How times have changed!
After the Elizabeth Mill closed in 1926, the village at Hillsgrove began its period of change from a paternalistic mill village to a modern industrial area. Today, a great number of businesses have located in Hillsgrove, now regarded as a prime industrial area. This successful transition, however, took a lot of time, with much planning and confidence in Warwick's ability to attract industry.
The Way it Was
After the mill closed in 1926 and the Stock Market crashed in 1929, the future of the once prosperous village was bleak. Like so many other sections of the Northeast, the Depression of the 1930s meant difficult times for Hillsgrove and its residents. When the mill closed, the owners allowed many of the former workers to purchase the company houses. While many, for the first time in their lives, owned their own homes, luxury and comfort were still a long time in the future. The late Joseph McKeon, who lived in Hillsgrove all his life, recalls the conditions during the difficult years.
In speaking of the 1930's, McKeon remembered the times clearly. In an interview a number of years ago he said, "The kitchen was the only room with plenty of heat. We had an old black stove and had to heat our water on it." McKeon added that to save on heat, "We closed off rooms in the winter to keep warm."
Even more vivid are the memories of many who still reside in Hillsgrove centering around the good times had there. Many of Joe McKeon's relatives worked at Hillsgrove and lived within walking distance. This helped create a sense of belonging and family that is often sadly lacking in the more modern suburban plats that have grown in Warwick. Some of McKeon's fond memories concern the old post office in Hillsgrove where his brother was once postmaster. After school, Joe would walk home from Lockwood High School, and report to his part time job, which consisted of helping the one armed freight clerk put the mail on a "catch" for the train to pick up as it went through the station.
An important part of village life was playing baseball at the field across from the mill. Jobs were scarce during the 1930s, and McKeon feelt that one of the reasons he was hired by R. I. Malleable Iron Works was that he would play on their team. Later, when McKeon was hired to teach science at Lockwood, this experience helped. All male teachers were expected to perform extracurricular duties, usually in coaching, and Joe served as the assistant baseball coach.
Hillsgrove's Race Track
In the years preceding the airport, Hillsgrove had been well known for its race track, operated by John Collingwood. In addition to having the horse track, called the "fastest half mile in the country," there was also a cement bicycle track in the center of the oval. Collingwood had erected a grandstand for viewing the races which attracted large crowds.
During prohibition, Hillsgrove was also known for its speakeasies. One of the most well known was the Greenwood Inn at the end of Jefferson Boulevard. The Inn had once been a stagecoach stop and then an important railroad station when the Stonington Railroad opened in 1837. Eighty years later, The Greenwood Inn was again attracting customers. Those who remember the time recall that it was a saloon, with no restaurant, and infamous for its fights and rowdy crowds.
One of the positive changes in Hillsgrove occured when Henry and Norma Papa purchased the Greenwood Inn in 1951 and made it a fine family restaurant.
St. Joseph's Hospital Annex
Because Hillsgrove was still considered "out in the country", it was selected as the site for St. Joseph's Hospital Annex. This facility was located at the end of Blackburn Street and was inaugurated to help victims of tuberculosis, a dreaded killer in the early twentieth century.
In the Thirties, Hillsgrove was also becoming well known as a center of entertainment at the Hillsgrove Country Club, where the Sholes Skating Rink is located at the present time. There was dancing every Wednesday and Saturday night to Harold Sheffer's Hillsgrove orchestra and, in addition, there were floor shows and dining facilities. Golf was beginning to come into its own and a nine hole "pitch and put" golf course was added as well as a practice driving range.
The Bourdon Aircraft Company and Holland Brew
After the Elizabeth Mill closed its doors in 1936, the Bourdon Aircraft Company used part of the mills for the manufacture of airplanes, but with only limited success. After the repeal of Prohibition, the premises housed the Consumers Brewing Company which made "Holland Brew," a domestic beer. The beer company gave tours of the brewery which were popular as, at the end of the tour, visitors were invited to sample the company's product.
In 1941, a major change came when the mill was purchased by the Leviton Company. Today, Leviton has closed its doors and the mill is awaiting changes that will bring it into harmony with the twenty-first century.