Apponaug: The 19th century municipal center
The textile industry had a profound influence on both the economic and demographic development of Warwick, and especially of Apponaug. The mills meant jobs and jobs meant an influx of workers from the farms and later from Ireland, French Canada, Sweden and Italy. Apponaug needed more houses, stores, hotels and churches. Craftsmen of all kinds came to the village and prosperity seemed a normal part of life. This, of course, changed by the middle of the twentieth century.
While the mills were of the utmost importance in creating the village of Apponaug, the growing significance of the area as Warwick's municipal center in the 19th century had an impact as well.
The need for a Town House
From the very early Colonial period, the desire for a town house was evident. Early records indicate that in 1647, only 5 years after the town was founded, Town Councilmen were selected and John Warner was chosen as clerk. Meetings were to be held on "ye first Monday of every month" and, by 1652, the place of meeting was at the "house of John Warner." As early as 1655 "...Mr. John Weeks, Mr. Ezekiell Holliman and John Grene are deputed to lay out land for a Towne house and prison.... " In 1665, the site for the buildings was to be on Peter Buzecott's land near present day Economy Ave. and Conimicut Point.
King Philip’s War
The records show no indication of any town houses built at this time and if any were erected they were burned for, in 1675, Warwick felt the full brunt of King Philip's War. Despite the fact that Warwick had relatively good relations with the Narragansett Indians and did not participate in the struggle at the Great Swamp, the town’s history was seriously interrupted. When Canonicus, the chief sachem of the Narragansetts, sought in vain to drive the English settlers from Rhode Island, he turned his fury on all who were in the area. Most of Warwick’s citizens, including Samuel Gorton, now an octogenarian, fled to the safety of the islands. The early Warwick settlers who had defied oppression from Massachusetts Bay Colony and had managed to overcome a hostile environment now suffered from a war not of their making. As the Narragansett Indians moved from South County toward Providence, all buildings in Warwick, with the exception of Thomas Greene's stone castle, were destroyed. When the war was over, the settlers returned to try again to establish them selves in the land they had chosen. With the defeat of the once powerful Narragansett tribe, the second generation of settlers found it natural to move toward the western area where land was plentiful and the Pawtuxet River supplied power for sawmills and gristmills.
The use of taverns for town meetings
In 1715-1716, at a Town meeting which was held at the house of Capt. James Carder, it was determined that the school house built upon the town orchard near present day Sandy Lane and West Shore Road be "surrendered up to be the use of the towne for towne meetings upon occasions….” By the end of the 18th century, the schoolhouse was gone and the town meetings were held at various taverns or inns. This was common practice in many areas of Rhode Island as taverns were among the few establishments that contained a room large enough for public meetings. Tavern owners vied for the right to have meetings and often bid for the privilege. Oliver Payson Fuller, in his 1875 History of Warwick comments, "The benefits accruing to the successful bidder were probably derived from the increased amount of liquor that would be sold upon the premises during the meetings.”
The British Blockade
The initial phase in the development of the town began when the administrative center of Warwick moved westward from the original linear villages along the coast at Old Warwick. This came about during the Revolutionary War when the British stopped the ferry that ran from Warwick Neck to Providence and Newport, thereby interrupting the old mail and primary trade routes. With this main artery blocked, the old Pequot Trail ( Post Road), which ran through Apponaug, became the most important route. Apponaug, which had been of some significance as a Colonial port and as the site of a fulling mill and a gristmill, now became the focus of Warwick’s trade and industry.
Early 19th century buildings
As the town population grew in the early 19th century from 2,532 in 1800 to 5,529 in 1830, the western section, which included the area that is now West Warwick, witnessed the greatest growth. In 1834, Apponaug, as both the economic and geographic center, was the natural selection for the permanent town house and town clerk's office. The old buildings, built in 1834-35, were on the site now occupied by City Hall. They included the town house, clerk's office, and outbuildings used to shelter horses and wagons. They remained there until the new Town Hall was built in 1892. Their construction during the early 19th century marked an important phase in the development of the town.
A barren, desolate appearance
The growth of the village was rapid, but the work on the Town House grounds was not completed as late as 1849. Oliver Payson Fuller, in his History of Warwick tells us. "…the grounds about the Town House presented a barren desolate appearance; the old ash tree in the rear of the clerk's office being about the only tree of importance upon the grounds." In April of that year, the people of the town must have decided to beautify the area for they ordered the clerk to "procure and set out five elm trees in front of the Town House lot and guard the same against cattle by placing around each tree a strong fence or barricade. The problem of cattle in the streets of the village made it obvious that the town was primarily rural as did the passage of a "sum not exceeding two hundred dollars" to build a shed upon the rear portion of the lot to protect the horses and wagons in inclement weather.
The call for a new and impressive town hall
After the Civil War, Warwick's prosperity continued and it became obvious that the old town house, clerk's office, and out buildings built in 1834-35, could no longer be repaired and had to be replaced. It was years, however, before a new Town Hall would be erected.