nation. The finished group of buildings including the Mills, machine shop, general store and housing for the workers, prompted one contemporary writer to note that the village "at that time had more of the quality 0 perfection than almost any other manufacturing village in New England." Another said, "The whole village is laid out with so much taste that it attracts the notice of any stranger who may pass through it."

The basic design of the mills was not uncommon, as most factories were of this same general shape and style. However, its similarity to the churches and meetinghouses, which then formed the foci of the agrarian villages of New England, is not without note. While these buildings were being erected, a national debate was taking place over the issue of whether America should continue as a nation of farms or become a nation of factories.

For those who believed that industrialization was as good as it was inevitable, the mills stand as a forthright statement of their pursuit of this belief. For those who took issue with this, as did Henry David Thoreau, we can only note the important contribution that they also made to American thought. The issue over the quality of life in the nation rages anew today, but it is as old as when industrialism began to reshape the countryside. Indeed Rogerson's own extravagance on the buildings and land forced him to sell the plant soon after he began production.

The Crown and Eagle Mill is a fossil. It exists in a remarkable state of preservation, almost unchanged from the years in which it was built. Many of the office records are intact, and the tools in the machine shop remain as though put down yesterday, despite the fact that the mill has been closed for half a century. Only the textile machinery in the mill has disappeared, having been sold for scrap when the mill closed.

This is how it exists today, but it will not continue to exist unaltered for long unless current efforts to preserve it achieve success. The mill is for sale. It has been sold once already in the last two years, when the wife of an early owner, Mrs. James Whitin, died after having maintained the mill as an empty artifact next door to her mansion, while she herself survived into her nineties. At that time preservation groups missed the chance to purchase the whole 200?acre property for a fraction of what it will now cost to acquire a portion of it. The new owner, who acquired it in order to get the mansion, wishes to sell off the portion containing the mill, and again the opportunity to preserve the building in the public interest may be missed.

The Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources has made plans to include the land in a state park being developed in the vicinity, but by the time these plans are underway, it is likely that the building will be in the hands of a speculative buyer and unavailable at a reasonable cost. The first to disappear in such a situation will be the machines and the office records, and then the original windows and glass would probably be replaced with plastic and aluminum, as has so frequently happened in similar buildings for expediency.

This building has the potential of providing joy and inspiration to the increasing number of travelers who are visiting the Blackstone Valley, the nation's earliest industrialized region. It also can be a source of pride to the townsfolk who are gradually coming to realize that they possess the finest relic of an important part of American history, which could be the focal point of the whole region.

The architecture and town planning of the Crown and Eagle Mills is contemporary to and of similar importance to that of the Faneuil Hall Markets in Boston, which have been the focus of successful preservation and rehabilitation efforts. A photograph of the Crown and Eagle Mills was shown at the World's Fair in Osaka, Japan, displaying the buildings as an historical artifact of international importance. It is ironic that a nation would proudly display one of its important works of art abroad in a photograph, while allowing the real thing to fall into ruin without its ever having been known by the local citizens as being something important enough to preserve. But such might be the case.

Needed ? a use for 50,000 square feet of floor space. Even if the building is included in the park, a use for it will have to be found ? as a crafts workshop, convention facility, park headquarters, etc. A craft or small industry such as silk-screening, which could use the building yet allow it to be viewed by the public, would be ideal. Someone with a possible use for the building is desperately needed. (Contact the author or the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.)

 

 

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