VIDEO: Dusting off our story

VIDEO: Dusting off our story

This image of a woman using a water pump was taken in Smithfield and is one of the photos on display at the State Archives in Providence through April 30.
Turn of the Century Blackstone Valley History on display at State Archives

PROVIDENCE - At the State Archives building at 337 Westminster St., old public records sometimes get a second life.

And for the next several months, a display of documents from northern Rhode Island's past will allow visitors to get a glimpse of life in our region from days gone by.

The "Slice of Life (Past)" exhibit features businesses at the Turn of the Century in Woonsocket and life in the Blackstone Valley, with a multitude of images and original manuscripts dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

See a video from the Office of the Secretary of State on the Slice of Life exhibit:

Among the items on display are photographs of businesses and scenes of daily life, maps detailing mills and villages along the Blackstone River, and original petitions and legislation concerning the establishment of the town of Woonsocket.

Put together by local government records analyst Tracey Croce and reference archivist Kenneth Carlson, the display is just the latest in a 20-year tradition of allowing the public to view parts of the Secretary of State's extensive collection of records, which date from 1638 to the present. The archives' storage includes an estimated 155,000 volumes with everything "from the sublime to the ridiculous," explained archivist Gwen Stern.

"We have millions and millions of records," said Carlson.

Every year by statute, the State Archives receives everything from executive orders and public laws passed by the General Assembly, to campaign finance information collected by the Board of Elections. The massive collection includes vital records from the Board of Health and piles of information from other state agencies. The office organizes and preserves the information, making Rhode Island's historical documents available for research.

"We get all kinds of researchers," Carlson said.

Historians, genealogists and students of every stripe utilize the collection. Heavily used documents like birth and death records are placed on microfilm for easy access.

Photo collections often come in as gifts, and a donation from the National Park Service in Blackstone and Woonsocket comprises much of the current display. 'A Slice of Life (Past)' has photographs and records, including such gems as the document authorizing creation of the Blackstone Canal, and ranging from early 1900's to the 1940s.

"That was a big thing in the day, but little did they know that 10 years later the railroad would make it obsolete," said Carlson.

Pictures show the inside of many long closed downtown Woonsocket businesses from Western Auto Supply to Pratte's Drug Store. Others show a little turn of the century leisure in the valley, with residents pictured by their homes or visiting local landmarks, such as Peleg Arnold's Stone in Smithfield and Cobble Rock on the Woonsocket-North Smithfield border.

Many of the images scanned and enlarged for the display show surprising clarity.

"They are as good as the negatives are," said Croce. "With some of these glass negatives, there's some flaking, but they're 100 years old. They're in great shape."

The archives haven't been able to identify a few of the businesses in the display and they're hopeful members of the public will help. Also on display at the archives are the public law officially establishing Woonsocket from Jan. 24, 1867 and an earlier petition signed by people who didn't want Woonsocket to become a town. Visitors may be surprised by the state of the records.

"When they create towns you'd think it would be this beautiful record but they scratched things out and there's notes in the margins," said Carlson.

Another portion of the current display was a gift from Howard Willis Preston, a man who worked in the Bureau of Information for the Secretary of State in 1920s. "The Preston Collection" includes additional photographs, postcards and records from towns across the Blackstone Valley.

The exhibit will be on display through April 30, but the archives features such free exhibits year round, open to the public weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Displays are updated two to three times a year.

"What's the good of having records if you can't showcase them?" asked Carlson. "It's a little show and tell, and there's some great records here."

"Visiting our State Archives is a great way to experience our state's rich, diverse history," said Secretary of State Ralph Mollis. "State Archives has a wealth of information, photographs, records, documents, and reference materials that are simply fascinating, and will take you back in time on a journey you'll never forget.

Archivists are always present and ready to answer questions and help with research.

Many items from the current exhibit are also viewable in the Secretary of State's online Virtual Exhibits at For more information about State Archives, visit or call 401-222-2353.

The State Archives building is located in downtown Providence and free validated parking is available at the nearby In-Town Parking lot at the corner of Snow and Westminster Streets.

Local government analyst Tracey Croce and reference archivist Kenneth Carlson make working at the State Archives look fun.
Above is an image of men at Cobble Rock, c.1905, located at the North Smithfield and Woonsocket border. The rock is still located in the Fairmount woods, behind the Saint Antoine Residence off Rhodes Avenue, but fell from the location where it appears here, balanced precariously off a high ledge.
Do you know the mill pictured above? Workers at the Secretary of State's Office are trying to identify the building in the photo, taken sometime around 1905.