Pontiac changes during the Depression Years

As the twentieth century progressed, Pontiac felt the impact of the weakening of the textile industry. The strike of 1921 and the economic depression that followed a brief period of prosperity changed the village's concept toward the paternalism that dominated the village at the turn of the century. Thanks to better education and methods of communication, Pontiac's mill workers began to realize that there were alternatives to living in the shadow of the mills.

A new Era begins

The trolley line, which was established in 1910, made it much easier to commute to Providence and Cranston. New immigrants, some of them working in Warwick's mills and others who found it easier to live in Warwick, began to populate the area. Gradually, the close parochial sections of Pontiac began to broaden and become more cosmopolitan. World War I introduced Warwick and Rhode Island into a much larger world, and new problems arose that showed the paternalistic mill villages as dominated by the B. B. & R. Knight Company at a disadvantage. Strikes, layoffs, and outside agitators convinced the workers that they were being discriminated against economically and the great textile industry began to weaken and totter.

Prohibition and Speakeasies

During the early part of the century, the Temperance Movement seemed to have triumphed when the Eighteenth, or Prohibition, Amendment was passed in 1919. It soon became obvious, however, that the law was practically unenforceable. Warwick's small town police force could do very little to stop the speakeasies that quickly came into existence. Many in Pontiac made their own beer, wine, and other intoxicating beverages. Nearby Arctic and sections of Warwick became notorious as a "place to get a drink." It has been said that as one of the illegal establishments was closed by the police, three others opened up.

Dark Clouds and Silver Linings

Of a more threatening nature to most Pontiac residents was the beginning of economic depression. The mills slowed down in their production and jobs were scarce. With very little work being offered, the children in Pontiac, who earlier would have worked in the mills, stayed in school and began taking a greater interest in what was happening in areas beyond the village. Pontiac's young people were growing up in a world of rapid changes and were anxious to be part of the progress being made.

An Airport for Warwick

In 1929, Warwick's Hillsgrove section was selected as the site for the State Airport, again creating the catalyst that would greatly alter the town's environment. The new facility opened on Sept. 26, 1931. Many from Pontiac, young and old, turned out for the festivities that attracted a crowd of over 15,000.

Becoming a city

Warwick's population in 1930 had risen to 23,196, giving rise to a general feeling that the town meeting form of government was no longer adequate. In 1931, Warwick became Rhode Island's eleventh city when its voters approved a charter for a mayor council plan of city government. When Perce Brereton took office as Warwick's first mayor, Warwick was still divided over becoming a city or remaining a small rural community. Pontiac, as Warwick's most clearly identified mill village, was going to be torn by a desire to retain the advantages of the past and still enjoy the benefits of the late twentieth century. Merging two different eras was not an easy task. Pontiac's mills, schools, and churches were changed dramatically in the period that witnessed an economic depression, a hurricane and a major war.

The story of Pontiac during the mid twentieth century will be continued.


One of the most significant changes in Warwick came in the 1930s when the State Airport came into existence. Workers, laid off from the mills, welcomed the opportunity to work on laying the runways in Hillsgrove.
From the Henry A. L. Brown Collection.

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