Saturday, May 18, 2013

My Backyard - Museum of Work & Culture - Woonsocket, RI

"Embracing the Past to Inspire the Future"
Nestled in the center of this once bustling industrial city is a cultural gem. Housed in a former dye mill is the Museum of Work and Culture. The focus of the Museum is to present the story of Woonsocket's history, specifically the sacrifices and struggles of the immigrants who flocked to the city by the river and enabled it to grow from rural farmland to a thriving industrial region at the turn of the 20th century. 

I began the tour on the first floor where I learned of the origins of the first Canadian settlers who emigrated from the Quebec area to Woonsocket in the late 1800's. Interactive displays illustrated the rural life that the immigrants left behind to journey to an unknown promise of a better life in the United States. As I moved further into the Museum I found replicas of the spinning machines found in the textile mills where the immigrants toiled for long hours for meager pay in harsh, dirty, loud working conditions. I learned that Woonsocket once had many such mills, some were dye houses and others manufactured cotton fabric and woolen goods. Most of the city's population, including children, were mill workers.

Also found on this floor is a model of a typical Catholic church that represents the many parishes found in the city. These churches were very important to the transplanted Canadian families. They provided the stability and sense of community the families needed to help them assimilate into a new land. The replica includes interesting artifacts from some of the local churches. I settled onto one of the church pews and viewed a very informative 20 minute film about the industrialization of the area and the transition of the city's rural farmworker into a blue collar employee.

I finished up my tour of the first floor by checking out an area sponsored by a local credit union. It was designed to look like the inside of a bank safety deposit room. There were dozens of boxes available for sale whereby the owners could store items and create their own time capsule.

A stairway brought me to the second floor where I found a display dedicated to a few local citizens who had careers in major league baseball. Some played professional ball, the others made a living behind the plate as umpires. I particularly like this photo which shows Woonsocket resident Bill Summers umpiring at home plate as Jackie Robinson came sliding across.

In homage to the unique homes that dotted the Woonsocket landscape, on the second floor of the Museum is a replica of the "triple-decker". This type of 3-floor apartment building with front porches were very popular in the area. The replica contains period furnishings. I pushed the doorbells on the replica and voices of local residents regaled me with anecdotes about their time living in the triple-decker. It was very interesting to hear about the lives of the families who inhabited these 3-floor dwellings. 

Adjacent to the triple-decker is a retrospective area outlining the arrival of the many other ethnic groups that settled in Woonsocket and its surrounding areas which resulted in the creation of a very diverse vibrant population.

I passed into the next room and into a parochial schoolroom which had become popular in this area due to the increase in the Catholic population. After leaving the schoolroom, I found myself in a room dedicated to the aim of the Industrial Trade Union to represent the industrial workers. I viewed an interesting film about the ITU's efforts and struggles to organize the workers in order to provide safer working conditions, better wages and outlaw child labor which was prevalent in the mills.

The last gallery is home to changing exhibits. On the day of my visit, there were very poignant displays of the holocaust created by students at a local Catholic high school. According to a museum employee, this exhibit is an annual project.

Returning to the first floor, I found a Museum gift shop offering a wide array of items about the area.

Whether you grew up in this area like I did or not, I think everyone will find the Museum a very fascinating place to visit. For its really the story of the rise of the country we know. And the resilience, resourcefulness and strength of its people.

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