Ode to New Englands mills reborn

Reused factories provide haunts for the ghosts of our industrial past

In western Massachusetts, where I live, many rivers bear resonant names. A few conjure up attributes (the Swift, the Cold); some echo the oh-to-be-in-England titles of neighboring towns (the Deerfield, the Westfield); others recall fine, kinetic tribal names (the Housatonic, the Konkapot). But the Mill River doesn’t fall into any of these noble categories. It’s christened for what it was good for.

In the 1850s, this slender 16-mile-long chute–which runs from Goshen to Northampton, where it empties into the Connecticut River–powered a half-dozen mills. The mills in turn created about a thousand jobs, most in the brass, silk, and cutlery trades.

From 1984 to 1990, I worked in one of those mills. “Worked,” of course, is a relative term, blasphemous even in this context. I didn’t push a treadle, pour hot metal, or stamp molds 12 hours a day like my predecessors at the Brassworks, as the mill in Haydenville was known. No, I led an infinitely softer life on the staff of New England Monthly magazine. The magazine, which has since passed into history along with the previous occupants of that space, was just one of the tenants of this refurbished, three-story-tall, 400-foot-long brick and granite beauty. There was also an antique shop, a deli, various offices.

We were a fey bunch, considering the building’s industrial past. But even the new drywall and quaint signage couldn’t camouflage the place’s muscular character completely. The now-polished maple and hemlock floors were still nicked from a century of hard toil. And at lunch, I’d sometimes poke around the riverbank, stooping to retrieve the odd brass detailing–a rosette, a star–rusted but still lovely. It sounds hackneyed, but it’s true: We labored amidst ghosts and relics.

Decrepit factory turns into swank new offices; failed mill turns into funky artist’s lofts. By now, it seems like an old story. But the story is not so old. The basic New England industrial chronology runs thusly: In 1793, Slater Mill, America’s first, is founded in Pawtucket, RI. By the 1850s, New England is awash, ablaze, in mills. A century later, most manufacturers have failed or left the Northeast, leaving their facilities vacant. But in the 1980s, mills begin to be restored for modern uses.

The story of the Brassworks is fairly emblematic. The original concern, founded in 1851 by the Hayden brothers, who gave their names to the company and the village alike, was superceded by a succession of other brassmakers, the last being Sterling Faucet, which up and moved to cheaper West Virginia in 1957. The hulk stood empty until a consortium of investors banded together to rehabilitate the building in 1982. The first tenants set up shop in 1984.

Without plummy incentives, our old mills would still only be fit for pigeons and bats.

Why the flurry of mill resuscitation in the ’80s? One answer is the 1981 federal Economic Recovery Act. It included a provision for investment tax credits, which let developers deduct from their taxes 25 percent of the cost of resurrecting “historically certified” buildings. For the Brassworks, that meant a $300,000 cash break for the $1.2 million project. Add to that cheery sum the redirection, under Ronald Reagan’s New Federalism, of community development money to the states, which then distributed it locally in the form of block grants. The Bay State saw fit to give the town of Williamsburg, within which Haydenville lies, a $309,000 block grant for the Brassworks renovation. On top of that, a Department of the Interior program loaned the developers $287,000 at 1 percent interest.

Nice math if you can get it. Without those plummy incentives, our old mills would probably still only be fit for pigeons and bats. Digital wouldn’t have moved into the rehabilitated Amory carpet mill in Maynard, and we wouldn’t be shopping at all those outlet stores in the textile mill buildings of New Bedford and Fall River.

The industrial-revolution background is compelling, sure. Yet how does it feel to work in a reconverted historic building? It’s kind of an alloy of remembrance, pleasure, elusiveness, and something that approaches guilt. But you really can’t nail it down in prose. Luckily, a New England Monthly friend of mine–Walker Rumble, who was the magazine’s typesetter–put it into verse, in a splendid poem called, plainly enough, “Brassworks.” So Walker gets the last word:

Meet the Author
The old, brick brassworks shines, reamed and
gutted, rid of all its brass work, and every
floor is sanded clean of a century of sweat stain.

Here though, past antiques shops and software
Firms–right there!–something inescapable escaped.
An indentation, a minor swale, flaws the slick
floor under my Mergenthaler new-model desktop typesetter.
It pulls at my searching toe, and then my heel fits and the
whole foot goes neatly where the dent has been
since smoke-stacks, brass, and lead.

So I guess he stood here, turning–I slowly
test his motion–turning for the time it
took for him to drill past restoration.
For a moment the room clouds, charged and dense with
dead historians. But soon I’m stooping at a new scuff,
one I must have made, a post-industrial mark started
when the metal cooled and after sanding men came

Contributing writer Katharine Whittemore is a senior editor at FamilyFun Magazine in Northampton.