Memories from Pontiac's "Mortgage Hill"

During the three decades that followed the Strike of 1922, Pontiac witnessed a severe economic depression, a devastating hurricane, and a major world war. These events were of prime significance in the lives of the villagers as they were with most Rhode Islanders and had their effect on Pontiac. In addition to the experiences shared with the entire state, many who lived in Pontiac have special memories that emphasize the unique relationships that existed between villagers and the mills, churches, schools and other villagers.

The Good and the Bad

All recollections of village life during the early twentieth century were not necessarily pleasant as Pontiac residents had their share of tragedy and heartbreak and often wondered if the village would survive the decline of the textile industry.

Throughout the difficult times, there was a strong sense of community as neighbors helped and consoled each other. While many of the close relationships were within ethnic lines, there was also a spirit that crossed the boundaries to ease the pain of the "bad" times and share the joy of the "good" times.

The Swedish Community

For those whose lives revolved around the St. Paul Lutheran Church, many happy memories were evoked by a mention of the church choir, which began in the late nineteenth century. The joy of singing with or listening to the choir was an event anticipated with pleasure. For many residents of "mortgage hill," as the Swedish community was called, some of the happiest times revolved around the Sunday School where the children studied the Bible and learned the Swedish language. Many of the Swedish immigrants at first lived in the boarding houses and found that the lodges and fraternal organizations in and around Pontiac not only provided them with their chief source of recreation and social activities, but gave them a sense of belonging as well.

Recreation for All

During the early twentieth century the mill sponsored a "men's club" where operatives could go on Friday and Saturday nights to play cards and exchange experiences and ideas. For men, women and children, pleasant memories revolve around the summer concerts of the Pontiac Brass Band, which was founded by the villagers. The band played every Friday night and, along with the special programs at the school and library, gave Pontiac residents a much-needed respite from the pressures of life during the years of economic hardship.

The Tolling of the Bell

Nearly all residents of the village remember with nostalgia the tolling of the mill bell. It rang out to signal the beginning of the workday, the lunch break, the end of the day, and the time for the children to stop playing and return home. Not only did it ring out every hour, but it rang on special occasions as well. One of the best remembered is when the Pontiac Mill bell joined with all the bells of all the churches to ring out the joy of the end of World War II.

Village Identification

Because the village was small and nearly all income was derived from the mills, a special sense of belonging was evident. While it was true that there were ethnic and religious differences, the greater sense of being part of a village community was strong, especially in the period between World War I and World War II. Nearly everyone knew his neighbors, went to the same school, had the same teachers and librarians, shopped in the same stores and shared the joys of graduations and weddings, as well as the sorrow of funerals and illness.

The story of Pontiac will be continued.

1. The early St. Paul Lutheran Church was an integral part of the life of the Swedish Community during much of the first half of the twentieth century.
From the Ruth Pelley collection

2. The Reverend Frank G. Granquist can be seen here with the children and adults who made up the very successful St. Paul Sunday School.
From the Ruth Pelley collection

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