CENTRAL FALLS â€” While plans for a full-fledged museum have soured, supporters are hoping to raise money for a riverfront park dedicated to the cityâ€™s history in chocolate making.
Called Chocolate Mill Overlook, the project involves a landscaped recreational area being constructed near the bridge at the corner of Charles Street and Roosevelt Avenue. The parcel of city-owned land, which abuts the bank of the Blackstone River, is located across the street from what was once the site of the William Wheat chocolate factory, a business founded in 1782 that predates even Slater Mill. According to information provided by the non-profit Confectioners Mill Preservation Society, the chocolate mill was heavily damages by the great flood of Feb. 15, 1807 and had to be shut down.
The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council is spearheading the project, along with the Confectioners Mill Preservation Society, the city of Central Falls, and several private businesses.
The candy giant, Mars Incorporated, has donated $35,000 to get the park off the ground with the caveat that matching funds can be raised by donors and other sources.
Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, said the Chocolate Mill Overlook will be an â€śinterpretive parkâ€ť and will feature large outdoor panels that tell the story of chocolate manufacturing in Central Falls in the late 1700s to early 1800s. It will also include walkways, sitting areas and a series of stone steps leading down to the river, where people could fish or launch a kayak from.
The plans, designed by landscape architects Gates, Leighton and Associates, Inc., also call for a sidewalk bump-out on Charles Street to create enough parking for three cars or a school bus. Billington said the idea is to have a place where students visiting nearby Slater Mill to learn about the textile trade could also come and read about the areaâ€™s history in chocolate manufacturing.
Billington said that the Confectioners Mill Preservation Society, through its research, â€śtaught us a history that we didnâ€™t know we had.â€ť He said there may be some older Central Falls residents who remember the city being known as â€śChocolatevilleâ€ť or â€śChocolate Town,â€ť but this legacy seems to have been largely forgotten.
Billington lamented the fact that the current economy and Central Fallsâ€™ financial woes forced the Confectioners Mill Preservation Society to abandon its ambitious plans to build a replica of the William Wheat chocolate factory on Roosevelt Avenue and Mill Street that would have served as a â€śliving historyâ€ť museum. That project, he said, was estimated to cost about $12 million.
â€śThe timing, with everything going on right now, was just not right,â€ť said Billington. â€śBut, weâ€™ve learned too much about this history to just let it go.â€ť He said the Chocolate Mill Overlook will be a starting point in telling the story of Central Fallsâ€™ unique place as a chocolate maker, and said he hopes that the museum idea can one day come to fruition as well.
He added that Central Falls city officials are supportive of the plan, even though the city cannot provide any funding.
Billington spoke about the natural beauty of the small parcel of land, which is near the first dam that Sylvanus Brown built to help harness the power of the Blackstone River for the mills. It is a tranquil spot that already attracts people for fishing, he said. Because the riverbank leads to one of the lowest measuring points along the Blackstone River, the Narragansett Bay Commission keeps equipment at the site to gauge the waterâ€™s height when there are concerns about floodingâ€”something that could also be of interest to school children, he added.
Billington said the Narragansett Bay Commission and Barboza Roofing have each contributed $3,000 to the project, along with some other donors, and about $40,000 has been raised so far. He is hoping that other private businesses and organizations will provide funds so the park can be built within a year. He added that local businessmen Louis Yip and Sonny Ng and their Tai-O Corporation have agreed to help maintain the park once it is completed.
â€śIâ€™m eager to spread the word on this and have local businesses help out. The benefits of this park are that it will provide more green space as well as be a place to educate people about the story of early chocolate making, which is consistent with the rest of the history that we tell here as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution,â€ť said Billington. He added that the park will be a welcome addition to the Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
For more information or to make a donation to the Chocolate Mill Overlook, contact the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council at 401-724-2200 or visit the website: www.chocolatemilloverlook.com.