World War I drastically changes Pontiac

The new St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church was dedicated in 1917 and the entire village celebrated, never realizing that within the next few years major changes would take place that would transform Pontiac and change the lives of many who lived there.

The War To End All Wars

In 1917, the United States entered World War I and nothing was ever the same again. Like other communities in the state, Warwick bought war bonds, staged patriotic parades, and in general took part in the patriotic zeal to make this "the war to end all wars" and to "make the world safe for democracy."

Boom Times

While Warwick’s young men were serving in Europe, the textile industry boomed in Pontiac, Apponaug, and Natick as war contracts brought the factories in the Pawtuxet Valley to full production. The average weekly take-home pay for textile workers at the end of the war was $14. Not all workers received the same wages, however. Those with skills received the handsome salaries and often discrimination played a role in the awarding of salaries. The Italian immigrants, latecomers to the Valley, averaged less, more than half getting only $10.00 per week.

At the beginning of the 1920s decade, both the church and the village fared well. The handsome church, built by the Kingston Building Co. firm of Providence and beautifully designed by O. Z. Cervin, an architect from Rock Island, Illinois, was tastefully appointed. The exterior of the church was painted white, while inside; the pews, pulpit, altar and woodwork were of dark oak. The stained glass memorial windows complemented the simple Gothic style and the church presented a pleasant and harmonious addition to the village.

More Knight generosity

The Knights, enjoying the prosperity brought about by the war, responded generously in helping the church on a number of occasions. In 1915, Webster Knight and Prescott Knight had promised a tract of land, adjacent to the church, to the congregations of Natick and Pontiac to be used as a burial ground. In 1920, they donated $2000 toward the construction costs of additions and improvements.

The members of the congregation continued with their efforts to raise money for the church. In 1921, Pastor Karl Johansson was able to report, "The spirit of giving has been very great, and money has come in from various directions, so that the congregation has been able to pay all its debts, between seven and eight thousand dollars, which indeed is a great cause for us all to rejoice." It was also in 1921 that the cemetery was dedicated. It was called the Swedish Lutheran Cemetery and later the St. Paul Lutheran Cemetery.

A time for changes

While the church rejoiced in their bounty, it was becoming obvious that very little in Pontiac was ever the same after World War I. Veterans returned home disillusioned and cynical at the failure of Versailles to provide a perfect world, but they also were determined to exercise their rights as citizens. Veterans of all ethnic groups now had a common bond and united to vie for mutual benefits and to defeat "native American" movements.
Women received the right to vote in the state in 1917 and, in 1919, the Prohibition Amendment was introduced. Warwick, which had long sponsored temperance movements, was now divided as large numbers of immigrant workers in the mill villages opposed the concept.

Bad times for the mill workers

While Pontiac was attempting to adjust to the changes, adverse conditions battered the area. In 1918 1919, a very severe winter in which trolley lines were tied up and people were isolated was followed by an influenza epidemic, which especially affected those in the mill villages.

Everyone in Pontiac was shocked and disturbed when it was learned that the Knights had sold their firm to the Consolidated Textile Corporation of New York. The era of paternalism was rapidly coming to a close and, within a short time, Pontiac would be torn by a devastating strike.

Thanks in a large part to the generosity of the Knight family, the St. Paul Lutheran Church was able to establish a cemetery here in 1921.
Photo by Don D’Amato

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