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Al Bruno’s Smithfield remembered

The Stillwater Mill

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

This is the sixteenth article in an occasional series about Smithfield locations that have either been forgotten by time or are no longer remembered for what they once represented. The locations are selected from a list compiled by former Smithfield Building Official Al Bruno. A profile of Mr. Bruno, now 86, was originally featured in the January, 2017 edition of The Smithfield Times. The first installment of this series ran in February 2017.

The Stillwater Mill burned in a spectacular fire on May 17, 1984. Al Bruno was there.

The large former textile factory was the last of several mills that had occupied the property on Stillwater Road beside the Woonasquatucket River. It is believed that the earliest mill there was built in 1836. Erected in 1872 to replace a previous structure that also burned, the final edifice on the site began operating in 1875.

Stillwater has been cited as an early example of a true mill village, a hamlet where the industrial plant was the genuine center of things. The mill employed all the families that lived in the adjacent houses. After a number of changes in purpose over the years, when it was destroyed in a ferocious blaze 34 years ago the building was no longer manufacturing textiles. The fire left only portions of the walls standing. Mr. Bruno, who was Smithfield’s chief building official at that time, remembers the event well.

“I was living in Dayville, Connecticut,” he explains. “It was about 5 a.m. when I got the call from the police telling me I had better get down to town right away.”

Mr. Bruno’s car was equipped with a two way radio and emergency lights. He had the red beacon flashing and a Connecticut State Trooper came and gave him an escort to the state line.

“As I crossed into Rhode Island on Route 101 I came to the top of Jerimoth Hill in Foster. It’s the highest point in Rhode Island at 812 feet above sea level. From there I could see the smoke from the fire. It was at least 15 miles away,” he declares, adding “it was really something.”

When he got to the scene, it was a roaring inferno. He also recounts how he met Frank Coletta of WJAR-TV during the conflagration and provided the Channel 10 reporter with background information he needed.

Mr. Bruno could tell that whatever was left of the brick mill when the last flames were extinguished would have to be demolished immediately for safety’s sake. He vividly recalls that the owner of the property resisted his conclusion. However, with the help of a Smithfield policeman, who told the man that he would face charges if he didn’t cooperate and comply, the mill owner got the message, Mr. Bruno recounts.

In his recollection, fire department personnel were at the site for days. Eventually, the remains of the buildings were entirely cleared away. The property remained vacant thereafter until recently. Now under construction are some 32 townhouses and single level duplex condominiums. The complex goes under the name The Residences at Stillwater Cove.

An aged auxiliary stone building survived the conflagration and can be seen in the present day photo adjacent to construction of the new development.

Current photo by Albert Tavakalov/The Smithfield Times. Old photo courtesy of The Smithfield Historical Society. Information source: Historic and Architectural Resources of Smithfield, Rhode Island, compiled and published by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission in 1992.