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The Yankee Express

Warchol-led tour of Whitinsville historic district an eye-opener

The gothic tower on the Whitin Machine Works building was one of the architectural features Mr. Warchol pointed out in talking about the town of Northbridge’s industrial heritage.

By Rod Lee
One of the first things Kenneth Warchol told about twenty-five people taking part in a walking tour of the historical district of Whitinsville on July 24 was “I won’t say how old I am but I was born at Whitinsville Hospital and except for two years in the military I have lived here all my life.”
Mr. Warchol, a retired teacher and coach who is also well-known in the town of Northbridge for his work with the Northbridge Historical Commission and as a beekeeper, was far less reluctant to divulge the ages of the prominent individuals and buildings that were the focus of his remarks over the next hour and a half.
“Ken is such a celebrity in town,” Bonnie Combs of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, who assisted in the event, said, as a crowd gathered outside Northbridge Town Hall for the start of the tour. “I call him the bee whisperer.”
Years of extensive research, much of it conducted at the Whitinsville Social Library, have equipped Mr. Warchol with a thorough knowledge of the Whitin and Fletcher families and the industrial empire they built on the banks of the Blackstone and Mumford rivers. Whether dressed as Paul Whitin on trolley tours or in black pants and a gray shirt as was the case on this particular Saturday, he is a reliable source for information about Northbridge from its beginnings as an agricultural community settled by farmers and craftsmen from Dedham in the 1720s to the present.
That he delivers facts and figures with gusto makes his presentations that much better.
Mr. Warchol wasted no time grabbing his audience’s attention. Standing in the shadow of Town Hall (1876), he began with a little-known fact. “The Whitin boys dedicated this Town Hall to us for our 100th anniversary,” he said. “No one knew.” Without a pause, he added “next year will be the 250th anniversary of the town” (its date of incorporation was 1772); confiding, as he did so, that he hopes to be around for that one, as he has been for previous milestone observances.
In Mr. Warchol’s hands, otherwise dry data about the town of Northbridge’s five villages is imbued with color and personality. This is especially true when he talks of the “5272 people on three shifts” employed by Whitin Machine Works, as they left work  for the day. Pointing, he said “I remember a policeman in a booth (at the intersection of Hill, Church and Main streets), directing traffic. It would take an hour to get people out. I saw this in my lifetime.”
He shared too his amazement at how many of the town’s historic buildings and properties are still standing. “Every mill in every village has been preserved and restored except two,” he said. “I am very proud of that.” The two are “the Dudley store,” in the Dudley block, which sold dairy and other products and served as the town’s first bank and a stagecoach office, and “the Clarke school.
“We are a well-preserved mill village,” arguably “the best in New England” in that regard, he said.
It would be hard to imagine a better tour guide than a man who notes that Town Hall contained “a jail and a watering trough,” that the Cotton Mill (1845), across the street (now apartments) was “powered by steam and constructed of “granite from Petersham,” that Whitin Machine Works started in “the Old Brick Mill” or “little red brick mill” (1826) and that temperatures in the forge there reached one hundred twenty degrees (“I don’t know how any human could withstand it)”, or that the cupola bells on the mills “rang at 7:00 a.m. and you better be on the job.”
He noted that “Paul Whitin and his sons built this beautiful (red brick) mill. This was the first great expansion of ‘the Whitin empire,’” which soon stretched into Linwood and Riverdale.
“As the Whitins became wealthy, they became paternalistic,” he said. “They took care of all the needs of the community.” As workers improved their standing in the company, they obtained better housing. For instance, going “from A St. to D St. in The Village was a promotion,” he said. “As you moved up you got better housing.”
Tour participants were treated to a look inside “the James Fletcher House” (1770), a two-and-a-half-story structure that sits on a hill above Douglas Road and the Mumford River and that is now home to the Northbridge Historical Commission. It was built “the same year as the Boston Massacre” and just before “the Boston Tea Party, turbulent times, tensions growing” as the American Revolution loomed, he said.
Mr. Warchol described James Fletcher as the owner of “a forge and sawmill who was prominent in town. He became the father-in-law of Paul Whitin,” who married James Fletcher’s daughter Betsy. “She was sixteen, Paul Whitin was twenty-six!” Mr. Warchol said. “He courted her. They took walks along the river. Not a year later, they were married.”
Mr. Warchol’s enormous pride in the place of his birth and career came through loud and clear, as he talked of the Fletcher and Whitin families, the mills, the historic districts and the French Canadians, Polish, Irish Catholic, Dutch and Armenians who grew the town together.
“I’m 100 percent Polish,” he said. “I’m a thoroughbred.”
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.