First Stop: Whitinsville Hospital
I was born in Whitinsville, an unincorporated village of Northbridge, Massachusetts early in the morning of August 25, one week after the Blackstone River flooded. This flood displaced over 3,000 people, demolished 55 homes and caused over 25 million in damage. I never lived in the town, but my father was born and raised in Rockdale, another village of Northbridge.
The town was founded by the Whitin family who were predominately led by Colonel Paul Whitin (1767-1831). Colonel Whitin was a blacksmith and industrialist who established the Whitin Machine Works, which would later become the largest maker of specialty textile machinery in the world. In 1835, the village of South Northbridge (originally Nipmuc Indian lands) became known as Whitinsville in his honor.
Colonel Whitin had 6 children and his third son, John Crane Whitin (1807-1882), became the driving force behind the tremendous success of the Whitin Machine Works. The real start of the Whitin legacy took root with his creative abilities and engineering talents.
Whitin Community Center
The Whitin Community Center, commonly called “The Gym”, is still located at 60 Main Street on what used to be the 11-acre John C. Whitin estate. In 1922, four Whitin daughters: Elsa, Katharine, Lois, and Elizabeth, gave the funds to build a gym and pool for the enjoyment of local citizens in memory of their father, George Marston Whitin. This recreation center was one of the finest facilities in the state. It was the vision of G.M. Whitin who described it as a place where “young and old, men and women, of every race and creed could find a center for their athletic pursuits; where everyone could learn to swim in the pool, and social activities would bring people together.” Famous for its swim program, it sent swimmers to the 1932 and 1936 Olympics.
I, too, knew the Whitin Community Center as “the gym.” Going there on Saturday nights for roller skating was a very special recreational activity. For a very nominal charge, the gym provided open skating with background music. I have many fond memories of my time at the gym. Even when roller skating became less attractive (as a teenager) it was still the place to be. It was a hub for socialization throughout my youth when I lived in South Grafton, MA.
John Crane Whitin
John Crane Whitin was a very generous man who provided unheard of amenities to the workers and residents of the town: heating coal at company cost, free snowplowing, landscaping, and property maintenance. The company hired anyone, regardless of race, creed, or national origin (remember, this was the 19th century). It also built 989 units of housing for their employees. Rent was cheap or non-existent. The Whitin Machine Works constructed the first reservoir which was the first system to pump water directly into village homes.
Although the work schedule in the 1860’s consisted of an 11-hour day, 6 days per week, there was a long-standing tradition of allowing up to 4 unpaid personal days off per month. During slow times in The Shop, John C. would hire idle employees to work on his property, farms, or, as in 1879, build the Town Hall as a memorial to his late father and mother (which he then donated to the town). In addition, any employee who heated their home with wood had access to company properties to cut down as many trees as needed, free of charge.
The Whitin family built churches, fire stations, a reservoir for water and recreation, a hospital, town hall, and even a retirement home.