Woonsocket's Original Mill Villages
The City of Woonsocket was formed in 1888 from six mill villages which grew up along the Blackstone River in the area around the Woonsocket Falls. Five of these villages - Social, Jenckesville, Hamlet, Bernon and Globe - originally clustered around the mills of one company. The sixth and largest, Woonsocket Falls, contained the mills of several companies huddled together.
In the late nineteenth century, these six villages began to agitate for political independence from the towns that controlled them - Smithfield and Cumberland. In 1867, the Cumberland villages, including Woonsocket Falls, Social and Jenckesville, officially became the town of Woonsocket. In 1871, the three Smithfield villages, Hamlet, Bernon and Globe, were added to the town establishing Woonsocket's present boundaries. The town of Woonsocket became the city of Woonsocket in 1888.
Woonsocket Falls Village
The Woonsocket Falls Village occupied most of what is now downtown Woonsocket. Market Square was a dense warren of factories from the 1820's to the middle of the present century. Industrial buildings extended along the east side of Main Street as far as City Hall. Below, in the area of the Main Street Bypass, stood more mills.
Water to power the mills around Market Square, on Main Street and below on the bypass was provided by a system of canal like trenches fed from the dam at the falls. Control of the water through the trenches determined how much machinery could be operated and when it could run. These trenches, now neglected, were vital to the economy of Woonsocket and remain a significant feature of its industrial heritage.
The Woonsocket Falls Village, located on the main road and centrally located to the other villages, became the downtown hub and central business district. Banks, stores, hotels, theaters and churches coexisted with textile mills making Main Street the social and commercial center of the city.
Bernon Mill Village
Bernon, though not the largest village in early nineteenth century Woonsocket, was certainly the most ambitious. The owners of the Bernon Mills sought to create a model mill village, beautiful to behold, pleasant to work in and profitable.
Originally known as Danville, Bernon was founded in 1827 when the Russell Manufacturing Company built a stone factory in the area. In 1832, two prominent Providence industrialist, Sullivan Dorr and Crawford Allen, bought out the Russell Manufacturing Company, formed the Woonsocket Mill Company and renamed the village Bernon.
A year later, Dorr and Allen built the 1833 Bernon Mill, one of Rhode Island's most handsome industrial buildings. Contrary to accepted practice, they dispensed with the stair tower and attic windows to create a building which reflected the newly fashionable Greek Revival style. In 1835, a third mill was added to the complex, and in 1859 a forth.
In 1872, steam power was added to supplement waterpower from the Bernon Pond. By 1889, the Woonsocket Mill Company had 15,000 spindles, 337 looms and 300 employees involved in the manufacture of cotton print goods. Eventually, the site became the property of the Blackstone Valley Gas and Electric.
The Social Mill Village began in 1810 when Ariel, Abner and Nathan Ballou, Eber Barlett, Job and Luke Jenckes, Oliver Leland and Joseph Arnold formed the Social Manufacturing Company and began production of cotton thread in a small wooden mill on the Mill River near Social Street. The mill contained 2,000 spindles and included carding and repairing machinery. A second wooden mill was constructed in 1827. In 1841, Dexter Ballou acquired the entire complex and completed construction of a new and much larger stone mill the following year.
Since the new mill required hundreds of workers that were not available in the area at the time, labor was recruited from Canada on a massive scale from the 1850's through the 1870's. Housing was built in a vacant area between what is now Clinton and Social Streets. A new shopping area also developed to serve local residents since it was a long walk to the stores and shops on Main Street. The famous "Social Corner" at the intersection of Cumberland and Social Streets was the center of life in the Social district by the 1870's.
Three large mills dominated life in the Social district in the early twentieth century:
By the turn of the century, Woonsocket's first textile mill had grown to become one of the largest manufacturing enterprises in the area. Rebuilt in 1874 after a devastating fire, the Social Mill was 5 stories tall and built of brick. Two stair towers relieved the large front facade. It was powered by a 1,000 horsepower Corliss engine in addition to 240 horsepower from the Mill River. The mill contained 55,600 spindles, 1,380 looms and had 650 workers involved in the manufacture of cotton goods. The mill closed in the 1920's.
Built and operated by the Social Manufacturing Company in 1883, the Nourse Mill was named in honor of Charles Nourse, the long time superintendent of the Social Mill. The three story brick building was powered by a 1,200 horsepower Corliss engine and contained the finest equipment of its day. The mill contained 40,000 spindles, 540 looms and had 380 employees. By the 1930's, the mill was being operated by the Woonsocket Rayon Company and was the site of violent protests during the Great Textile Strike 1934. The building was destroyed by fire in 1956.
