Published on Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Blackstone valley turns to chocolate


Sustainable tourism initiative may save failed city

While Central Falls is often called a "failed city" that was taken over by the state and later filed for bankruptcy, a new project is highlighting a very different story: its history as a chocolate manufacturer during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The settlement that became Central Falls was known as a regional center of chocolate manufacturer during early industrialization along the Blackstone River, according to a history on the website of the Confectioners Mill Preservation Society. The Wheat Chocolate Mill was that of William Wheat, a trader, innkeeper and chocolate maker who is said to have relocated his factory from Providence to a spot in Central Falls around 1782.

Most of the mill"s chocolate was bought and consumed locally, but the preservation society said some also likely made its way onto whaling ships, fishing vessels and warships. Some may have been used as military provisions as well, as hot cocoa was considered to have a medicinal quality.

The history quotes an 1854 Providence Journal article as saying the two-story mill was "seriously injured" during a flood in 1807 and that all traces of it were gone by around 1834.

The preservation society, a nonprofit that researches and supports the preservation of old chocolate mills, had plans to rebuild the old Wheat mill and turn it into a museum. But that project — expected to cost $12 million — was shelved because of the sour economy, said Robert Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.

Now the tourism council is raising money for what"s known as the Chocolate Mill Overlook on a city-owned parcel along the river. It"s slated to be an interactive park that highlights Central Falls" history as Chocolateville. "Central Falls really has the right and the privilege to tell a story that"s no one else"s in Rhode Island," said Billington.

About $18,000 toward a $35,000 matching grant from chocolate maker Mars Inc., a major donor to the preservation society, has been raised so far, he said. The park is expected to be complete in May.

Valere Tjolle

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