The Knights take over Clarksville
In tracing the development of Pontiac village, Oliver Payson Fuller, in his History of Warwick , takes great pains to describe the origins of the various names the village once had. Writing in 1875, Fuller explains that the village was called "Arnold's Bridge" during the early part of the nineteenth century because of the various interests and mills the Arnolds had there. In 1827, the Arnolds sold their land and some of the rights to the water-power to Rice A. Brown, Jonathan Knowles and Samuel Fenner. These men ran the mills with about twenty looms which wove coarse sheeting. Difficult times came to the textile industry in 1829, however, and the manufacturing operation at Arnold's Bridge failed.
John H. Clark
In 1830, John H. Clark purchased the land at auction and soon after bought the remaining mills still owned by the Arnolds. Clark was very successful and within a few years the village of Arnold's Bridge was more often called Clarksville. Clark, in 1832, built a stone factory for weaving and in 1834, constructed a large bleachery. Clark expanded both the weaving operation and teh bleachery during the next decade and also operated a company store for his workers. O.P. Fuller credits Clark with bringing the name Pontiac to the village. He explains: "Pontiac was the name of a celebrated Indian chief, and was styled 'The King and Lord of all the Northwest." Mr. Clark, while out in Michigan, saw the picture of the old chief, Pontiac, and on his return had it engraved, to be used as a label on his goods.
Clark, a very competent politician as well as a successful mill owner, decided to devote more time to politics and in 1850 agreed to sell his interests in Clarksville. The mills were purchased by Zachariah Parker and Robert Knight for $40,000. Within a short time, Robert Knight contacted his brother, Benjamin Brayton Knight, and offered him a partnership. Benjamin was a prosperous flour and grain merchant and together the Knights were able to buy Parker's share in the mill. This was the beginning of the B.B. & R. Knight Company which dominated the textile industry in Rhode Island for over fifty years.
From Rags to Riches
The man most responsible for this success of the Knight company was Robert Knight. It was he who first involved the family in the textile industry. His was the classic American story of the poor boy who worked hard and became rich. From humber beginnings on a small farm by 1826 he had acquired a fortune estimate at $50 million. As a young man he had worked for the Spragues in their Cranston Print Works and later at the Harris Mill in Coventry. Dissatisfied with the low wages and long hours, Knight saved enough of his meager salary to attend the Pawcatuck Academy and for a short time taught school in Exeter. Disillusioned in that profession, he left to work as a clerk in John H. Clark's mill store at Arnold's Bridge for $8 per month and board.
By 1858, the Knights enlarged the bleachery and when the old building burned they replaced it with a stone building with over three times the capacity of the old. In 1863, they tore the old stone mill down and replaced it with a handsome new brick mill. The success of the Knights was phenomenal. When the Sprague Empire collapsed after the Panic of 1873, the Knights were in a position to purchase many of the Sprague mills. Robert Knight had the satisfaction of owning the mills where he worked as a young man for very low wages. In time, the Knights consolidated and expanded. Benjamin attended to the firm's finances while Robert took care of the actual manufacturing of cloth. His skills contributed a great deal to the textile industry in terms of remodeling and modernizing.