Chris Robert brings Samuel Slater’s and Webster’s story to life
Christopher Robert stands in a replica of Samuel’s Slater’s office at the museum he created in Webster as a tribute to the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution.
By Rod Lee
Only someone with the same unwavering sense of purpose as Samuel Slater could have created a museum dedicated to the life of “the Father of the American Industrial Revolution.”
That person is Christopher Robert.
“The Samuel Slater Experience,” an interactive, technology-driven and Disneyesque tribute to Samuel Slater and the town he literally put on the map two hundred years ago, opens for self-guided tours on March 4 in the former National Guard Armory on Ray St. in Webster.
More than twenty unique, immersive exhibits will transport museum patrons back to 1789, when a “young and conflicted” Samuel Slater arrived in New York City, moved first to Rhode Island and later to Webster, building new cotton mills and the first woolen mills in the country—all powered by the French River and Lake Chaubunagungamaugg (Webster Lake).
In one of the first exhibits seen during a tour of the museum offered by museum staff a video—Samuel Slater is portrayed as a man with “a near-photographic memory and ambitious nature” who is nevertheless told by an older Jedidiah Strutt “you will never own a mill.” Caught “between the old world and the new,” he was cast as “Slater the Traitor” for abandoning his homeland. At sea for more than two months, he at one point said to himself “I should have stayed in England.”
The Samuel Slater Experience will be open to the public year-round. Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday (open at 1 p.m. on March 4).
The museum is also open on some Monday holidays and during school vacation weeks.
Private events and group visits may be scheduled for other days and time periods.
Call 508-461-2955 or email [email protected] for ticket prices and further details.
Chris Robert was honored as the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce’s “Cornerstone Award” winner at the Chamber’s 43rd annual meeting at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton this past November for his accomplishments as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. He has long been identified with Indian Ranch, a camping and entertainment venue on Gore Road in Webster. In recent years his family has added Samuel Slater’s Restaurant and the Indian Princess paddlewheeler to the mix. Now there is the Samuel Slater Experience, the region’s most exciting new attraction.
“We are thrilled to bring an interactive and dynamic experience that will engage students and families alike and take them back to the roots of this town and area,” Mr. Robert said.
A key ingredient of the museum is a depiction of life on Main Street in “boomtown” Webster at the turn of the 20th century. Samuel Slater named the town after his friend, Sen. Daniel Webster.
Talking about the new museum while on the property on the afternoon of February 9, Mr. Robert said that when his daughter, Suzette Coppola, told him she wanted to open “a higher-end restaurant” on the grounds of Indian Ranch “and name it Samuel Slater’s, I thought ‘there’s nothing here in Webster about Samuel Slater except his grave.’ I said to myself ‘now I have to do something!’”
Never one to turn away from a challenge, Mr. Robert began searching for a building that wo!@stablishing the Samuel Slater Experience. This proved fruitless until the town of Webster approached him about the Armory.
Built in 1935 on land once owned by Samuel Slater, it was deeded to the town in 2005 and used by the Webster fire and police departments to store their vehicles and equipment.
Mr. Robert likes to reveal with a smile that after the town leased the building to him for thirty years at one dollar a year “I went into Town Hall, took thirty dollars out of my wallet and said to the town administrator ‘here, I’m paid up for thirty years!’”
Of the half dozen or so red-brick mills he looked at (and preferred) before choosing the Armory, “half were burned and the other half were in bad shape. I didn’t want this building but Paul Kujawski (the former state representative) said it was solid, with walls made of concrete. But there was no water, no electricity and no heat. The center part had been a basketball court, parquet floor, the flooring was warped. I decided to bet on the mechanical part of this building. It took me one-and-a-half years to do the serious work. There was asbestos everywhere. It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to refurbish.”
Mr. Robert worked with Webster town officials and drew on the museum design experience of Doug Mund of dmdg2, and digital production mastermind Bob Noll of Boston Productions to bring the facility to life.
“The overall construction of the building, including many of the exhibit environments, were completed by local builders and craftsmen,” Mr. Mund said. “Only the very special props, such as the ship (that brought Samuel Slater to America’s shores) were fabricated and installed from our design by museum specialty fabricators. Various other props were largely fabricated on-site by local craftsmen. Significant acquisition of period-correct artifacts were sourced for the project, many being donated by the local community.”
Mr. Robert laughs in asserting that for his part, he went far and wide in search of items that would contribute to the atmosphere he wanted to create. A “steam and gasoline group,” for instance, and the Brimfield Flea Markets.
“I became the world’s best picker!” he said. “It becomes like a disease!”
Mr. Robert is far from finished in turning the 17,000-square-foot building into a place where students can experience history and technology in a way they will remember. He is confident the museum will be popular not only with schools but with senior citizens.
Fran Thomas, principal at Bartlett Jr.-Sr. High School, said “from what I’ve heard it’s going to be a fantastic place for field trips. Our History Department is aware of it and when we get past our testing period, into April, we will be visiting for sure.”
On the matter of what he still has in mind for the Samuel Slater Experience, Mr. Robert says “I remember sitting on a stool as a boy at the local pharmacy and ordering a cherry coke. I want a soda jerk here. That’s the next project!”
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.