We have taken a look, piecemeal, in a number of past columns over the years at the events that brought about the construction of the massive fabric mill along the banks of the Shewatuck River in Lafayette. Now that I see that the 92-foot-tall chimney there, is coming dawn after nearly a century and a half of braving the elements, I thought we ought to examine this place more closely; we should explore the massive leap of faith project that entrepreneur Robert Rodman once undertook. Prior to Robert Rodman’s eye-opening trip to the Century of Progress Fair in Philadelphia in the spring of 1876, the mill was a small affair, limited by the amount of power that could be supplied by the nearby mill pond dam. But after seeing the possibilities which the Corliss Steam Engine possessed, Rodman experienced an epiphany of sorts, and returned to Lafayette determined to build a mill which would not only keep pace with the larger operations in the metropolitan Providence area, but exceed them through the use of the newest technologies. With that in mind, he began construction of the new mill in early 1877. Thankfully, we, through both divine Providence and the vision of a few brave locals, are still able to examine what Rodman’s epiphany brought forth. Six of the mill complex’s many buildings are here with us today nearly 144 years later.
The oldest of the buildings is the dye house. It stands just south of the mill pond. Portions of the dye house date back to the original mill, a three-story wooden building which was located on the opposite side of the mill race and dated to 1800. The dye house was where Rodman workers dyed the fabric they wove; it was located near the pond to take advantage of the water needed for the dying process. The Shewatuck, which once powered the entire operation, by then was just a source of water for this process.
The mill itself was the next building completed. It is three stories high and 316 feet long. The iron-crested front tower is 50 feet high and the rear one is 70 feet high. The chimney originally 92 feet tall, was attached to the mill and exhausted the smoke and steam generated by the coal-powered steam boilers; the 125-horsepower Corliss Steam Engine was housed in the attached engine house. Fabric was processed from the upper floors down; the carding of wool occurred on the third floor, yarn spinning below, and cloth weaving on the ground level. The finished fabric would then be hauled to the dye house.
Directly behind the mill stands the barn. The barn housed, among other things, the many teams of horses used to haul loads of coal from the Rodman Dock in Wickford. That coal was used to power the steam boilers. The barn was later used to house the vehicles and trucks used to run the mill.
In front of the mill stands the small president’s office. It was from here that Rodman ran his empire, which by the middle of the 1880s included four other mills in the southern part of town and Wakefield, as well.
The warehouse was located just to the east of the mill itself. It was used to house both raw materials (wool) and finished products ready to be shipped out.
The last major building to be constructed was the stock house. The stock house was built in concert with the construction of a railroad spur off the Wickford branch line. The spur ran right into the mill yard and the stock house was constructed at it terminus. The stock house was used for the storage and processing of suppliers and raw materials which arrived by rail as well as the shipping of finished products out of the mill. The rail spur was also used to bring coal into the yard from the Wickford docks. The addition of this rail access allowed Rodman to enter new markets and expand his business greatly.