The Italians maintained their Old World atmosphere in Pontiac

During much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mill owners sought to keep costs down and profits high by hiring cheap labor. As a result, by the 1930s, Pontiac Village had become host to a number of immigrant groups. The Irish were fairly well established there by mid century and, during the period following the Civil War, they were joined by French Canadians. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the impact of the Swedish immigrants became obvious as many left Vastergotland and Gottenburg to settle in Pontiac.

The Italian Immigration

By the turn of the century, a tremendous wave of immigration began which added the Italians to Pontiac's growing number of foreign-born workers. Carmela E. Santoro, in her The Italians in Rhode Island, notes that while Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine mariner, led the first recorded European visit to Rhode Island in 1524, the real impact of the Italians came nearly four centuries later. She notes, "Large scale Italian immigration to Rhode Island did not begin until the late nineteenth century." Any attempt to determine the number of Italians in Rhode Island before 1850 is difficult as nativity information was not collected in the federal census before that time.

From Fornelli to the Pawtuxet Valley

The records show that by 1900 there were nearly 9,000 residents who were born in Italy. Charles Carroll, author of Rhode Island, Three Centuries of Democracy, tells us, "An impressive immigration of Italians during the next decade carried the number of residents of Rhode Island born in Italy to 27,287 in 1910." Most of those who took part in the great migration from 1898 to 1932 were from southern Italy and, while they were predominantly farmers, they came to work in the mills. Many of those who settled in the Pawtuxet Valley were hired by B. B. & R. Knight Company mills in Natick and Pontiac.

They came from Fornelli, a walled medieval town in the Campobasso Province of Italy, about fifty miles north of Naples. One typical Italian immigrant from Campobasso was Antonio DiFranco, who came to Natick in 1904 when he was twelve years old. He worked in the mills when the average weekly take home pay for textile workers was $14. In most mills of the Pawtuxet Valley, the Italian immigrants averaged less, often getting only $10.00 per week. They lived in company housing where the rent was low, approximately $1.25 per week.
Carroll in his encyclopedic work points out that, "Even low wages, measured by American standards, were high wages to Italians." "The Italians," he adds, "were frugal in habit and taste...." They adjusted their expenditures to their earnings, and often more than one family would share a house.

Below the Tracks

During World War I and the period immediately following it, the textile industry boomed in Pontiac, Apponaug, and Natick as war contracts brought the factories in the Pawtuxet Valley to full production. The section of Pontiac below the tracks, on what was then Railroad Street and is now West Natick Road, was inhabited by Italian and French Canadian workers, most of whom lived in company houses and paid rent to the B. B. & R. Knight Company. As in these areas and in sections of Natick, so many Italian immigrants came that they were able to establish a culture unique to the area. Carroll notes, "The Italian sections maintained an Old World atmosphere; the shopkeepers offered Italian foods for sale, filling the windows with piles of hard cheeses and rows of fresh cream cheeses, with fresh and dried sausages and other meats fresh cut or cured in Italian fashion.…”

The grocery store very often was the center of village life for the immigrants. Here, the "old timers" would often congregate to gossip, tell stories of their adventures, or reminisce about the "old days" in the "old country." Often, news of the village in Italy or of relatives was transmitted here as well.

The story of Pontiac Village and its people will be continued.


Mama, Papa and Jeff Santille on the porch of their store in Pontiac. The store once housed the Fortunate Finds bookstore which specialized in Rhode Island materials and which attracted. Noted Rhode Island Historians.
Courtesy of Millie Longo

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