Forgotten Tales of the Esmond Mill

Originally published in The Smithfield Times – March, 2015

By Jim Ignasher

Esmond Mill, Esmond, RI 2015

Esmond Mill, Esmond, RI 2015

The Esmond Mill opened in 1906, and at one time it was known world-wide for the high quality blankets produced there.  Unless one worked there, this is likely the extent of the average person’s knowledge relating to Esmond’s largest structure.  Yet as with any old building of its kind, events have happened there which have faded with time and were then forgotten.  The following are but a few such examples culled from different sources.  

On April 2, 1943, Smithfield’s Chief of Police Alfred Lacroix was called to the Esmond Mill for a report that a young woman assigned to the weaving room had been attacked; her throat slashed to within a half-inch of her jugular vein!  Her assailant, a male co-worker, was set on killing her, and likely would have succeeded had nearby employees not tackled and disarmed him.  The wound was serious and would require numerous stitches to close, something that could not be done on site.  After being treated at the scene by fellow employees, she was rushed to a hospital in Providence. 

Lacroix’s investigation revealed that the man had slashed his victim because she had repeatedly rejected his romantic overtures towards her.  In the days leading up to the attack he began making threats, perhaps thinking fear would change her mind.  When that didn’t work, he decided to kill her.  Why he wasn’t fired due to his threats before the attack is not recorded,

The man was brought before the court where a judge set bail at $4,000 which was a large sum in those days.  When he couldn’t make bail, he was ordered to the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston.  The result of his trial is not available, but ironically this wasn’t his first brush with the law.  Just two years earlier in 1941 he slashed a man’s throat inflicting a wound that required thirty-two stitches to close.  For reasons not stated, he was given a deferred sentence in that incident.   

Fortunately, the victim survived her wounds.

The mill has also seen its share of tragic accidents, for textile mills everywhere were dangerous places to work before the days of mandatory modern safety regulations.  Long hair and loose fitting garments could get caught in drive belts and other moving machinery, while exposed gears could crush fingers.  The “lucky” ones escaped with broken bones or severed digits.  Others suffered severe disfigurement, or worse.  Beginning in 1893, state factory inspectors filed annual reports to the General Assembly regarding working conditions on the (then) numerous mills around the state.  A portion of each report addressed industrial accidents, of which more than one-hundred were reported every year. 

The report for 1909 listed two fatalities at the Esmond Mill.  The first occurred on April 19, 1909, when a 23-year-old man went into the lint pit located under the napping room to clear lint-dust that was clogging some pipes.  For some unknown reason the lint ignited setting him afire.  He was treated at the scene by Doctor A. W. Hughes, and then taken to Rhode Island Hospital where he died the next morning.   

The following November a 53-year-old man was dumping a tip cart when the body of the cart came back and struck him in the abdomen causing fatal injuries.    

However, not all deaths were due to accident.  At least one suicide is on record of having occurred at the mill.   

On January 10, 1913, workers at the Esmond Mill went on strike when their demands for higher wages and other issues weren’t met.  When non-union workers were brought in as replacements the strike turned violent.  On February 5th, large stones from a cemetery wall were placed across the trolley tracks that once ran along Waterman Avenue from Centerdale to Esmond.  When the trolley carrying replacement workers came to a stop it was attacked by a club wielding mob of thugs who broke the windows and injured some of those aboard.  Others in the group attempted to cut telephone lines, presumably to prevent calls being placed to the police. 

In addition to those who were injured, the strike led to two fatalities.  The first casualty was a Georgiaville butcher who reportedly took his life due to the loss of revenue created by the situation. On the morning of January 20th he was found in his shop, dead from a self-inflected gunshot wound. 

Another casualty connected to the strike occurred on February 28, when a slow moving freight train heading from Pascoag to Providence was moving along the tracks that once existed behind the mill.  As the train was passing, several strikers climbed aboard for a free ride to Graystone where the strike headquarters was located.  One of the strikers, a 20-year-old man from Georgiaville, slipped and fell beneath the wheels receiving fatal injuries.   

On New Year’s Eve, 1951, five well-dressed masked gunmen entered the mill and forced the night watchman and two other workers into the boiler room where they were tied to some pipes.  These employees were the only ones in the building due to the holiday.  The gunmen appeared as if they might be on their way to a New Year’s party, but decided to stop and commit a robbery first.  

The young night watchman later told reporters that the men repeatedly said, “We don’t want to hurt you.”  However, as the watchman studied the bandits so as to remember their descriptions for police, one punched him in the face and another placed a cloth sack over his head.  For the next two hours one of the robbers stood guard over them while the others loaded a truck with bolts of nylon material which had recently arrived as part of a government contract to make parachutes.  Despite the rough treatment received by the watchman, from time to time the hostages were asked if they were “all right” and if they needed cigarettes or water. 

The bandits left just before midnight, and the crime was discovered about fifteen minutes later when a relief worker arrived.   

The value of the stolen Nylon was estimated to be in the thousands of dollars.  

Not all stories connected with the mill involve crime or tragedy.  The following tale was related to Laurence J. Sasso Jr. in 1993, which became the basis for an article he wrote titled “Weaving Lives Together”. 

In 1908, 16-year-old Henry Dexter worked in the mill’s maintenance department.  At that time a new iron water tower had just been constructed next to the mill, and the owners wanted the mill’s trademark, the Esmond Bunny, painted on its side.  To do so, staging would need to be erected along the “catwalk” at the top.  It was a dangerous assignment, but Henry was a good climber, and volunteered to do the job when nobody else would.

The tank had been built by the Chicago Iron Works, and when company inspectors came to approve the work, they noticed the staging and made inquiries.  When they learned it was Henry who had done the job alone, they offered him a job as an iron worker, and he accepted.  He was sent to work on another water tower project being done in Danvers, Massachusetts.  It was there he met Katherine Morrissey, a woman he later married.  The couple settled in Georgiaville and had six children.  One could say they were brought together because of the bunny logo. 

The Esmond Mill closed in 1948 leaving hundreds of workers unemployed.  Today the massive brick structure serves as a warehouse for a local retail business. 

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