NORTH SMITHFIELD – When Director Christian de Rezendes began research for his series documenting the history of Slatersville, he noticed a gap: a period from the 1880s through the selling of the mill in 1900 and the years that followed, where little was known of what happened in the village, or with the family that had owned it.
“We never had a window into why it got sold,” de Rezendes told NRI NOW. “We had nothing, absolutely nothing, on the drama surrounding the family when it happened.”
Fortunately for the director – and now, his audience – de Rezendes dug a little deeper.
Among the discoveries unique to the documentary series Slatersville, America’s First Mill Village are the records of Rufus Waterman III, who worked as an apprentice for his uncle, John Whipple Slater, starting in 1894.
“He was being groomed to run the mills in Slatersville,” explains George Waterman III, a descendant of the Slater family. “Rufus kept everything.”
When he died in Providence in the 1940s, Rufus Waterman’s extensive collection was part of his estate.
“Nobody had the slightest interest of any of these papers,” said George, whose grandfather was the son of Helen Morris-Slater – and the record-keeper himself.
Rufus’s papers sat in the attic of George’s family home in East Greenwich for decades. Two full filing cabinets remained unopened, and when George moved to New York, he took the documents with him – and another 20 years passed.
“I received them, and I didn’t look at them,” Waterman told NRI NOW.
Around ten years ago, Waterman finally began sifting through the material.
“Reading those letters is like living another life, in another time zone,” he said. “It really is like a novel in small pieces. It was illuminating, because I learned so much about my family.”
de Rezendes heard of Waterman’s collection from another relative still living in Rhode Island, and made contact.
“At first he told me most of the documents did not necessarily pertain to mill activities and that he thought they would not be of much use to me,” de Rezendes said.
But the director persisted, Waterman took a trip from New York, and soon de Rezendes found himself in possession of not just receipts and correspondence between family members from the time period, but also a complete diary of index cards of Rufus’s day to day activities in and around the village.
“Historically and for the film, this was a huge find,” de Rezendes said.
For de Rezendes, the documents were like a missing puzzle piece, tying together the Slater history. Letters kept by Rufus are read throughout the film, but are particularly highlighted in fifth episode, set to air on Friday, Oct. 14, the last segment in season one of the series.
“The way Episode 5 plays out is all uniquely due to these documents preserved by the Watermans,” de Rezendes said.
“This period in the story of Slatersville has always remained a mystery,” the director notes in the film, adding of the records, “Neither historians or the public had ever seen them.”
For his part, George said he always intended to retain the documents and understood the value, so he was only mildly surprised by the director’s interest. Now, he and viewers across New England and beyond get to see the story – including Rufus Waterman’s piece – in its completion, with context on the documents’ place in history.
“I knew that it meant something to our family, but I had no idea it would have a wider audience,” George said.
Following the live broadcast, episodes are available from any location on the globe, on demand, here.