Commonwealth Magazine


AS SAMUEL SLATER traveled from England to the United States in 1789, he expressed his ambitions to revolutionize the American textile industry with the knowledge he had acquired in England. Yet he also heard his mentor’s voice in his head telling him that if he left England he would be seen as “a spy, or worse, a traitor”. As a storm blows, a visitor viewing a video depiction of Slater can feel the wind and rain, see flashing lightning, see the swirling waves, and watch young Slater vomit into a bucket.

The Samuel Slater Experience, an interactive and immersive museum in Webster, opens to the public on Friday. Half of the museum is dedicated to the life of Slater, whose pioneering work building America’s textile industry in the early 1800s earned him the nickname “Father of America’s Industrial Revolution.” The other half is devoted to the town of Webster, which Slater helped found and build, with an emphasis on life circa 1910.

“Originally, I called it a museum. But after realizing that I think museums are boring, we changed the name to the Samuel Slater Experience,” said museum founder Chris Robert.

The museum, housed in a former National Guard armory, is the brainchild of Robert, an 81-year-old philanthropist from Webster with a background in computer science, whose family owns the Indian Ranch campground and gymnasium. concert at Webster and the Indian Princess riverboat cruise. Robert paid 95% of the approximately $6 million start-up costs for the museum.

A photo of Samuel Slater at the Samuel Slater Experience at Webster. March 3, 2022. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

The museum will be open to the public from Friday to Sunday and accessible to school groups, tour groups and rental companies during the week.

Robert said he started thinking about the museum when his daughter was opening a restaurant at Indian Ranch and wanted to name it Samuel Slater. He realized that although Slater built Webster and is buried there, most people in Webster don’t know who he was.

Museum director Barbara Van Reed said part of Slater’s significance is because the textile industry was New England’s first real economic industry as the country moved from a agricultural society to a society based on factory work. “Samuel Slater didn’t invent anything…but he was able to take the parts, all the technology, and make them work, make them economically successful,” Van Reed said. “He is sometimes called the father of the American Industrial Revolution, but he is probably more accurately called the father of American manufacturing.”

At the time of Slater’s death in 1835, he owned 13 factories, including America’s first water-powered textile mill, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It was worth $1.3 million, the equivalent of $38 million in today’s dollars.

Robert said the interactive style of the museum came from seeing how excited his kids were at Disney World – and how bored they were at museums. “The goal was how to use Disney-like technology to educate children?” said Robert.

“I believe kids have changed the way they want to be educated, and we need to learn how to do it better,” Robert said. “They don’t want to read anymore. They want to see things on TV, they want to see games. All kinds of stimulating things, they remember. So we have to get them to remember the story we’re telling here.

The museum has educational plaques on the walls and artifacts ranging from a spinning wheel to a horseless carriage. Visitors can see what the floor of a mill looks like and see the clothes that were made there. But at its heart, the museum is a technological experience that allows visitors to see, hear and experience life in another era.

A model of the bedroom of a working family at the Samuel Slater Experiment at Webster. March 3, 2022. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

The museum follows Slater from England to New York, where he disembarks from the ship at a model dock with fuzzy rats running around.

Visitors can feel the vibrations of a waterwheel turning the mill.

Visitors can enter Slater’s office and hear his discussions. An employee worries about how to operate the plant during a drought and whether there is enough housing for the families working there. Another worker goes through Slater’s ledger, as Slater details the salary he owes the man, his wife and children – and the money the man owes Slater for rent, shopping in company stores, pasture for his cows and a royalty for the family. church pew.

In a room that depicts 1910 Webster, visitors can board a trolley and take a virtual tour through the city. A film on the wall makes it look like a tram passes the Maanexit Hotel, where a honeymooning couple discuss local activities; after the Webster times a newspaper office, where an editor assigns a reporter to cover a meeting on the establishment of an eight-hour workday; and in front of a roller skating rink, where the girls chat.

A printing press in a model Webster Times office at the Samuel Slater Experience in Webster. March 3, 2022. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

The museum does not gloss over the more difficult aspects of Slater’s legacy. It hired children – as other factories did at the time – and exhibits include photos of young workers and videos demonstrating the hard work for families. In one bedroom, a replica of the factory housing Slater built, a family talks about an 8-year-old boy working “from dawn till dusk”, and a mother explains to her son that Slater likes brothers to work together, since the older boy can guide the younger ones and facilitate the overseer’s task.

In a kitchen that smells of burning wood from a fireplace, a man, on video, complains that he is tired of working as a farm laborer and wants a job as a factory supervisor since “men were created to be the boss”, reflecting the historical gender roles at the time. The man and his wife make it clear the tension they feel worshiping the church Slater built and paying Slater the privilege of herding their cow.

Meet the author

Journalist, Commonwealth

On Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter for CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for over seven years at Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, issues with the state’s foster care system and the elections for US senators. Elizabeth Warren and Governor Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Excellence in Legal Journalism Award in 2018 and several articles have won awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered New Hampshire’s 2012 presidential primary for The Boston Globe. Prior to that, she worked for the Concord (NH) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall, and Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign in New Hampshire. Shira holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

On Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter for CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for over seven years at Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, issues with the state’s foster care system and the elections for US senators. Elizabeth Warren and Governor Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Excellence in Legal Journalism Award in 2018 and several articles have won awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered New Hampshire’s 2012 presidential primary for The Boston Globe. Prior to that, she worked for the Concord (NH) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall, and Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign in New Hampshire. Shira holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Van Reed said the museum’s goal is to present historical context in a neutral way. “We talk about child labor, but we don’t judge it,” Van Reed said. “We say those were the facts at the time.”

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