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Research & Writing

Into the Textile Mills

By November 26, 2013February 24th, 2018No Comments

I spent much of my time in Rhode Island researching 19th-century textile mills. Though Sarah Brown Wakefield (the subject of my fictional biography) grew up in a farming family, the North Kingstown area of her youth also relied heavily on fishing and the sea trade as well as the burgeoning textile industry. Most people were probably involved to some degree in all these sectors of the economy.

Above is one of the buildings at the water-powered Slater textile mill in Pawtucket, RI, which was spinning cotton from the late 1700s on. The stone walls were built 3 feet thick to endure the vibrations of the water wheel housed on the ground floor, spinning up to three rotations per second. Slater’s mill put New England on the textile-producing map.


Interesting how the exterior of textile mills like Samuel Slater’s could resemble churches, complete with bell towers. 

Another of the buildings at the Slater mill. The technology that spun 500-lb. bales of cotton, imported from the South, into slender cotton thread for use in fabric is simply amazing even now, centuries removed.


This is the Davis textile mill along Hunt’s River as it appeared in 1979, before being torn down. Much smaller than Slater’s mill, and only one of many textile mills in North Kingstown, it was located only a few miles from the Brown family graveyard and therefore likely around the same distance from the farm where Sarah Brown Wakefield grew up. I found the names of Sarah’s father and grandfather in an excerpt from an account ledger from the mill’s company store in 1823, so obviously the family was connected to the place. It‘s hard to say exactly how. They could have done trade at the store, or supplied wool for the mill, or worked in the mill itself. All types of transactions were recorded in the same ledger, so there is no way to know what business the Browns did with the mill. 

In my fictional biography Sarah’s stepfather hires her out to work in this mill when she is in her teens. It was common for children as young as 5-6 years to work 12-hour days in such mills, despite the hardships and dangers on the job.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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