Lesson Plan

The Rhode Island System of Mill Villages

Lesson Plan Image
Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
State Standards:
HP 1; HP 1 (3-4)-1; HP 2; HP 2-2; HP 2 (3-4)-3; HP 3; HP 3-1;
Additional Standards:
D2.Eco.3.3-5; D2.Eco.4.3-5; E 1 (3-4) –1; E 2 (K-2) – 2; D2.Geo.1.3-5; D2.Geo.2.3-5; D2.Geo.8.3-5; D2.His.1.3-5; D2.His.16.3-5
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations.

Essential Question

How did the Rhode Island factory system develop the community around Ashton Mill?


1) Students will identify what the Rhode Island System is and how it is different from the Lowell System.

2) Students will analyze a primary source map about the village of Ashton.

3) Students will design a map of the community they live in, complete with a key / legend to designate homes, places of worship, and stores.


About These Materials:  

Rhode Island is a state with an extensive history, as it is part of the original thirteen colonies owned by England and played a crucial role in the development of America as a nation. Rhode Island was extremely influential in the United States Industrial Revolution; English immigrant Samuel Slater built a mill that made cotton thread along the Blackstone River Valley area of Rhode Island. With the funding from Moses Brown, this idea began a shift from agriculture to industry throughout parts of New England. Numerous other investors developed mill complexes that dotted Rhode Island’s rivers and utilized water power in new ways. Canals created a new mode of transportation while dams allowed human control of the rivers. This created major changes in how people moved over land and also how people were able to obtain goods and other basic needs. One of those investors was Captain Wilbur Kelly, whose influence in and around the area of Ashton will be the focus of this unit.  

The Rhode Island Historical Society, in partnership with Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, developed academic lessons that can be used on-site at the grounds of the Kelly House and the Ashton Mill complex as well as in the classroom if unavailable to go to the site itself. The project consisted of conducting archival research, reading secondary sources, and local educators creating interactive lessons for students which focus on historical context, ELA strategies, and STEM education. This unit provides a well-rounded learning experience for students at the upper elementary level. It intends to showcase a narrative of Rhode Islanders who used the Blackstone River Valley for commercial purposes. Educators could teach this unit during an exploration of famous Rhode Islanders, the Industrial Revolution, or the study of environment and geography in Rhode Island. 


View this set of videos for an overview of the history of the Wilbur Kelly and Ashton Mills. 

See this timeline of the history of the property from before European contact to the present. 

See this video by the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park about canal construction. 

How to Use These Materials 

The lessons do not need to be completed as a whole or in any particular order. A teacher may decide to teach the lesson on “The Rhode Island System” in the classroom before a class visit to the Kelly House, visit the Kelly House to walk the property and see what they have learned, run the “Testing the Water Quality of the Blackstone River” lesson while at the property, and follow up in the classroom with the “Project Zap” lesson. A teacher may decide to take pieces of one lesson and combine it with another. The lessons are for teachers to use as is fitting for their curriculum. There are endless possibilities. The lessons below give tips for running the lesson at the Kelly House Museum and property and in the classroom. Some of the lessons have additional suggested extension activities to deepen the lesson further. 



  • 11x17 ledger paper 

  • Colored pencils 



This map shows the evolution of Ashton Mill Village over the 19th-century.

Download Ashton Map

This self-guided walking tour utilizes the waysides in the park to help tell the park's story

Download Walking Tour of Park

Lesson Hook/Preview

This lesson gives students the opportunity to learn more about the community of Ashton as well as a chance to see how the community they live in fits into the past and present of Rhode Island. 



1) Give students some background information on the Rhode Island System. All students really need to know about the Rhode Island System is the definition listed above so students can understand that the mill itself created a community around it. 

2) If on-site, lead students on a walking tour of the Kelly House, the Blackstone River, Ashton Mill, and the boarding houses across from the mill. If in the classroom, use the short Google Slide presentation to show the different buildings that make up the community of Ashton. On the board (or an oversized poster paper if on-site), list the types of buildings that make up the mill village community (homes, factory, store, a place for worship, school). 

3) Show students the map of Ashton so they can see where the various buildings were located. 

4) Have students think about the buildings around where they live. Encourage students, if in the classroom, to use Google maps by typing in their address and zooming in and out of the area to get an idea of what is around them. If on-site, have students use their memory of the buildings around their home. 

5) Students will then create a map of their own neighborhood to see how they fit into the community they live in. To add a math component to this activity, students can use a ruler and add a mile marker to their map key / legend. 


Rhode Island System: a strategy for establishing manufacturing communities that involved the creation of mill villages (including housing, churches, and stores) because the mills would employ all or multiple members of a family. The families would move to and live in the mill village to be close to work. This is different from the Lowell System which employed mostly young women who would move away from home to live in factory boarding houses with strict moral codes and rules of behavior.  

Assessment Materials

When students understand their place in the present, they can see where they fit into the past. A sense of community brings a deeper understanding of the past and present.

  1. Besides other places of residence, what types of buildings are near your home? 

  1. Where do the adults in your family work? Do they live close to work or do they live far away? 

  1. Do the adults in your family work in a different town than you live in? A different state? 

  1. How do the adults in your family get to work? Car? Train? Bike? Other way? 

  1. How do you get to school? 

  1. Where does your family go to the store? Is it near where you live? 

  1. What parks are near your home? 

  1. According to the map, what buildings are important in the life of Ashton? 

Enrichment Activities

Extension: Have students compare and contrast the map of Ashton from 1870 with this 1934 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map at the Library of Congress.   

Extension: Use the Audubon Method of Nature Illustration when having students draw their maps if you want them to draw to scale using Google Maps as the base. See this John James Audubon Lesson Plan, Activity 5 for an example of using grid art to draw to scale. 



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Last updated: January 4, 2024