Rescuing the Mill

Patricia Fitzmaurice (second from right) receiving the deed to the Old Schwamb Mill

Patricia Fitzmaurice (second from right) receiving the deed of the Old Schwamb Mill

Beginning in 1864, generation after generation of Schwambs inherited and ran the mill. Then the Mill was faced with destruction: in 1969, the family business ended. The deaths of Clinton and Louis Schwamb, and the approaching retirement of Clinton’s son Elmer (the fourth generation to run the mill), prompted Elmer Schwamb and Louis’s widow to enter into a purchase and sale agreement with neighboring lumber terminal truckers to honor Clinton’s promise to the truckers to provide additional truck access to their property. The plan of the truckers called for demolition of the three Mill buildings.

The mill was doomed; it was to be razed the new owners said, and would give way to a storage building.

One of the few residents in Arlington who knew what the community would lose when the mill was lost was Patricia Fitzmaurice. She was particularly interested in the mill, for the Arlington Conservation Commission, of which she was an associate member, had discussed the mill and hoped to preserve it. Before the commission could move, however, the purchase and sale agreement had been signed. The mill, it seemed, was gone.

Undaunted, though dismayed by the news of the sale, Mrs. Fitzmaurice turned to Dr. Richard W. Hale, Jr., acting chairman of the Mass. Historical Commission at the Massachusetts State House, and to four of her colleagues in conservation for help.

In an effort to save the Mill, the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust Inc., a nonprofit charitable educational trust, was formed by four Arlington Conservation Commission members: Patricia C. Fitzmaurice (1923-2001), Doris Atwater Bouwensch, the Honorable Rudolph Kass, and David D. Wallace.

The purpose of the Trust was, and is, to raise funds to preserve the Mill buildings, to maintain the production of oval frames, and to exhibit the Mill’s collections and traditions. This was apparently the first case of grassroots historic industrial preservation in America.

On January 16, 1970, the Old Schwamb Mill was acquired by the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust Inc. with contributed funds from two Boston foundations, a Cambridge bank, and several individual donors. The Trust appointed Patricia C. Fitzmaurice as Managing Trustee, a position which she held until her death in 2001.

During the years following the acquisition, frame makers working at the Mill have included:

David W. Graf (our current artisan), Melissa Carr (current apprentice to David Graf), David Hogan, Walter Horak, Ronald J. McLellan (1924-1995), Gordon E. Richardson (1902-1990), and Gordon Whitermore.

In 1970, the Old Schwamb Mill created a Craft Center which offered courses in Silver Jewelry Making, Printmaking, Pottery and Ceramics, Clay Sculpture and Pottery, Furniture Refinishing, and Waste Conversion.

In 1971, the Theodore Schwamb Mill closed. That property was acquired by another immigrant entrepreneur, John P. Mirak, partially for use by his automobile dealership and partially for lease to numerous small businesses.

That same year, the Old Schwamb Mill was listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior for the Mill’s national historical significance.

In 1976, at the request of the Commandant of the First Naval District, artisans from the Old Schwamb Mill made an oak jewel chest from timbers of the USS Constitution. J. William Middendorf II, Secretary of the United States Navy, gave the chest to Queen Elizabeth II at the time of her bicentennial visit to Boston.

In 1981, artisans of the Old Schwamb Mill produced thirteen oval display cases as part of the renovation of the throne room in the Iolani Palace in Hawaii. The cases are used to display the jewels which kings, queens, and emperors gave to the Hawaiian royalty during their travels covering a period of 15 years. Each case has an oval shape and has a royal crest at the top. The oval cases were carved out of seasoned poplar. The crests were carved out of maple from the town of Wellesley.

Patricia C. Fitzmaurice received the 25th Anniversary Preservation Award from the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1988 for her preservation activities in connection with the Old Schwamb Mill. In 2000, Patricia Fitzmaurice received the Ayer Award from the Bay State Historical League for being “a visionary preservationist who recognized the historical and educational value of the Old Schwamb Mill property in Arlington in 1969 and since then has worked tirelessly in leading efforts to fulfill its mission.”