Warwick’s Villages and Historic Places - Introduction
By Don D'Amato
Today, Warwick, with a population exceeding 86,000, is Rhode Island's second largest city. It is conveniently located near all the major business, cultural and recreation centers of New England. Providence is only ten minutes away; Boston but one hour. Cape Cod can be reached in about seventy-five minutes and the Connecticut Casinos in less than an hour. With the airport, interstate highways and rail service New York is easily reached, as are the ski slopes of the northern states. Warwick is at "The Crossroads of New England."
Warwick's natural beauty along Greenwich Bay, its historical significance and modern potential continue to attract tourists, business, movie producers and those looking for the serenity of a suburban area with the advantages of a modern city. Warwick provides that and more as it has made a dynamic impact on Rhode Island in the late 20th and 21st centuries.
A large part of the city’s significance and charm can be traced back through its more than 370 year history. Thanks to many spirited leaders in both the community and City Hall, Warwick has come to realize that its heritage mirrors that of the state and the country. Warwick, probably more than any other community in Rhode Island, has had many trials and tribulations in its fight to establish the freedoms we so dearly cherish today. Much of the struggle and the success can be found by studying the history of its villages and their impact on the city.
Hopefully, this series of articles on Warwick’s villages and historic places, then and now, will develop into a useful tool in order that we, as well as our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, will have a better understanding of our world. An understanding of the past may help us cherish and preserve the values that have been established and are part of our heritage.
A Village Renaissance
Over the years, we have looked at Warwick’s villages from a number of different points of view. When Oliver Payson Fuller wrote his History of Warwick in 1875, he described Warwick's villages as "...thriving manufacturing villages, strung together like beads upon a string. . ." He notes that they were ". . full of busy industry, nestling along the two branches of the river (Pawtuxet).” His accounts of the villages give us an interesting and informative view of life in 19th century Warwick.
Fuller, of course, wrote before the Town of Warwick was divided in 1913. At that time, seven villages were placed in the Town of West Warwick and the boundary line between the two towns ran through and divided the village of Natick. The remaining areas of Old Warwick, Apponaug, Cowesett, Pontiac and Hill's Grove were clearly recognized as having a certain entity and, as Fuller notes, "...each possessing its peculiar features of interest, and altogether forming a community."
Fuller’s concept and pride in the villages changed by the next century. Warwick has changed dramatically since the time when Fuller wrote his history. As the 20th century progressed, Warwick, deprived of its industrial base by the creation of West Warwick from the western mill villages, placed a great deal of emphasis on attracting industry and commerce while preserving pleasant suburban residential areas. Robert 0. Jones, author of Warwick. Rhode Island, Statewide Historical Preservation Report K-W-1, points out that, "Unfortunately, no attention was paid to the effect of growth on the old villages and open farmland that defined Warwick's environmental character." Jones uses Apponaug village as an example of this neglect, charging that it now, (ie: 1980)"...totally lacks the connotation of pleasurable community life in a small scale civic setting which is evoked by the term 'village'." In 1981, very few would have taken exception to the statement by Jones that, "Apponaug was once truly a village, but its sense of community has been severely impaired by the physical changes made to accommodate the automobile . "
Fortunately for Warwick, a number of civic minded citizens believed, as Jones did, that "The evidence of the past makes Warwick's history an integral part of the daily life of local residents." Jones, in his work, recommended that, "The citizens of Warwick should recognize the value of their community’s heritage, take pride in it, and protect it for future generations to study and enjoy." Dorothy Mayor – Apponaug Activist
This has happened in Warwick as the 1980s progressed. Led by the late Dorothy Mayor, a number of very dedicated individuals, working through the Apponaug Area Improvement Association, the Warwick Museum and the Warwick Preservation Commission, have succeeded in restoring much of the village's pride and have preserved its historical heritage. The success of the Apponaug project might be observed from the envious remarks of a former resident of Arctic. She noted. "When we were kids we were not too happy about coming from a tired mill village such as Arctic. But, we always could take some consolation in saying. 'Well, at least we’re not as bad off as Apponaug. Now, seeing the street lights and the park and other improvements, we have to admit that Apponaug has come a long way."
The work begun by Mrs. Mayor and encouraged by Mayors Flaherty, Donovan, Chafee and Avedisian, tell a pleasant story in an age when too often financial gain has been detrimental to beauty and the environment. In 1980, Dot Mayor, in her introduction to I Remember Apponaug, a collection of paintings depicting life at an earlier age, commented that "...it has been reduced to an unattractive crossroads on the way to Route 95." When asked about the subject of so many of her paintings, Dot has often remarked. "Throughout most of my life, I have had a hate-love relationship with my birthplace. Sometimes I have been proud of it, sometimes ashamed to acknowledge any relation to it... .None of the past generations could have foreseen, although in their time they may have contributed to it, that their village would onetime become a nondescript crossroads on the map."
Dot Mayor also noted that Apponaug was "the home of my parents, my grandparents, and my great grandparents. Each generation must have seen this place, my home, in a different way.…" Dot spent a great deal of time and effort in trying to make Apponaug a pleasant area once again. While it is obvious that it would be impossible to recreate the pleasant 19th century village of Fuller's recollection, Dot Mayor, and many concerned citizens, have made dramatic improvements, not only in the obvious physical appearance of the area, but in the spirit as we1l. Dot noted that Apponaug is now the civic center of the second largest city in the state and while it is no longer the geographic center of the City, it is an historical center. She expressed her feelings by saying. "I hope that it will continue to be used as such. ...I hope good planning will make my village attractive to visitors and residents and that once again it will become a place with a future.”
The success of Apponaug has been echoed again and again in the villages of Conimicut, Pontiac, Hillsgrove and other sections of the city. We hope by placing the history of the villages and historic places on the Internet, we will be helping to increase the interest in Warwick’s rich heritage and make a contribution to its future.