The following is the final installment in Westerly Life’s “Behind the Murals” series, which discusses the history behind all of the recently created murals throughout downtown Westerly. The mural featured depicts historic mills of Westerly and Pawcatuck and can be found on the side of the working man’s club, next to C.C. O’Brien’s Irish Sports Bar and Restaurant in Pawcatuck.
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It has often been said that Rhode Island was at the forefront of the American Industrial Revolution which began shortly after 1800. In fact, Rhode Island’s role in the rise of the textile industry can be traced back to 1790 when Samuel Slater came to Pawtucket and installed the first successful Arkwright cotton-spinning machine, the most up-to-date technology, in America.
The textile industry in Westerly, however, did not flourish until the middle of the 19th Century. At that time, one man had such an impact on the area that the entire neighborhood surrounding where the mill buildings still stand today became known as Stillmanville after the proprietor, O.M. Stillman.
While the parameters of the Stillmanville neighborhood have never been officially defined, the epicenter was undoubtedly the lower portion of Canal Street which runs along the Pawcatuck River, where the Pleasant Street Hill comes to an end. Today, as was the case throughout the 19th Century, the complex is separated into two distinct areas divided by the river.
On the Westerly side of the river stands a complex of buildings currently owned and operated by the Darlington Fabrics Company. On the opposite side of the river, in Pawcatuck, is a large multi-story building that has been abandoned for decades. Despite being essentially condemned, the building lives on as a relic of the neighborhood’s industrial history.
The area once known as Stillmanville is now more commonly known as “the North End” of Westerly. Today, it is among the most densely populated areas of the town, however, at the turn of the 19th Century, the district’s population was a mere 15 residents. Around 1798, a man named Samuel Brand built a woolen mill roughly half a mile north of downtown Westerly, along the Pawcatuck River, where Canal Street runs today. At some point prior to 1820, Brand’s mill was replaced by a mill owned by William Stillman Jr. and Stephen Smith.
In 1806, John Schofield purchased a former sawmill and linseed oil mill constructed by John Congdon on the Pawcatuck side of the river and developed it into a carding and fulling wool mill. Then, in 1827, the Pawcatuck Manufacturing Company developed a canal to increase their hydropower capacity. This canal, which has long since been filled in and built over, is where Canal Street’s name was derived.
The year 1831 was a crucial one for the development of Westerly’s growing textile industry as it was when Orsemus M. Stillman purchased Schofield’s woolen mill in Pawcatuck. Stillman then constructed a new bridge over the river, connecting Schofield’s former mill with the Stillman and Smith mill in Westerly.
Shortly thereafter, the two mills were combined to create a single manufacturing company. In 1848, the original mill buildings were replaced by two three-story red-brick buildings, which survive today. The building on the Westerly side has since been built around, while the Pawcatuck endeavor also remains, albeit in a dilapidated state. O.M. Stillman then purchased several large tracts of land in the area surrounding his mills, eventually developing them into a large mill village which would bear his name.
Beginning in the middle of the 19th Century, Irish, English, and Scottish immigrants, many of whom had prior experience in factories and mills during the United Kingdom’s own industrial revolution, began emigrating to Westerly en masse to secure jobs in the booming textile industry. During this period, buildings began to crop up in Stillmanville. In an 1855 atlas of Westerly, very few buildings can be seen in the area, however, by 1870, there were more than 100 buildings in the neighborhood.
Many of the houses which were constructed during this period were typical of those found in mill villages throughout New England: very near to the industrial center, built close together, and designed with “very little ornamentation.” Despite the lack of ‘ornamentation’ in these homes, it has been noted that “Stillmanville was not a typical corporate-owned and corporate-built mill village characterized by nearly identical workers’ houses.”
These houses were later also popular among the Italian immigrants who came to Westerly in large numbers between 1900 and 1955. The popularity of the Stillmanville/North End among Italian immigrants was due largely to its proximity to both the mills and the granite quarries, the two largest employers of immigrants in the area.
While the influx of immigrant labor was a significant factor in the textile industry’s prolonged period of success in Westerly, another factor worthy of mention is the arrival of the Stonington and Providence Railroad, which stopped in Westerly just a short distance from the Stillmanville Mill. This allowed the companies occupying the mills to load and unload freight from other areas with relative ease.
According to a report produced for the National Register of Historic Places for Westerly’s North End: “Becoming part of an interstate rail network not only facilitated travel for people doing business, visiting, or living in Westerly Village and environs but also gave local manufacturers the distinct advantage of ready access to suppliers of raw materials and to regional and national markets for finished products.”
O.M. Stillman continued to operate his enterprise until 1870 when Jesse L. Moss and Rowse Babcock III acquired an ownership interest in the Stillmanville Mill. The company was renamed the Westerly Woolen Company and continued under the ownership of the same company until the 1880s, despite Babcock’s death in 1872., The mill was then sold to Louis W. and Warren O. Arnold, who retained the Westerly Woolen Company name until the early 20th Century.
In 1918, Frederick F. Fowler, President of the Westerly Textile Company acquired the property, with the intention to use it to produce automobile tire fabric. The exact arrangement of this sale is not known, as Fowler purchased the properties on both sides of the river for $10 dollars and “other valuable considerations.” Regardless, Fowler did not hold the property for long, as he sold it to the Ninigret Mills Company in March 1919. Eventually, the mill properties were sold to the G.C. Moore Company. Today, the plant is still operated by Moore Company in conjunction with Darlington Fabrics.