The great changes that befell the village of Hillsgrove with the building of the state airport were matched by those brought about by the tremendous impact of industrialization along Jefferson Boulevard.
Industry: Then & Now
Modern industry came to Hillsgrove for many of the same reasons that decided Thomas Jefferson Hill to build his Rhode Island Malleable Iron Works and Elizabeth Mill there. Hill found the "Plains", as the region was once called, underdeveloped and the land reasonably priced. City planners in the mid twentieth century saw the same advantages.
The far-sighted T. J. Hill knew the railroad would go through the area and that it would stop for freight, giving him easy access to the markets he needed for his goods. In the same manner, Warwick's city administrators knew I 95 was coming through Hillsgrove and that there would be access ramps to Jefferson Boulevard providing the section with a main artery to customers all along the Interstate Highway. Today, with the proposed railroad stop at the airport, Hillsgrove will be even more readily accessible to the rest of New England and the country. In T. J. Hill's era and in modern times, Warwick officials viewed the coming of industry as a boon for the town and a relief to taxpayers.
Some of the past still remains
Despite the very rapid growth and the changes that occurred in Hillsgrove in the last half of the twentieth century, surprisingly enough, the basic mill and mill village is still visually evident. The airport has, of course, greatly altered Post Road but along Greystone, Thurber, Kilvert and Cottage Streets, as well as part of Jefferson Boulevard, mill houses still exist and remind us of the village that once was.
One of the reasons that so much of Hillsgrove has remained so intact until the close of the century is because the Elizabeth Mill sold its mill houses to citizens in the area in 1926, when it ceased operations as a textile mill. Once the workers acquired the property, they were able to maintain and modernize the houses to meet their needs. Some of these houses, such as those on Greystone Street, were built in 1867 by carpenters French and MacKenzie, who were noted for their Greek Revival style dwellings. Many of these houses have not only survived, but have been turned into excellent modern homes.
Houses along Jefferson Boulevard that were once part of Hill's paternalistic village are good examples of the types of houses that were purchased by those who lived in the village and found their roots there. One of these homes is at 878 Jefferson Boulevard and was owned by the late Joseph and Violet McKeon. Joseph McKeon, who was a science teacher and supervisor in the Warwick school system had lived in the house for most of his life. The house was purchased by Joe's father, Andrew, at an auction in 1930. Before moving into this house,the McKeon's lived in the village on Cottage St.
Like so many others who still live in the village today, the McKeon's worked in either the Elizabeth Mill or the R.I. Malleable Iron Works. Joe's mother, Mary Louise Lafleur McKeon, worked in the Elizabeth Mill when she was only nine years old. Child labor laws in Rhode Island's mills either were non existent or were not adhered to. Joe's father, Andrew, was a skilled "molder" at the Iron Works.
When Joe McKeon was a boy delivering papers in the village, common usage divided Hillsgrove into three sections called, 'foundry village', 'mill village', and 'dogtown' (as there were so many families that had dogs there). The airport didn't exist then and the area consisted of a great deal of woods and swamps. In a 1992 interview, McKeon noted that, "There was nothing more than a winding horse path through woods from the pond near Wethersfield Commons' entrance today, to the Greenwood Inn." McKeon also remembered the way Jefferson Boulevard looked before the maple trees were taken down to widen the road. Thomas Jefferson Hill had planted these trees along each side of the dirt road that passed through the village and past the mill. The road was called Jefferson Avenue then and, because of the trees, the village was called Hill's Grove.
With the increasing number of automobiles seeking parking space at T. F. Green, the old R. I. Malleable Iron facility had been used to create valet parking. The works has been demolished and only the façade remains. A modern restaurant should be on the site in the near future.
Photo by Don D’Amato