Paternalism, a way of life in Pontiac

In the 1860's, after the Civil War, Pontiac Village's prosperity increased under the guidance of the firm of B.B. & R. Knight. While the financial panic of 1873 and the disintegration of the Sprague Empire left the textile industry in New England badly shaken, it was only a temporary setback. The industry was able to come back and in time other Rhode Island firms replaced the A&W Sprague Company and the villages once again bustled with activity.

Unprecedented expansion

In a relatively short time, the firm of B.B. & R. Knight was able to use its great business skill to forge an even greater textile company than that enjoyed by the Spragues. In 1883, the financial success of the Pontiac Mills enabled the Knights to purchase the four Natick mills for $200,000 from the Union Company, which represented the creditors of the Spragues. In the following year, the Knights bought the Spragues's Arctic Mill, one of the finest in the state, for $175,000.

Their success continued to be phenomenal as they purchased many of the Sprague mills, consolidating some and expanding others. By the time of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the firm was described as "one corporation, the largest in the world, (which) renders its dozen villages musical with the hum of 421,000 spindles and makes them beautiful by the happiness of more than 7,000 operatives."

The Mill Village

Sociologists of the twentieth century have questioned the happiness of mill workers who were often rigidly controlled by the system, not only economically, but socially, morally and politically as well. While the Knights were "paternalistic mill owners" in every sense of the phrase, they did allow the workers more choices in Pontiac than was common in most comparable Rhode Island villages. As in other mill villages in the Pawtuxet Valley, however, Pontiac workers lived in houses built for them by the Knights, paid rent to the company and often shopped in the company stores for food raised on the company farms.

Free Enterprise

In the late nineteenth century, J.R. Cole's History of Washington and Kent Counties tells us that the Knights allowed for some private enterprise at a time when most mill owners frowned on such activity. The reason for this may have been because of the various ethnic backgrounds of many of the mill workers. Cole says Joseph Haddock, who came to Pontiac in 1888, "kept a store formerly the company's store." He adds that "One of the three principal stores of Pontiac is owned and operated by Charles A. Johnson." We learn further from Cole that Charles Johnson was "one of three brothers...who came here from Sweden in 1874." He goes on to say that the two older brothers were in business for themselves but "In January, 1887, Charles A. bought the whole business, which now (1898) includes a grocery, market and general store."

In 1866, additional tenements were built to house the increasing number of workers at the mill. Many of these well constructed 1 1/2 story, gable roofed buildings were designed by Clifton A. Hall, a well-known Providence architect. The Knights, like many other well-intentioned mill owners, believe that the moral and religious well-being of the workers depended upon them and they sought to lead the way in the denomination they believed most appropriate. This was not always the choice of the workers and, as time has shown, this became more obvious.

First Free Will Baptist Church

Prior to the Knights' interest and support for an Episcopal Church in the village, there was the First Free Will Baptist Church. This church was built in 1833 adn was originally located in Greenwood, not far from the present day Greenwood Inn. This early nineteenth century church encountered a great deal of difficulty at its original site. As a result, in 1850, David Arnold, a member of that denomination, gave the Free Will Baptist Church Society land in Pontiac (at a time when the village was still called Arnold's Mills) and the church was moved there. In 1852, the group renamed the church the "Warwick church" and continued in that location for nearly twenty years.

In 1868, their pastor was Elder Toby who was in ill-health and had to resign. The Baptists, left without a pastor, understood that a number of parishioners int eh village were looking with favor upon the All Saints' Church, which was organized in 1869 and supported by the Knights. Realizing they were at a disadvantage in Pontiac, the Warwick church decided to sell their house of worship and unite with the Baptist Church in Apponaug in 1871.

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