American Wringer Company
By 1870, the Bailey Wringer Company was producing 50,000 wringers per year. In need of more space, it moved from Island Place to a new location in the Social district on the corner of Pond and Social Street. Eventually, the company's mill filled the entire block along Pond Street from Social Street to Clinton Street.
While the Social district was the home to Woonsocket's first textile mill, little remains that would attest to the fact that this area was once a thriving mill village. Today, the mills are gone, replaced with a mixed use area including office, retail, residential and recreational areas.
Located in the area around the intersection of Mill and Social Streets, Jenckesville was the smallest of Woonsocket's six mill villages. Jenckesville was established in 1822 when Job and Luke Jenckes sold their interest in the Social Manufacturing Company constructed Woonsocket's first stone factory at what is now 96 Mill Street. Though partially hidden by a 1901 brick addition, it was the city's oldest surviving industrial building until it was destroyed by fire on June 9, 2000. In 1828, the Jenckes' built a second mill at 767 Social Street. The fine stonework of this building is still visible on the rear and side elevations. In 1828, the Jenckes also built an imposing three story federal style "mansion" at 837-839 Social Street. This house, now obscured by a three-story porch added in the 1890's, is one of the finest federal style buildings in Woonsocket and is included in the National Register of Historic Places.
While the Hamlet area contains some of Woonsocket's largest mill buildings, little remains of the original Hamlet mill and village.
The original Hamlet Village dates from 1825 when General Edward Carrington, a major influence in the creation in the Blackstone Canal, built a textile mill near what is today Hamlet Avenue and Davidson Street. Stephen Smith, an associate of Carrington and builder of Hearthside and the Butterfly Mill in Lincoln, served as the agent of the Hamlet Mill for many years.
The original Hamlet Mill was 5 stories tall and built of stone. By 1889, it contained 18,000 spindles, 387 looms and had 225 employees. It was powered by water producing 400 horsepower and by a 150 horsepower steam engine.
The mills which stand on this site today were built by French and Belgian industrialist who were encouraged to locate in Woonsocket by Aram Pothier in the late nineteenth century. These firms, Lafayette Worsted and French Worsted, were attracted to Woonsocket by its large, highly skilled, French speaking work force. The mills produced yarn using the "French process" for distribution nation-wide.
The Globe Village encompassed the area southeast of the Woonsocket Falls and was named for the Globe Mill which stood between Front Street and the river.
The first mill was built on this site in 1827 when James Arnold sold the land and one quarter of the water rights from the Woonsocket Falls to Thomas Arnold, Thomas Paine and Marcel Shove. The company they started, the Globe Manufacturing Company, went bankrupt in 1829. After a succession of owners, Woonsocket industrialist George Ballou acquired the property in 1864.
In 1873, Ballou built a magnificent new mill at the Globe site. It was a large mill, five stories tall, built of stone with 560 windows. Ballou had the entire structure painted white. The mill was powered by three water wheels producing 250 horsepower and a large Corliss steam engine producing 750 horsepower. In 1889, the mill contained 41,040 spindles, 933 looms and had 500 workers.
Ballou died three years after the completion of the Globe Mill and the complex was sold to the Social Manufacturing Company. The Social Manufacturing Company operated the mill until it was acquired by the Manville-Jenckes Company in the early 1900's. Manville-Jenckes operated the mill until 1927 when it was closed. The mill buildings were demolished in the 1940's but employee housing on Front and Lincoln Street still remains.
This page utilizes information from:
For Woonsocket residents, these books are available at the Woonsocket Harris Public Library.
- History of Providence County Rhode Island edited by Richard M. Bayles and published by W. W. Peston & Co., New York, 1891
- Images of America - Woonsocket written by Robert R. Bellerose and published by Arcadia Publishing, Dover, NH, 1997.
- Old Woonsocket - erastus & doc written by Alton Pickering Thomas, MD and published by Mowbray Company of Providence, RI in 1973.
- Statewide Historic Preservation Report for Woonsocket, Rhode Island published by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission in September, 1976.
- Woonsocket, Rhode Island - A Centennial History 1888 - 1988 published by the Woonsocket Centennial Committee in 1988.
- Woonsocket - Highlights of History 1800-1976 written by Alton Pickering Thomas, MD and published by the Woonsocket Opera House Society in 1973.
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