The Knights build a model farm on East Avenue
When the B. B. & R. Knight Company acquired the mills and other
holdings of the A & W Sprague Manufacturing Company in the Natick
Area, they also obtained possession of the lovely 200 acre Sprague farm
on East Avenue.
Robert Knight’s humble beginnings
The man primarily responsible for developing the farm into one of the most important cattle and horse breeding businesses in the state was Robert Knight, one of the principal owners of the B. B. and R. Knight Company. Robert Knight's story and success is very much like the typical Horatio Alger success story. Knight, while not starting life in rags, was certainly a poor farmer in the early part of the century and became a millionaire by the end of the 19th century.
He had his beginnings on a small farm in 1826, and as a young man he had worked for the Spragues in their Cranston Print Works and later at the Harris Mill in Phenix. Dissatisfied with the low wages and long hours as a minor clerk, Knight decided to better his material prospects. By diligently saving part of his wages he was able to advance his education. He attended the Pawcatuck Academy and for a short time taught school in Exeter. Disillusioned in that profession, he left to work as a clerk in John H. Clark's mill store at Arnold's Bridge (later Pontiac) for $8 per month and board.
Knight's opportunity to own his own business came when John Clark decided to enter politics in 1850. Clark sold his mills to Robert Knight and Zechariah Parker for $40,000. Within a short time, Robert Knight contacted his brother, Benjamin Brayton Knight, a prosperous flour and grain merchant, and offered him a partnership. Together the Knights were able to buy Parker's share in the mill. The mill and village, once called Arnold's Bridge and later Clarkesville, was renamed Pontiac by the Knights.
Their success was phenomenal as they purchased many of the Sprague mills and consolidated and expanded. By the time of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the firm was described as, "one corporation, the largest in the world, renders its dozen villages musical with the hum of 421,000 spindles and makes them beautiful by the happiness of more than 7,000 operatives." During much of the nineteenth century, the Knights were very prosperous as the brothers worked well together. Benjamin Brayton Knight, with his keen business sense, attended to the firm's finances while Robert Knight took care of the actual manufacturing of cloth.
The Knight Farm’s prize livestock
This was the era of "paternalistic" mill villages in the Pawtuxet Valley. The workers lived in tenements built for them by the owners, paid rent to the company, and often shopped in the company stores for food raised on the company farms. One of these farms was the one located on East Avenue. Robert Knight's second major interest turned to farming and developing superior livestock. When he saw the fine herd of Holstein cattle owned by Emanuel Rose of Cranston, he bought the entire herd and then gave Rose a lifetime job of caring for them. In time he added purebred swine and horses, and became known as a leading breeder of livestock.
Knight's sons and grandson inherited his interests. His son, Webster Knight (1854 1933), learned the textile industry and gradually assumed control of B.B. & R. Knight Co. In 1881, he married Sarah W. Lippitt, also of a leading manufacturing family in the Pawtuxet Valley, and made his home in Warwick. Webster Knight felt that it was part of his duty and destiny to take an active part in Warwick politics. Like his ancestors, he sought to continue with the paternalistic role the family had in controlling the lives of the citizens of Warwick. Before his death, he learned that the time of paternalism had passed and so, too, had the period of the passive voter.
The story of the Knight Farm on East Avenue will be continued.
O. P. Fuller in his 1875 History of Warwick used this drawing to show the Pontiac Mill in its early stages.