AS SAMUEL SLATER traveled from England to the United States in 1789, he voiced his ambitions to revolutionize the US textile industry with knowledge he had gained in England. Yet he also heard the voice of his mentor in his head telling him if he left England, he would be considered “a spy, or worse, a traitor.” As a storm blows in, a visitor watching a video representation of Slater can feel the wind and rain, see flashing lightning, view the churning waves, and watch as young Slater vomits into a bucket.
The Samuel Slater Experience, an interactive, immersive museum in Webster, opened to the public Friday. Half the museum is dedicated to the life of Slater, whose pioneering work building up the US textile industry in the early 1800s earned him the moniker “Father of the American Industrial Revolution.” The other half is dedicated to the town of Webster, which Slater helped found and build, with a focus on life around 1910.
“I originally called it a museum. But after I realized 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 computers, whose family owns the Indian Ranch campground and concert venue in Webster and Indian Princess riverboat cruise. Robert paid for 95 percent of the museum’s approximately $6 million in start-up costs.
The museum will be open to the public Friday through Sunday, and available to school groups, tour groups, and corporate rentals during the week.
Robert said he started thinking about the museum when his daughter was opening a restaurant at Indian Ranch and wanted to call it Samuel Slater’s. He realized that although Slater built up Webster and is buried there, most Webster residents don’t know who he was.
Museum director Barbara Van Reed said part of Slater’s significance is due to the fact that the textile industry was the first real economic industry in New England, as the country was transitioning from an agricultural society to one based on factory work. “Samuel Slater didn’t invent things…but he was able to take the pieces, all the technology, and make them work, make them successful in an economic sense,” Van Reed said. “He’s sometimes called the father of the American Industrial Revolution, but he’s probably more accurately called the father of American manufacturing.”
By the time Slater died in 1835, he owned 13 mills – including America’s first water-powered textile mill, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He was worth $1.3 million, the equivalent of $38 million in today’s dollars.
Robert said the museum’s interactive style came from seeing how excited his children were at Disney World – and how bored they were at museums. “The objective was how can we use Disney-like technology to educate the children?” Robert said.
“I believe that children have changed how they want to be educated, and we have to learn how to do a better job of it,” Robert said. “They don’t want to read anymore. They want to see things on TV, they want to see games. All sorts of things that are stimulating, they remember it. So we need to get them to remember the history 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 a mill floor looks like and view the clothing that was manufactured there. But at its heart the museum is a technological experience that lets visitors see, hear, and experience life in a different era.
The museum follows Slater from England to New York, where he disembarks from the ship on to a model wharf complete with fuzzy, running rats.
Visitors can feel the vibrations of a water wheel that ran the mill.
Visitors can walk into Slater’s office and overhear his discussions. One employee worries how to keep the mill running during a drought, and whether there is enough housing for families who work there. Another worker looks through Slater’s accounting book, as Slater details the wages he owes the man, his wife, and his children – and the money the man owes Slater for rent, company store purchases, pasture for his cows, and a fee for the family’s church pew.
In a room that depicts 1910 Webster, visitors can board a trolley and take a virtual ride through the town. A movie on the wall creates the feeling of a trolley moving past the Maanexit Hotel, where a honeymooning couple discusses local activities; past the Webster Times newspaper office, where an editor assigns a reporter to cover a meeting about establishing an eight-hour workday; and past a roller-skating rink, where girls gossip.
The museum does not gloss over the more challenging aspects of Slater’s legacy. He hired child labor – as did other mills at the time – and the exhibits include pictures of young workers and videos demonstrating the toll work took on families. In one bedroom, a replica of the factory housing Slater built, a family talks about an 8-year-old boy working “dawn to dusk,” and a mother explains to her son that Slater likes brothers to work together, since the older boy can guide the younger and make it easier for the overseer.
In a kitchen that smells of burnt wood from a fireplace, a man, on video, complains that he is tired of working as a farmhand and wants a job as a mill overseer since “men were created to be the boss,” reflecting historic gender roles at the time. The man and his wife make clear the strain they feel worshipping at the church Slater built and paying Slater for the privilege of pasturing their cow.
Van Reed said the museum’s goal is to present the historic context in a neutral manner. “We talk about child labor, but we don’t judge it,” Van Reed said. “We say these were the facts at the time.”