PAWTUCKET – From building improvements to free tours, changes are happening at Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket now that the National Park Service has taken over ownership of the property located on Roosevelt Avenue.
Even though the federal government is now in charge of the site, the Old Slater Mill Association, which owned the campus for 100 years, is still active and working in partnership with NPS, and staff there have noted the benefits of the arrangement.
“It’s really nice. It’s a really great partnership,” Lori Urso, executive director of OSMA, told The Breeze. “We serve as a friends group for the park.” Though the buildings belong to NPS, Urso said her organization still has its offices on campus and will offer alternative programming, drawing from the institutional knowledge the group has built up over the past 100 years.
The OSMA is “an important partner,” Park Ranger Allison Horrocks said. “They are still their own separate full-fledged entity.” Both groups, she said, have the same interest in maintaining and preserving the property. “We (at NPS) used to do guest programs here, and now we get to be full-time caretakers, which is really exciting,” she added.
Returning visitors are guaranteed to see familiar faces around the site, including veteran interpreters and guides still working with OSMA, Urso said. Jay Brunelle, who worked as a facilities manager for OSMA, is now part of the crew with NPS, which is in everyone’s best interest since he has plenty of institutional knowledge, particularly about the infrastructure, she said.
There are also park rangers, such as Kevin Klyberg, who have been around Slater Mill for decades.
“I think people can feel like when they go there, it’s still going to feel familiar (and is) a very important part of Pawtucket,” she said.
Having the NPS take over the mill has also already made it much easier for maintenance work to take place, Urso said. When OSMA owned the property, staff had to find private money and write grants for these types of projects, but now the Department of the Interior uses its own funding to take care of NPS properties. “The Park Service takes very good care of its properties,” she said, noting that staff have cleaned up litter and painted benches and lightposts. “It’s nice and clean,” she said. “For us that was a tall order.”
Horrocks agreed, saying the NPS is able to undertake significant long-term projects and is able to do certain types of repair work more easily, such as bringing the buildings up to accessibility and meeting all internal standards as an agency. As of last week, crews were taking care of wood rot on the building and work regularly to make sure the property looks clean and beautiful, she said.
Another positive change, Horrocks and Park Ranger Mark Mello said, is that tours of the mill are now offered for free, whereas before visitors were charged a fee. Ranger-led tours are offered twice daily Thursdays through Sundays, they said.
In an effort to streamline the tours, the NPS team has decided to take out some of the machinery and focus on telling the story of the early years of manufacturing really well, with machines from the late 1700s and early 1800s on display. “We want them to have an immersive experience,” Horrocks said. “We’re trying to paint people a picture of early industry and why it matters.”
Every tour is a different kind of conversation, the rangers said, and they focus on topics that generate discussion from slavery and child labor to fair trade and the environment. They noted they’ve been giving tours to people from all over the country and world who come wanting their NPS passbooks stamped.
The site also now has its own artist in residence, Dan Borelli, who will be hosting a workshop on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 11 a.m. on how to “give voice to how we appreciate, care for, and communicate with our river.”
Mello said the NPS has a long tradition of artists in residence, working to create meaning in and draw visitors to national parks.
“We value their work so much, we want them to be part of the team and do their art for and with the public,” Horrocks added.
The NPS is interested in community feedback and hearing what residents would like to see at the site, the rangers said, including types of events and programs. “We want the community to have a say in what’s happening here,” Mello said.
While core programming will be run through the NPS, the OSMA will host events as well. Among the programs they’re offering are walking tours led by veteran interpreter Joshua Choiniere on Saturdays, Oct. 9, 16, and 30, from 10 to 11 a.m. or 1 to 2 p.m. The free walking tours will go around Fishing Rock, the site of the 17th-century ironworks and settlement of Joseph Jenks II. Meet at Old Slater Mill.
On Saturday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. join a virtual event based on Old Slater Mill After Dark events with paranormal investigators and authors Carl Johnson, Thomas D’Agostino, Arlene Nicholson and Elise Giammarco Carlson. Visit the group’s new website, www.oldslatermillassociation.org , to register. Urso said that Johnson has been a longtime interpreter at the mill and is a paranormal expert and author.
The OSMA’s short-term goals include hosting fall programming and working on its archival collection, Urso said. Next year’s plans are to activate the Slater Mill park, located on the opposite side of the dam, and use it as another public passive recreation space. She said they want to add better lighting and level off some of the slope. That spot “has the best view of the historic district,” she said.
Now that the NPS has come in, Urso said she can sleep better at night, not having to worry about the building during storms and cold weather.
“We’re looking forward to finding ways to help them,” she said. “We’re open to suggestions.”