By Marianne Salza
Along the edge of Rumney Marsh in the late 19th Century, Slade’s Mill was bustling. The tidal-powered factory on the creek, with its rooms fragrant with the wafting aroma of exotic spices – paprika from Spain and ginger from the Orient – was where the spice grinding industry originated.
“It was here, in an old Massachusetts mill that the most interesting step in the distribution of spices began,” said educator and historian, Jeff Pearlman. “Inside Slade’s Mill the air was golden brown from grindings of pure spices.”
During the Bellingham-Cary House Association Annual Meeting on April 27, Pearlman presented a timeline of Slade’s Tidewater Mill, explaining the connections between Revere and Chelsea. Pearlman is a member of the Revere Society for Cultural and Historic Preservation, a non-profit organization that protects and promotes the history of the Revere community.
The Town of Chelsea originally consisted of four farms, the first of which was purchased by Henry Slade, who erected the first church, bank, and City Hall on the waterfront land. In 1734, Slade began grinding tobacco and corn in the mill.
“The charter states the following,” began Pearlman. “’This mill must at all times hold itself in the readiness to grind corn for any citizen of Chelsea, provided that the corn is raised in Chelsea.’”
In 1837, Slade’s sons, David and Levi, conceived the idea of grinding spices in the mill, and began importing spices from around the world. By 1850, D and L Slade Company became the largest producer of spices in New England.
“The boys ground up a half barrel of cinnamon, slung the barrel between two poles, and trudged across the marsh to Boston,” Pearlman explained. “The cinnamon was sold to grocers, and a new industry was born: the business of spice grinding.”
First, the spices passed through magnetized steel plates to remove foreign objects, such as nails and wire. Spices were then pulverized into fine powders beneath grinding rolls. Next, the powder was lifted into continuous buckets, sifted, and loaded into barrels that were delivered to packing plants in Boston.
“Spices were not only used to stimulate jaded appetites; but their sweet, pungent odor made them useful as medicine and deodorants,” mentioned Pearlman. “Up to this time, spice had been sold to the housewife whole, and each had a hand-grinder.”
The mill was refurbished in 1918 following a fire and acquired by Bell Seasonings. In 1932, the mill was converted to electric power, and operated until July 1, 1976.
Slade’s Mill is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building was renovated in 2004, and today, Slade’s Mill Apartments contains 18 studio and one bedroom units. A museum on the ground floor exhibits original machinery, photographs, and a spice cabinet with glass and metal Slade’s and Bell containers.
“Spices are now a common household necessity. No longer are they counted as the choicest possession of the wealthy,” said Pearlman. “Men and women live longer in a spice-laden atmosphere. Perhaps there is something in the theory that spices have a beneficial effect on health and appetite of the human race. I wonder where the saying, ‘Spice of life,’ came from.”