19th Century Map of the Enfield (Esmond) Mill

19th Century Map of the Enfield Mill Property, which is today occupied by the Esmond Mill complex

 

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1940 Survey of Esmond Mills

 

1940 Survey of Esmond Mills

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     Courtesy of the Smithfield Preservation Commission

 

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 La Croix 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. 

A House Divided

By Jim Ignasher

Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine, January 2011.

dividedIt was a battle for which there were no clear winners. What began as a labor issue at Esmond Mills developed into a strike, which later escalated to violence in the streets.  When it was over, at least a dozen people had been injured, private property had been destroyed, and one man had taken his own life. This is one of the darker chapters of Smithfield’s past – the story of the Esmond labor strike of 1913.

Labor issues were common in the early 20th Century, for it was a time of union organizers vs. corporate management, and both sides saw themselves as being in the right. It was also a time when the textile industry was booming in Rhode Island, and manufacturers were reaping huge profits.

There were several issues that led to the strike at Esmond Mills, but the most important was money.  Union officials from the Industrial Workers of the World, (I.W.W.) were demanding a twenty percent pay increase for all employees, which mill management saw as outrageous, and counter-offered considerably less.  When no agreement could be reached a strike was declared on January 10, 1913.

Going on strike was a risky proposition, for many workers lived in mill owned housing, and only as long as the mill employed them. They also faced the possibility of being “black balled” from getting employment elsewhere. Striking also meant no paycheck for food and other necessities.  Furthermore, there were always those looking for work that had no qualms about crossing a picket line. Therefore, one could easily find themselves in worse circumstances than before the strike.  

Since the mill was the largest employer in Esmond, local businesses relied on workers willing to spend their paychecks, but since workers now had no money to spend, some merchants suffered. The first casualty of the strike was a financially strapped Georgiaville butcher who reportedly took his own life due to the loss of revenue created by the situation. On the morning of January 20th he was found dead in his shop from a self-inflected gunshot wound.  The unfortunate man left a wife and three children.

On that same day, the mill superintendent announced that the mill would remain closed “ten years or twenty years” rather than give in to the union’s demands.  Despite this prediction, the mill reopened just five days later after hiring new workers.

It was also on that same day that one-hundred workers from the Allendale Mill in nearby Greystone walked out of their jobs in support of those in Esmond.

In the meantime, negotiations were taking place with both sides holding firm. Union meetings were held in the Graystone fire station, where some workers expressed a desire to return to their jobs while they still could, while others opted to remain on strike. Union leaders beseeched members to stand together in solidarity, but many of the men had more than just themselves to consider; they had families to feed.

By February 1, the union opened a soup kitchen at the fire station, but by then many had already returned to their jobs.  In response to this, union officials tried to encourage the remaining strikers by claiming their ranks were growing every day, but the men could see for themselves that such was not the case. The union made the same assertions to the press, but mill management told reporters that some men would return to their jobs in the morning only to walk out again afterward while trying to induce others to follow. The union, they stated, was claiming these same men as new recruits.

Tensions grew, and deputy sheriffs were brought in to assist local police in preventing strikers from harassing those who crossed the picket line.  This led some to change their tactics.  Since many newly hired workers were from outside the village, they would commute via the trolley line that once ran along Waterman Avenue.  On February 5, large stones from a cemetery wall were placed across the trolley tracks, and when the trolley came to a stop it was attacked by thugs who broke the windows and injured some of those aboard.  Others in the group attempted to cut telephone lines, presumably to prevent calls for assistance by police.

The riotous incident had a sobering effect on mill management who agreed to some concessions two days later.  Those concessions included an advance in wages since many were without money, no rent increase in company housing, and time and a quarter for overtime.

The strike was now four weeks old, and both sides were suffering financially, yet despite concessions, both sides stood firm on their position over the proposed twenty percent wage increase.  It now came down to who would blink first. The union boasted that it had plenty of funds to pay strikers while they were out of work, (Although there was evidence to the contrary.) and mill management claimed to be running at two-thirds capacity while union officials put the figure closer to ten percent.   

In spite of the wage obstacle, newspapers reported that the strike was “nearly ended”. The papers had to retract those words four days later when violence once again erupted along Waterman Avenue.  On February 11, several gunshots were fired at a trolley car filled with workers as it made its way from the mill towards North Providence. The shots were followed by a hail of rocks which shattered the car’s windows.  Remarkably, only one person was injured, and fortunately not seriously, but the conveyance suffered considerable damage. 

Problems also arose outside the mill where strikers sparred with police, harassed female employees, and tried using use force in keeping workers out. Four Smithfield men were arrested that day on various charges, including assault.

Mill villages such as Esmond were generally quiet communities consisting of hard-working, God-fearing people, where violent labor disputes such as the one being experienced were unknown.  After the second horrifying attack on a trolley, one striker told a reporter that most of them were ready to return to work if the mill management would make an offer that was fair to both sides.  Wages were still the sticking point, but it was obvious that some compromise had to be reached, for the mill needed workers to make a profit, and workers needed the mill to make a living.  As the saying goes, a house divided cannot stand.

A settlement was reached on February 17th, where it was agreed that workers would receive a pay increase from five to fifteen percent based on the skill level their individual job required.  It was also agreed that the Industrial Workers of the World Union would no longer be recognized as a bargaining agent. 

The Esmond labor strike was only one example of what was taking place all across the country at that time as union men in every industry sought to organize.  In many ways, what happened in Esmond was mild by comparison.

Those employed at Esmond Mills eventually joined another union as unions continued to grow in power and influence, but it was this same power and influence that eventually caused mills throughout New England to close their doors and relocate to the southern states where unions were virtually non-existent.

In 1948, Esmond Mills was sold, and the new owners moved all textile manufacturing operations to Georgia. Afterward, the nearly 1,100 ex-workers applied for severance pay as stipulated under their union contract, but the applications were denied.  The Textile Workers Union of America, which represented the workers at that time, brought the matter before the United States Mediation and Conciliation Service which subsequently ruled against the former employees. This decision cost the ex-workers an estimated $870.000.

Today, the old Esmond Mills stands as a brick monument to a bygone era. The building where hundreds of workers once made their living now serves as a warehouse.

 

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