WOONSOCKET – Take a tour of the Museum of Work & Culture, and you will learn a lot about the city and the people who came to work in its textile mills and manufacturing plants.
And a good deal of what you will see is the result of a love of local history Raymond H. Bacon maintained through his 30 years of teaching at Woonsocket High School and his now 16 years of service as co-manager of the museum he helped to create at Market Square.
But even for someone like Bacon, 76, whose museum role is more fulfillment of a lifelong passion than it is a toil of work, a time eventually comes to think about moving on to a different role.
And Bacon has decided he will pursue that path himself next week, as the museum winds down from its annual Veteran’s Day observances.
“It’s been coming,” Bacon said while explaining his decision to step down has been in the works for a while now.
He admits to being less able in recent months to keep a busy schedule of day-to-day museum activities, special tours by school groups and far-traveling visitors, and working on special projects like his many short one-act plays about the millworkers and immigrant arrivals that made the city a turn-of-the-century textile power house.
Bacon also wants to put a stronger focus on his family’s day-to-day activities.
“To be honest with you, I am looking forward to spending more time with my wife, Simone, and our four children, Judy, Leslie, Maureen and John, and our seven grandchildren,” Bacon said.
That alone could be enough to keep Bacon busy in his unofficial second retirement if he can stick to it.
“I don’t know what else I would do, I’m not a woodworker and I’m not into mechanical things,” he said. Of course, there is his still strong and vibrant love of history to contend with, and Bacon, a former social studies teacher, said he might like to spend some of his extra time working on a few writing projects.
It was while Bacon was a member of the high school’s social studies department and working with the late Martin P. Crowley, head of the department, that he set out on a path that would eventually lead to the creation of museum focused on Woonsocket’s residents and their working lives.
After the two social studies teachers set up in the new high school at 777 Cass Ave. after its opening in 1972, they came up with a course titled Woonsocket History that allowed them to teach students the history of the city and its people in the context of state and national events such as the rise of industry, the causes of the Civil War, or how factories in Woonsocket contributed to the national war effort during World War II.
Woonsocket’s history is rich with such connections, and the two teachers made good use of them to build a curriculum detailing its ties to the American Industrial Revolution beginning in the Blackstone Valley, and also the city’s anti-slavery leaders, such as Edward Harris, a leading textile manufacturer.
Harris would make an unsuccessful bid for governor as a member of the Liberty Party in the 1840s and was among those calling for the complete abolishment of slavery, Bacon said.
Harris was also instrumental in bringing a presidential hopeful, Abraham Lincoln, to the city to speak at Harris Hall, his forum for talks on matters of importance, on March 8, 1860. The story was just one of many historic connections the class explored, and Bacon said he and Crowley also used the names of city streets such as Burnside Avenue, so named in honor of Rhode Island’s Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside, and also East Woonsocket’s Nimitz, Patton and Halsey street names, honoring World War II generals and admirals.
When the city’s 100th Anniversary celebration arrived in 1988, the pair of teachers found themselves working on special events and projects to commemorate city history once again, a centennial book put together with group of local authors, a city history coloring book for the kids, and even a night re-enacting the inauguration of the city’s first mayor, George Grant, in January of 1889.
As those projects concluded, Mayor Charles C. Baldelli and his city planner, N. David Bouley, decided there should be an even better way to preserve local history, Bacon said.
“They thought it would be a good idea to have a museum in Woonsocket to continuing telling the story of the city and its people,” Bacon said.
It was about that time that the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor began approaching communities in the corridor to come up with ways of highlighting the region’s importance, and the group of growing museum backers, including Crowley and Bacon, decided a Museum of Work & Culture should be the city’s contribution.
As the most important aspects of city history began to be pulled into an outline of future museum exhibits, the large migration of French Canadian farmers to city textile jobs from the 1870s through the turn of the century stood out as a key focus for a museum on working and building new lives.
Other groups, such as the Irish coming to work on the Blackstone Canal, and the multi-ethnic groups each arriving for their own contributions to the working life and culture of the city, were also included.
It didn’t happen overnight, of course, and the state banking crisis hitting the city in the early 1990s almost nixed the plans for a city museum.
But things did move forward when the city purchased the former Barnai Worsted Co. building at Market Square as a future home for the museum and then pulled together $3 million in federal, state and local funding and private grants for the design and construction of the new museum.
