Loren King for The Boston Globe
ATTLEBORO — Once nationally famous for jewelry manufacturing, the city of Attleboro is perhaps now best known — if it’s known at all — for the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette, which for decades has drawn visitors to its annual Christmas Festival of Lights. But Attleboro also boasts two small but worthy museums in its downtown: The Attleboro Arts Museum and the Attleboro Area Industrial Museum Inc., an impressive example of how this Southeastern Massachusetts city is using its past as an industrial hub to educate a new generation as it preserves a piece of history.
The AAIM (42 Union St.) is housed in the former Attleboro Refining Co., built in 1899 and cited as the first refinery in New England to adapt the electrolytic process to treat jewelers’ scrap metal. The vast building with its high ceilings, refurbished after the refinery ceased operating in 1973 (the museum opened two years later), is considered the most important artifact of the museum.
Entering the ground level space is a little like stepping into your proud grandfather’s well-organized workshop. Machines for cutting and engraving, and the objects they produced, with information detailing the process, are charmingly displayed among mannequins that represent the craftsmen and women who worked in the metal factories. One wall presents brief histories of the refinery and the Attleboro area from its beginnings in textile production in the late 18th century through its heyday in the 20th century as a hub of jewelry making. The nearby museum office, filled with collections of books on the history of jewelry making, city records, and other resources relating to industry and manufacturing, is available for use as a research library.
Anyone who grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts or Rhode Island has no doubt heard of Attleboro’s L.G. Balfour Co., established in 1913 and, until the mid-’90s, the leading manufacturer and seller of class rings and sports championship rings and trophies. The AAIM has a charming exhibit of the company office with a mannequin depicting Lloyd Balfour at his desk surrounded by Balfour products such as World Series rings, military medals, pins, and badges. (Balfour manufactured the first press badge for the Boston Red Sox.)
Another exhibit replicates the studio of Attleboro resident and acclaimed sculptor Philip Kraczkowski (1916-1996), best known for designing the original prototype for the G.I. Joe action figure in 1963. There’s a display case with the artist’s whimsical clay models including one of President Lyndon B. Johnson in rancher regalia, next to a type-written letter on White House stationary signed by first lady Lady Bird Johnson complimenting Kraczkowski on the likeness.
The exhibit “American Souvenirs” is a display case of more than 100 commemorative objects made in Attleboro, such as sterling silver charms, bells, and spoons made for various occasions by the Bates and Klinke Co., Robbins Co., and Watson Newell Co., circa 1900-1960s.
A very knowledgable museum guide offers guided group tours for $4; otherwise the AAIM is free with donations appreciated.
Within walking distance from the AAIM is the Attleboro Arts Museum (86 Park St.), which also offers free admission (a donation is requested) and plenty of free parking. The inviting ground floor space begins with a community gallery that showcases the work of museum members. The large main gallery offers rotating exhibits. One of the most anticipated events is the annual flower show, celebrating its 22nd year March 22-25 and expected to draw upward of 1,000 visitors to the museum to enjoy an early taste of spring. The main gallery will be filled with colorful installations from landscape and floral exhibitors alongside two art exhibits: nature-themed artwork and “Flowers in Fashion: One Small Step Floral Footwear Designs” an exhibit of boots, high heels, sandals, and other footwear, all created with live or dried floral and plant material.
If traveling with youngsters, be sure to check out one of Attleboro’s longest-running and popular attractions: the Capron Park Zoo (201 County St., with plenty of free parking), a well-maintained 8-acre zoo that opened in 1937 and has been drawing families ever since. The grounds of Capron Park outside the zoo boast a rose garden, playground, and picnic tables. Easily navigable for visitors of all ages, the zoo’s attractions, in spacious surroundings, include lions, kangaroos, lemurs, river otters, sloth bears, and the zoo’s signature red pandas.
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