With ready power available from its flowing streams and rivers, Berkshire County was an ideal place to start woolen, paper, iron, and glass mills.  

But once that industry left the region, towns were left with mammoth empty structures lining the streets and riverbanks. Some have found new life, while others were not as fortunate.  

Producer Dave Fraser looks at repurposed mill buildings in the region and begins with one of the greatest success stories: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. 

This story originally aired on May 2, 2019 

Read the Full Transcript:

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: After more than ten years of planning, Mass MOCA opened in May of 2009 as the largest center of contemporary, visual, and performing art in the United States.

Rep. John Barrett, Former North Adams Mayor: It changed the image of the community. No longer were we that dirty old mill town that we were described as for so many years.

Joseph Thompson, Director: This was a game changer for us. Feeling like this, this museum has found its footing in North Adams, too, is feeling like a much more healthy, robust community than when we first arrived.

Dave Fraser: The transformation of Sprague Electric into Mass MOCA is arguably one of the greatest mill building success stories in our region.

Mills in the Berkshires date back to the mid 1700s. The first paper mill came in in 1799 and by 1865 Pittsfield had ten woolen mills that hosted 52 sets of machinery and employed almost 1000 men and women.

John Dickson, Local Historian & Author: Berkshire County was the largest producer of wool in the nation, it produced over half of the wool for the entire nation here.

Dave Fraser: John Dickson is the author of “Berkshire County’s Industrial Heritage”, a book which chronicles that region’s expanse of manufacturing supported by a cast of entrepreneurs and inventors who took advantage of the region’s natural resources to make a living for themselves and their families.

John Dickson: I was awed by the magnitude of how much industry there was in this area, and to say that by the end of the 1800s, there were 500 manufacturing establishments in Berkshire County alone, is – is huge.

Dave Fraser: Rivers flowed swiftly through the towns, creating an ideal environment for water power, which allowed the Berkshire paper industry to thrive.

Five paper mills were established in the Berkshires before 1820. By 1840, the town of Lee produced more paper than any other town in the United States.

When paper mill owner Zenas Crane died in 1845, Berkshire County led the country in paper production, a distinction it maintained through the Civil War.

John Dickson: The owners were embedded in the community, were from the community, they ended up being very philanthropic in the community.

The Cranes built a library in Dalton because they didn’t want their workers just going to saloons at the end of the day, they wanted to have them have something else, they built churches, they built museums.

The Cranes built a museum here. So, they really saw the education of their own workers as part of their responsibility.

Dave Fraser: Back in North Adams, the once bustling factory town now fosters production and innovation in a new field: the creative economy.

Since the launch of Mass MOCA in 1999, North Adams has become a creative melting pot, drawing on an eclectic community of artists in search of dynamic and affordable places to live and work.

Irving Slavid is president of the Condo Association at the Eclipse Mill, a former woolen mill that has been converted into 40 artist lofts.

Irving Slavid, President of Condo Association: By the town is given a special zoning. We’re part commercial, part residential, and part artist. So, we can make art here, we can have tools and machinery, and we’re allowed to to work and live in these spots.

There’s a film, its the earliest film, I believe, 1917, of the mill operation, and it’s incredible, you know, thousands of people working here, living here and dying here, probably, accidents and things, and it was pretty important in the 19th century.

Dave Fraser: While mill buildings are difficult to revitalize, the benefits can be significant. Through mill revitalization projects, municipalities have an opportunity to rejuvenate the heart of a community. Despite this progress, there are still many mill buildings that sit vacant awaiting their next chapter.

John Dickson: We drive by them all the time, we wonder what was in them. We have to think about the people who walk there every day who worked six days out of the week, 12 hours a day. They’re beautiful buildings.