By ROD LEE
Manchaug Mills will celebrate a 200th birthday in 2026.
Constructed of granite from a quarry in neighboring Douglas, the building was initially a cotton mill and the place where the Fruit of the Loom brand got its start.
Manchaug Mills is the only remaining mill of three manufacturing facilities that once operated in the quiet village of Manchaug. Its story as told by the management team of Mark and Debra Dunleavy is one of impressive durability, inspired renovation—and successful adaptation.
Top: Kelly Weagle of REV Fitness Center and Keith Downer of Blackstone Valley Auctions & Estates have found a niche for their respective businesses at Manchaug Mills.
Talking about the current status of Manchaug Mills on the morning of May 10th, the Dunleavy’s said there has “definitely been a shift, post-Covid,” with “more hobbyists and more retail” having taken up residence. They join a mixed bag of other businesses including world-renowed Vaillancourt Folk Art, which has been an anchor tenant on the first floor for years.
“We’re lucky to have Vallaincourt,” the Dunleavy’s said.
Abbie Lawrence at work in her Bad-Bisque Cermaics studio at Manchaug Mills.
In an age when many old mills are being repurposed as housing, Manchaug Mills is somewhat of an anomaly, with its continuing concentration on providing space for commercial activity. Manchaug Mills also offers a warehousing component.
Artisans like Abbie Lawrence of Bad-Bisque Ceramics are taking full advantage of the opportunity to set up shop at Manchaug Mills.
“It’s great,” Ms. Lawrence said of her new address. “Before I had a studio in my apartment, so this is a big step up.”
She was working on a beer mug for a brewery in Rhode Island as we spoke.
On the website for Bad-Bisque Ceramics, Ms. Lawrence describes herself as “primarily a literacy tutor in the Worcester Public Schools and a restaurant server.” Her passion, however, is working with clay. Her artistic exploration was inspired “by my dad, who is a potter, painter, sculptor, stone mason and teacher. From a young age he taught my sisters and I to get messy at creative, and that even a wacky and ‘ruined’ piece is a valuable learning experience.”
Keith Downer, owner of Blackstone Valley Auctions & Estates, which deals in “art, arms and antiquities,” said the reason he chose Manchaug Mills from which to function is “history and hosts.” The building is on the National Historic Register and the Dunleavy’s are wonderful to work with.
“What they have done is amazing,” Mr. Downer said, of improvements that have been made to the building—inside and out.
“This just works out for both of us.”
Mr. Downer is still in the process of moving in, and notes that his wife Tammy, Mark and April Brown and Laura Jette are all essential operatives in the business.
Kelly Weagle, Julia Anderson, Jennifer Gavaletz and Anjelica Gignilliat all feel that Manchaug Mills is a perfect location for their businesses, which, like Asymmetric Training and Assessment Group and Truman Studios, have infused the building with new energy.
“An excellent space, I love it,” Ms. Weagle said.
She has been in the fitness industry a long time. “The original boutique gym,” REV offers a smorgasbord of ways to get and stay healthy including spin classes, strength training, fitness boot camps, stretch and flex and personal and small group instruction.
“Our classes are designed for multiple levels of participation from beginner to the most advanced,” REV’s promotional literature points out.
Like Bad-Bisque Ceramics, Julia Anderson’s Heirloom Emporium has moved to Manchaug Mills from a residential setting; in Ms. Anderson’s case, a studio in her home.
Ms. Anderson specializes in fine woodwork and craft, “self-care for your home at Manchaug Mills” as she says on her business card. Her husband, Kevin Anderson, a physician and a woodworker, is key to the venture.
“When he comes home he puts on his superhero cape and goes to the basement and fires up the equipment,” Ms. Anderson said. “He loves the games,” as for example creating cribbage boards.
Together, Julia and her husband have populated Heirloom Emporium’s location at Manchaug Mills with fine woodcraft and décor, accent furniture, family board games, fine writing instruments and more.
“We complement each other,” she says.
Ms. Gignilliat’s Indigo Enchantments is right at home at Manchaug Mills.
“I opened here April 1st, I was downstairs,” she said, of her suite, now on the second floor.
Indigo Enchantments’ mantra is “Awaken the Power within and Heal Holistically with Magick,” with services that include aromatherapy—Ms. Gignilliat’s specialty.
“I have a lot of interest in classes,” she said. “If people just give this a chance…and there are no bad side effects!”
Ms. Gavaletz’s law practice is “flourishing” in space she took over at Manchaug Mills after opening her firm.
Real estate conveyances, mortgage lending and estate planning are her primary focus.
Family-run Vaillancourt Folk Art, of which Gary and Judi Vallaincourt’s son Luke is now president, offers dramatic proof that retail can be a good fit at Manchaug Mills.
The Vaillancourt’s have continually reinvented their business from its initial concentration on chalkware, Christmas ornaments and Santa’s. The store’s “34th annual Starlight Santa” is now in pre-order but Vaillancourt also produces a Valentine’s Santa, a Nantucket Santa and a Spring Santa—for example.
“Our Nantucket Santa is our most successful and selling worldwide,” Gary Vaillaincourt said.
“We do all the major holidays now,” he said.
A holiday-themed “outside market” the Vaillancourt family has instituted with the blessing of Mark and Deb Dunleavy is just one of the latest bright ideas to perpetuate Vaillancourt Folk Art’s incredible run.
There is now, too, a Vaillancourt wine, “a fabulous Cabarnet” according to Luke Vaillancourt. It is crafted by a vineyard in California. And a German “Gluehwein,” a hot spiced “glow wine” that has been received “exceptionally well,” Gary Vaillancourt says.
Vaillancourt Folk Art has been featured on Chronicle “three times in the last ten years.”
Taking the operation outside and by offering “the best European Christmas” has added a new dimension to the Vaillancourt experience.
Working closely with nearby District V and the Sutton Historical Society, Vaillancourt will host “The Manchaug Stroll” on December 9th, with walking tours.
The goal now, Gary Vaillancourt said, is “to create a Hallmark movie set.”
That would come as no surprise at all, given what Vaillancourt Folk Art has already accomplished.
Asymmetric Training and Assessment Group LLC—ATAG—has had a presence in the mill since about 2013, Ron Tetreau said. ATAG specializes in training for tactical law enforcement personnel and civilians, providing “the latest tactical techniques and procedures “using your facility, saving your agency logistical costs while offering your personnel the best course of instruction possible.”
ATAG has worked with the Woonsocket Police Department’s Special Rescue Team (SRT) and “our own U.S. Special Operations Forces.”
“I have known Mark Dunleavy all my life,” Mr. Tetreau said. “We were police officers together. The mill is great. Even during Covid when getting classroom space was difficult Mark and Deb allowed us to use hall space on the second floor.”
Accommodation to their tenants’ needs is key to the Dunleavy’s management philosophy, which accounts for the repeated praise they receive from occupants of the building.