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158 Bowen Street, detail

Atlantic Mills: The Family Behind The Towers

120 Manton Ave.

I recently heard rumor of a museum located in the depths of Atlantic Mills and went on a quest to find it. Unable to do so, and told I needed permission to wander the halls, I found myself talking with Jocelynne, officer manager for the complex’s owner, Manton Industries. She told me there was no museum, but gave me permission to look around. All of ten feet from her office I found the following sign:

atlanticmillssign The sign on the door reads: Manton Industries: “A-Team” Employee Lounge & Lunch Room & Historic Museum. I returned to Jocelynne who said, “Oh! Our lunch room?! I should have known that Robby calls it a museum, let me get the key for you.” Behind the door was a small, windowless room dominated by a lunch table strewn with coffee cups, paper towels and the like. The walls were decorated with family photos and treasures from Atlantic Mill’s past: newspaper clippings, old company advertisements, and glass cases full of found objects from the building’s time as one of the country’s top textile mills. Sure I had stumbled upon a truly special place, I made arrangements to return for a tour led by Atlantic Mill’s maintenance man and museum curator, Robby McCall. Here’s a very short audio clip from Robby’s museum tour:

Robby walked me through his collection of old soda bottles he had found buried along the property, and tools used to make the worsted wool the factory, first opened in 1851, was famous for.

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Sully's Chair
Next Robby took me on a tour of the building’s sprawling flea market, where I met 93 year-old Sully Colleta, long-time manager of the Big Top Flea. Sully zips around in his motorized wheelchair to converse with his adoring fans and trouble-shoot the many problems that pop up when overseeing 50,000 sf of retail space and over 200 stalls.

I met a host of interesting people, like “Chooch” co-owner of the stall “Junk from the Trunk” who sells a myriad of things left behind when people sell their cars for parts. I also met frequent shopper, “Tiny the Terrible,” who was dressed as a leprechaun for the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. He encouraged me to look him up on Wikipedia, and I encourage you to do the same.

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Chooch and Danny, “Junk from the Trunk" (photo: Caroline Stevens)

I ended my tour with a juicy steak and cheese hoagie purchased at the flea market’s “Snack Shop” that opened only two weeks ago. It was delicious. I left Atlantic Mills with the understanding that the building is so much more than a pair of crumbling towers and a landmark of industrial history. Everyone who walks through the buildings’ doors – shopkeepers, customers, and Manton Industries staff – is family. I just hope that they can secure the funds necessary to restore the building, so that it can continue to be their home and cornerstone to the Olneyville community for years to come.

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(photo: Caroline Stevens, 2015)
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Fun Fact: Atlantic Mills was the first mill to use a George H. Corliss steam power engine in the nation in 1852. It wasn’t the first steam engine, but it was by far the best, and its tremendous success transformed the milling industry. Corliss was confronted left and right by skeptics, and thus presented Atlantic Mills with a choice: either pay him outright for the engine, or pay him a percentage of the cost difference of using coal. The owners chose the latter and paid handsomely for the choice. The steam powered engine proved to be extremely efficient.

Fun Fact #2: Over its 102 year history (1851-1953), Atlantic Mills was the site of numerous powerful worker strikes. Having been told on Nov. 7th, 1893 that their wages would be cut by 10%, thousands of workers gathered at nearby Assembly Hall to discuss the question of striking. “The crowd was great and the floor being over-weighted, it fell in with a grinding and thundering crash . . . the falling floor broke gas pipes off short and the building was nearly blown up by escaping gas.” (Boston Daily Globe). This story came to me by way of Michael Umbricht.

Kudos to Challenge Winner Michael Umbricht @W9GYR! He correctly guessed my whereabouts, and went on to prove himself to be a superbly impressive researcher and master of Atlantic Mills history. If you haven’t yet, check out @pvdpreservation, #mep20 to read the many fascinating stories he shared on the Atlantic Mills complex. Below is one of his behind-the-scenes pictures from inside at the top of one of the towers:

I ended my tour with a juicy steak and cheese hoagie purchased at the flea market’s “Snack Shop” that opened only two weeks ago. It was delicious. I left Atlantic Mills with the understanding that the building is so much more than a pair of crumbling towers and a landmark of industrial history. Everyone who walks through the buildings’ doors – shopkeepers, customers, and Manton Industries staff – is family. I just hope that they can secure the funds necessary to restore the building, so that it can continue to be their home and cornerstone to the Olneyville community for years to come.

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Photo courtesy of Michael Umbricht, 2013

What stories do you have about Atlantic Mills? Share your comments below and on twitter, #mep20.

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Originally posted on March 16, 2015