Bacon saw plans for the museum pursued by Mayor Francis L. Lanctot and his successor, Susan D. Menard, before the grand opening came during Menard’s administration on Oct. 10, 1997. The museum’s exhibits, the French Canadian Farmhouse, city tenement house, the mill floor, the church, and a parochial school classroom were all designed by Christopher Chadbourne of Cambridge as an interpretive way to tell the city’s story, and Bacon believes the museum does that in many ways today.
The research for the museum’s exhibits comes from the residents of Woonsocket and their history, Bacon said.
“I’m proud of the fact local people told the story of Woonsocket and they told it the best. The story of the museum was conceived right here in Woonsocket,” he said.
Martin Crowley died in 1996, before the museum opened, but Bacon believes his contributions to the project are as lasting as those of the many other city residents who contributed to its creation.
The Union Hall upstairs celebrates the role of the Independent Textile Union in the city’s manufacturing history, and the displays of local baseball legends, city soldiers in wartime and even the Merci Boxcar saved from oblivion by another set of dedicated volunteers all add to the rich fabric of what can be learned from the museum today.
Bacon became the museum’s first manager when it opened, and about a year later was joined by another volunteer in its creation, Anne Conway, as co-manager. The two have guided the museum through its development as an increasingly valuable resource and educational tool for school groups, and its role as a community forum and place for community events like the Veteran’s Day celebration on Monday.
“People from the area have contributed a lot of things to the museum that have helped it come together and tell its story,” Bacon said.
The city gave the whole interior of one of its classrooms in the old Vose Street School for the parochial school exhibit, and Eugene Peloquin and his volunteer historians have amassed a collection of parochial school yearbooks and records that have turned the exhibit into a research resource as well, Bacon said.
Near the front porch of the city tenement in the museum, a small portable checkerboard is set up for people to play on, and that board was donated by the family of Philias E. Pincince, a Rhode Island champion checkers player, Bacon said.
Volunteers like Romeo Berthiaume and Jean McKenna O’Donnell, and many others, have played the roles in Bacon’s one-act plays to show mill agents going to Quebec provinces to find workers for their mills or relate the inside stories of the mill owners and what they talked about when they got together in their social clubs.
After 16 years, Bacon believes the museum has matured into something offering a wide slice of local history to the people coming to see it from near and far.
“In many ways it came out better than the museum we had envisioned, and we created many things here that no one ever thought would be here,” he said. The museum’s main mission for the city is a simple one and can be found the words “to educate and inspire,” he said.
The fact the museum has dedicated volunteers working with its small part-time staff makes much of its outreach and educational projects possible, and that is a strength that Bacon believes will keep it going for a longtime into the future.
“A lot of people never thought the museum would get off the ground, and yet today we get people coming to see it from all over the world,” he said with just a bit of Woonsocket pride.
He also believes the people involved in the museum today will help make sure that it continues even when new challenges arise.
“I think I’m leaving a museum that is better than when we first created it, and I think that shows we learned a lot about how to run it as we went along,” he said.
The Rhode Island Historical Society oversees the museum’s operations today, and it is part of a larger picture in telling the story of Rhode Island too.
Romeo Berthiaume, who spent 35 years himself teaching in the high school’s social studies department, said on Friday that even though Bacon leaves the museum in good shape, something will be lost when he steps away.
“It is never going to be the same for the museum. It is a big loss,” he said.
Berthiaume said he was talking about Bacon with Blackstone Valley historian Al Klyberg at the Ghost Army premiere on Thursday and how hiring Bacon as manager had been one of his best decisions in helping to get the museum going.
“He agreed and said that his only regret was that he could not also appoint Martin Crowley because he was no longer with us,” Berthiaume said.
Bacon’s skills as a teacher still help school children through his work at the museum today, and that will be another loss that will not be easily replaced, he said.
“I’ve known Ray for over 40 years and I know that he lives for his family first and the museum second,” Berthiaume said.
Conway also said she was viewing Bacon’s departure as a loss that will be felt on the museum’s operations.
“We are not going to replace Ray because you can’t replace Ray,” she said.
But just as Bacon wants to see the museum continue, Conway said its staff and volunteers will work to do what needs to be done and meet the challenges as they come.
“Yes, it is going to be a bit of a challenge for me, but I do know his number and I will know where he is if I need him,” she said. And then there always the chance that Bacon will find a little time for volunteering too, just a little.