The Knight family replaced the bankrupt Spragues
The impact of the Sprague family on Warwick, and all of Rhode Island,
was tremendous. They were the leading textile manufacturing firm in the
state and they were active in politics as well. This was the dominating
family in the state until the last quarter of the 19th century.
The War Governor
In the same fashion as his uncle, William Sprague had great political ambitions and used his wealth and prestige in the textile industry to fulfill his dreams. William Sprague, following in his uncle's footsteps, was also Governor of Rhode Island and United States Senator. He was governor at the outbreak of hostilities during the Civil War and was the first governor to offer troops to Lincoln for the defense of Washington. Later, William Sprague accompanied the Rhode Island troops during the First Battle of Bull Run and returned to Rhode Island as a hero.
His military ambitions took second place to his political and economic ventures during the war and, as a result, his business flourished. The estate on East Avenue was but one of the many fine properties owned by the Sprague family in the mid nineteenth century. At the close of the Civil War, the Spragues' wealth was estimated at $19 million, and they employed over 12,000 workers. So many Irish and French Catholics worked for the Spragues in 1867 that land in the Natick section was given for the construction of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church.
The Panic of 1873
At about the same time the first Mass was being celebrated at the new church in 1872, the large Sprague Empire began to collapse. William Sprague, the firm's leader, had ventured into politics and, like his uncle, was successful on both the state and the national level. While he achieved great acclaim in many areas, he accumulated a large number of enemies, invested unwisely, and speculated rashly.
Jealousy, business rivalry, poor business practices, politics, and chicanery combined to destroy the largest firm in the state. The fear of the loss of jobs and revenue to Rhode Island was great, but even Senator Nelson Aldrich, with all his power, was unable to stop the Sprague rivals from their destructiveness. The Spragues were unable to satisfy their creditors and their holdings were put in receivership. Modern historians feel that the senator’s enemies, plus incompetence and/or fraud, more than lack of assets brought about the demise of the once powerful textile firm.
A new force in the industry
While the financial panic of 1873 and the disintegration of the Sprague Empire left the textile industry in New England badly shaken, it was only a temporary setback. By 1875, trustee Zachariah Chafee had sold most of the Sprague holdings. Much of the property was eventually acquired by another important textile family, the Knights. They came into possession of many of Sprague's mills, mill housing, company stores and large farms.
The ascendancy of the Knight Company
In a relatively short time, the owners of the firm of B.B. & R. Knight were able to use their great business skill to forge an even greater textile company. In 1883, the Knights purchased the four Natick mills for $200,000 from the Union Company, which represented the creditors of the Spragues. In the following year, the Knights bought the Spragues' Arctic Mill, one of the finest in the state, for $175,000.
Along with the mills, the Knight brothers also purchased much of the land once owned by the Spragues. In 1875, the "mansion estate near the village of Natick" came into their possession. They converted the East Avenue homestead of Thomas Holden and "old" Governor Sprague into a model "gentleman's farm" and showplace.
The man responsible for this conversion was Robert Knight. It was he who first involved the family in the textile industry. His was the classic American story of the poor boy who worked hard and became rich. From humble beginnings on a small farm in 1826, he had acquired, by the time of his death in 1912, a fortune estimated at $50 million.
The story of the Knight estate will be continued.
When the Sprague Empire collapsed, the Knight family became the dominant entity in Rhode Island’s textile industry. Much of the success of this family is due to the genius of Robert Knight who rose from simple beginnings to one of he most powerful and wealthy men in the United States.