Our history

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Our history, industrial heritage

Since ancient times, the waters of the Sorgue, both abundant and dependable, have provided the driving force for local crafts and industry. The watercourses allowed the installation of flour mills from the twelfth century onwards. Later, workshops for treating wool and silk were built. they also powered the production of madder, introduced in the eighteenth century in the Vaucluse, this is a plant dye which was a central part of industrial activity in Le Thor, and an authentic sign of prosperity of the towns which benefited from the power of the river Sorgue.

 

The paper industry in Fontaine de Vaucluse

The paper industry dates back to the sixteenth century. Records show that a fire ravaged the paper-makers in the quartier des Martinets in 1562. At that time, the Lord of the Vaucluse, Esprit Sagnet distributed tracts of land to residents of the Vaucluse along the Sorgue, where paper mills, including the Moulin du Pont quickly sprang up. Until the eighteenth century, the machinery was simple — wooden paddle wheels, tripping mallets which pulped rags in stone or wood troughs filled with water. They were almost always family-owned businesses. The women usually did all the unhealthy work, tearing rags from old clothes, linen and dressings sold by hospitals and collected by the Comtat Vaucluse, Vivarais and Dauphiné mills. Despite some technical improvements in the late eighteenth century, production always remained modest.

In 1839, the profitability of paper mills decreased through a lack of investment in modernisation and many changes of ownership ensued. The same year, the first mechanical paper machine made its appearance. Hydraulic turbines, generating electricity, replaced the water wheels. The quality of paper moved on.

At the end of the nineteenth century, to ensure the survival of the paper mills, foreign capital was required. The last two mills were updated and modernised and techniques evolved. The different varieties of paper multiplied, with tissue paper, silk paper, and cigarette papers being the pride of Vaucluse.

The great depression of the 1930s put an abrupt end to a period of flourishing economic activity.

After the war, in 1960, international competition became too fierce and the paper industry in the valley of Vaucluse came to an end. The last paper mill closed in 1968.

Today in Fontaine de Vaucluse, it is still possible to visit “Le moulin à papier” which has resumed activity for demonstration purposes, and manufactures paper as they did in the eighteenth century. The paper mill is powered by a 48 blade water wheel, two metres wide and seven in diameter. It can be seen at Chemin de la Fontaine - 84800 Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. Admission is free.

 

 

Water wheels

The natural energy of the living waters of the Sorgue encouraged the establishment of many early industrial activities. The city had up to sixty-six wheels mounted on its waterways at one time. Watermills are reported in texts from the twelfth century, being used to grind wheat without doubt, but as early as the 13th century the textile industry was already present, and by the end of the Avignon papacy paper mills, along with silk and madder-dye production were highly active, as can be seen by the Garancine water wheel next to the bridge at Le Thor.

The waters of the Sorgue have provided the driving force for manufacturing since very ancient times. In the thirteenth century, the so-called “blanquets”, sheets fabricated in the region were highly appreciated for bed linen - a sort of continental quilt of the age!.

Today, seventeen water wheels remain spread over the many branches of the Sorgue's waterways. These wheels are little more than decorative, but it is still highly impressive to see them turning.

Each village had its speciality. At L'Isle sur la Sorgue it was silk spinning and dyeing, Le Thor specialised in madder-dye and flour mills, in Fontaine de Vaucluse, paper was made. A special service under the community of municipalities of the Sorgue takes care of the repair and installation of new water wheels.

 

BRUN DE VIAN TIRAN wool

This is the last factory in the Isle, in the same family since 1808, and carries out the whole chain of production — spinning, weaving and finishing of blankets, throws, quilts, stoles and shawls, all selected from high quality fibres sourced worldwide: Merino wool, Mohair, Alpaca, Llama, Camel, Cashmere, Silk, Yak... and especially Merinos d'Arles Antique, a local wool considered the finest in Europe, an exclusive product by Brun De Vian Tiran.

The factory is not open to the public, but there is a showroom and shop at

8, place Ferdinand Buisson

84800 L'Isle sur la Sorgue

 

 

The Noria water wheel at Châteauneuf de Gadagne

Châteauneuf de Gadagne has the privilege of being home to a “Noria” in the grounds of the Château de la Chapelle. This is the ancestor of modern hydraulic machines, and it is very rare to see one still in working condition. The device consists of a chain of buckets that descend to draw water, which are then hauled up and poured into a basin, from where it flows into a channel-trough for watering flowers and vegetables. The chain is built using a variety of gears, united by a horizontal “tree.” At the dawn of civilisation, similar machines were used for irrigation and were powered by oxen, turning all day long.

The Provençal name for a “Noria” is “Pouzaraque”, which comes from the words pouso: “to draw” and raca: “to vomit”. The machine drew water from the river and would then “vomit” it into in ponds and canals to feed the gardens of the Château!

 

 

Wash houses

In Isle sur la Sorgue you will find numerous old “wash-houses” (called laveries) on the banks of the the canals. At the Quai Jean Jaures, the Bassin Bouïgas, the Esplanade Robert Vasse, on Quai de la Caridad, the Lices Berthelot, le Portalet, Avenue Fabre Sérignan and finally, on the way to Châteauneuf-de-Gadagne. Think back to the washerwomen of yesteryear pummelling away at the laundry at the bottom of the village. While strolling through the narrow streets, and along the ramparts, at the top of the village there is yet another wash-house — they're everywhere!

 

In Saumane you can admire two classic examples of the wash-house architectural style beneath the belfry.