In the 1780s, a visitor traveling through the Blackstone River Valley might have smelled the rich aroma of roasting cacao beans wafting from a small wooden building as they passed through the hamlet of Central Falls. Americans consumed chocolate products with a passion in the late eighteenth century, and for nearly two decades, Central Falls was a center of chocolate production, earning itself the title of “Chocolateville.”
Chocolateville’s namesake mill opened in 1782, operated by confectioner William Wheat. Wheat, who had previously established a chocolate-making business in Providence, moved to Central Falls to take advantage of the power provided by the Blackstone River. His chocolate mill was one of America’s earliest water-powered chocolate manufacturing facilities.
Within the mill, imported cacao beans were roasted and ground into a chocolate slurry, with plenty of sugar and spice added for taste, before being shaped into small blocks. Don’t think of a delicious chocolate bar when you imagine these blocks – even after processing, the chocolate of this era was chalky and gritty. Most people purchased chocolate to use in baking or in concocting the fashionable beverage of “drinking chocolate.”
“Drinking chocolate” or “hot chocolate” became enormously popular during the late 1700s; Thomas Jefferson even predicted that it would overtake tea and coffee in usage. In 1773 alone, over 320 tons of cacao beans were imported into the American colonies. By this period hot chocolate was affordable to nearly everyone and was frequently served in coffee houses, where colonists would gather to talk about politics and the news of the day. When colonists boycotted tea during the American Revolution, hot chocolate was favored as an alternative drink.
Chocolate was also sought for its supposed medicinal powers. Thought to aid everything from the stomach to the brain, people used chocolate as a home remedy for illness. At least one doctor in the period even prescribed chocolate with a biscuit as part of one’s preparation for a smallpox inoculation.
Chocolate production connected the small community of Central Falls with the wider Atlantic world. Caribbean and South American slave plantations provided William Wheat, and other New England chocolate manufacturers, with cacao beans. Once processed, Wheat found a ready market for his chocolate in the bustling port cities of Providence and Newport. It’s even thought that chocolate from Wheat’s mill may have fed European soldiers fighting in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars – a far cry from the waters of the Blackstone.
However, Chocolateville didn’t last. The chocolate mill changed ownership in 1784, and as economic tides shifted, cotton production soared in the region – surely a blow to the area’s chocolate aficionados. Following a major flood in the early 1800s, the empty and dilapidated building became known to locals as “the Quail’s Trap.” By around 1834, all traces of the mill that gave “Chocolateville” its name were gone. In recent years, Central Falls has reclaimed its identity and nickname, opening the Chocolate Mill Overlook Park. Visitors can imagine the smell of chocolate drifting over the park, linking the area to its tastiest product.