The Old Schwamb Mill’s archives include documents related to the history of the frame-making business of the Schwamb brothers beginning in 1869 to the preservation of the Mill by Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust. In 1969, the Mill was scheduled to be sold, when it was recognized by Arlington resident and preservationist Patricia Fitzmaurice (1923-2001) who spearheaded the successful effort in saving the Mill and expanding its role as an historical resource for the community.
In 2000, she received the John F. Ayer Award from the Bay State Historical League, which was presented to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the interpretation or presentation of Massachusetts history. Patricia Fitzmaurice was a visionary preservationist who recognized the historical and educational value of the Old Schwamb Mill property in Arlington in 1969 and worked tirelessly in leading efforts to fulfill its mission.
At the time, the Bay State Historical League had a conversation with Patricia Fitzmaurice about her more than 30 years as an “unpaid professional” at the Old Schwamb Mill. The Mill is a rare example of industrial preservation, the longest continuing mill site in the United States. Pat speaks, enthusiastically and proudly, of its history first as a gristmill and sawmill in the 1600s, a spice mill briefly in the 19th century, and finally as a woodworking shop where the Schwamb brothers manufactured fine wooden oval and circular picture frames. For 105 years, the Schwambs’ business prospered and grew until the 1960s when, due to the proliferation of less expensive alternatives, demand for high quality wooden products declined. By 1969, it looked as if the Mill was going to close.
Although Pat is modest about her accomplishments, her colleagues pick up the threads of the story with admiration and enthusiasm. At the time, there was virtually no local support for saving the Mill. The Arlington Historical Society initially saw no value in restoring a crumbling mill, so Pat began a campaign to convert them and everyone she encountered into believers. She initiated the effort to establish the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, filed for recognition from the United States Department of the Interior in listing the Mill in the National Register of Historic Places. She began to develop a network of advisors and supporters, organized to establish the Arlington Historical Commission, and then convinced the Commission to act as catalyst for the restoration. Pat took every opportunity to gain converts (and contributors) to the cause. Alberta Sebolt George, President and CEO of Old Sturbridge Village and a 25-year member of the Board of the Old Schwamb Mill, reminisces “she was a one-man symphony in terms of the work she did in the foundation for moving the project forward. [The result of] her work is widespread, her interest has not waned over the years.”
At the same time, Pat strove for excellence. She recognized the importance of historical accuracy in interpretation, presentation, and preservation and taught herself what she needed to know to make it happen; and she surrounded herself with experts. One of them, Richard Candee, Professor of American and New England Studies at Boston University, first met Pat at an industrial preservation conference at Old Sturbridge village in the late 60s. Referring to her as “one of Massachusetts’ secret treasures,” he continues, “She listened [to the presentation] and then called us up about the threat to the Old Schwamb Mill – and the rest is history!” Pat was also generous in sharing her expertise, serving on the Boards of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and the Bay State Historical League.
Pat recognizes that while vision is important, so is developing strategy to realize the vision. In the early years, she invited a group of artisans to rent space at the Mill providing a steady, albeit modest, source of income as well as a public dimension to the site. When the craft renaissance faded, she turned to renting space to for-profit tenants that were compatible with the Mill’s mission. In addition, she initiated partnerships to help underwrite the expenses of operating the museum, and of furthering its mission. She developed an apprenticeship program in antique machinery and buildings in collaboration with North Bennett Street School; sponsored a teacher institute on industrial history underwritten by the Mass. Department of Education; and hosted Norm Abram for three This Old House and New Yankee Workshop segments.
When asked what she is proudest of, she replies: “Survival. We’re still here and it looks better than ever.”