Pontiac struggles through Depression and War

During the 1930s and 1940s, Warwick's transition from town to city was not easy. The municipal government struggled through the poverty of the Great Depression, the devastation of the Hurricane of 1938, and the trauma of World War II.

Politics and Transition

Warwick's first mayor, Republican Pierce Brereton, was succeeded by Democrat John O'Brien and, in 1936, by Republican Albert Ruerat, who held the office until 1948. Ruerat's long tenure witnessed the difficult process of uniting a number of 19th century villages into a suburban city. While zoned for residential, farming, business, and industrial districts, the increased migration to Warwick, and other problems created by the Depression and the Hurricane, often turned well-intended plans into haphazard growth. This often resulted in the destruction of some of Warwick's finest attractions, to the detriment of villages such as Pontiac.

The Good and the Bad of Depression Life in Pontiac

During most of the thirties, villagers were preoccupied with economic conditions rather than efforts to preserve the historical fabric of the village. As there was less and less work at the Pontiac Mills, the search for employment became more acute and rumors of hiring drew many of the later arrivals, such as the Italian immigrants, from Pontiac to Natick or to Apponaug where the mills were still operating. More often than not, the few jobs available were already taken and despair increased.

Families, to cut expenses, often shared housing as they had done earlier in the century when the immigrants first arrived in the village. As a result, family units became even closer than they had been in the 1920s. Neighborhood stores, wherever possible, carried many of the villagers on credit and a great deal of sharing of goods and hope for the future took place. While very few children in the section of Pontiac below the railroad tracks had bicycles, nearly all had some type of wagon that they could take to the mill dump in hopes of finding enough scrap metal or other junk to sell to the "rag man." While very few remember the horse and buggy or the grocery wagons, nearly all who lived through the 1930s can recall the "rag man." Another common memory was that of making beer. Long after prohibition was repealed in 1933, economic hardships dictated that home made beer and wine were still common beverages on many tables in Pontiac and the mill villages of Warwick and West Warwick.

All was not work with no play, however, as this was the time of great interest and active participation in sports of all types. During this period, baseball ruled supreme and heated arguments over the relative merits of the Red Sox and Yankees could be heard in the mills, stores and schools in the area. Long before "little leagues" and organized sports, sandlot baseball, football, and soccer were popular. Mrs. Hattie Anderson, who was interviewed in 1974 by Margie Bucheit for a Warwick Beacon article, recalled winter sports and had fond memories of members of the Stafford family. She described the Staffords as being "marvelous skaters." Nearly everyone who lived in the village in the 1930s has some fond memories of the sports and games in the pre-television era when children were both seen and heard as they played in the streets and empty lots in the village.

The need to record Warwick’s history

During Mayor Albert Ruerat's administration, Warwick's population soared from 27,000 to nearly 40,000. This created a demand for more housing, more adequate schools, police and fire departments, and other improvements. During one of his early terms, Ruerat's opponent was able to correctly jibe at him that while Warwick claimed to be a city, one couldn't even "buy a suit of clothes" within its limits. In an attempt to bring the city closer, and to celebrate its past, the Ruerat Administration made plans to sponsor a History of Warwick. A committee was selected in 1941 and plans were made to publish a book for the 300th anniversary of Warwick's founding. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and the war, which followed, saw the project postponed and all but forgotten. It was not until fifty years later that the history of Warwick was finally written by the author of this column. This book, Warwick’s 350 Year Heritage has been sold out. In 2001 an updated version of the history has been written by Don D’Amato, published by the Arcadia Publishing Company and on sale at a number of bookstores.

The story of Pontiac during the War Years will be continued.

As Warwick grew, so did its police force. Forrest Sprague, (seen here with Mayor Darius Goff) who joined the force in 1920, remembered the time before police cars and radios. Sprague saw the force become modernized while he was chief (1945-59).

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