Battle Lines

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, April, 2013

Labor strikes in the early 20th century were common and often violent.  In 1910, this mill on Austin Avenue was the scene of two armed confrontations between mill workers and police.

Labor strikes in the early 20th century were common and often violent. In 1910, this mill on Austin Avenue was the scene of two armed confrontations between mill workers and police.

It was well after midnight when a convoy of four automobiles slipped into Greenville under cover of darkness.   Three cars carried sheriff’s deputies led by Providence County Sheriff Daniel Kiernan, the fourth held executives of the Stillwater Worsted Company on what is today Austin Avenue.   Hints of moonlight broke through scattered clouds as hard-focused eyes scanned the darkness for signs of trouble.  The men were nervous.  Some gripped shotguns, while others fingered blue-steel revolvers under their coats. 

All seemed quiet as the line of autos made its way from Putnam Pike onto Austin Avenue, but word of their departure from the Providence courthouse had preceded them, and strikers had laid an ambush.  Suddenly, a large crowd appeared in the headlight beams and set upon the automobiles, some threw stones and bottles while others attacked with clubs.  The sheriffs reacted, and the angry shouts of strikers were suddenly drowned out by the eruption of gunfire.  As volleys of hot lead sailed through the night the drivers gave their machines all they had, and barreled headlong through the masses towards the gates of the mill. As the last auto roared through the gates security guards slammed them shut just as the club wielding mob came surging against them.  Curses, obscene gestures, and epithets were exchanged before the situation stabilized for the moment.   The black iron gates designated the battle lines, with strikers on one side, and the sheriffs and their charges on the other.  Both sides waited to see what would come next.   

It was April 25, 1910, and the Stillwater Worsted Company was in the midst of a labor strike.  What began as a snub in seniority rights ten days earlier had erupted into violence and gun fire.  One newspaper account stated the deputies fired between thirty to forty shots at their attackers, but the sheriff’s claimed they had held their fire, and that it was armed strikers who had done the shooting.  In either case no injuries were reported, but there was more violence to come.

The Stillwater Worsted Company was founded in Burrillville, and over time expanded its operations by opening other mills bearing the company name, including the one in Greenville.  The Stillwater Worsted Company in Greenville was in no way connected to the Stillwater Mill located in Stillwater, which burned to the ground in May of 1984.    

Two weeks before the riot on Austin Avenue, a Boss Weaver at the mill had hired twenty non-union workers and gave them coveted positions on the day-shift over senior workers who were told they had to remain on the night-shift.  A grievance committee met with Mill Superintendent John Dunn on April 14, and Dunn promised to look into the matter.  The following day the committee met with the mill owner, Austin Levy, who wanted to talk to the Boss Weaver and Mill Superintendent to get all sides of the story before making a decision.  Apparently this was unsatisfactory to the committee, and later that same day nearly one-hundred workers voted to strike.   

The strikers demands included, among other things, that the Boss Weaver be fired, which was something management wasn’t prepared to do.  Negotiations broke down, and on April 24th, a mob assembled in front of the mill breaking windows and causing other damage. The vandalism prompted mill executives to contact Providence County Sheriff Daniel Kiernan for assistance since Smithfield’s meager police force consisted of an elected Town Sergeant and his four appointed constables.  

After the shooting incident on the night of the 25th, Mill Superintendent Dunn called for a special Town Council meeting to ask for more local police to protect the property.   

The following day the Smithfield Council appointed fifteen special constables, three of whom were members of the Town Council.  A contingent of strikers attended the meeting, and tried to dissuade the appointments, stating they weren’t necessary.  Yet meanwhile, strikers had established picket lines on all roads leading to and from the mill to prevent the importation of replacement workers.  Council President Rufus Mackie told the strikers that the newly appointed lawmen were not to guard the mill, but to quell any disturbance(s) which might occur on public highways.

After the meeting, Superintendent Dunn said that some striking workers would be welcomed back, if they chose to come back, but that some of the strikers would never work for the company again.  

“They have run the mill once,” he told a (Woonsocket) Evening Call reporter, “but they never will again.  This is going to be a fight to the finish.  It is absurd to be told whom we shall hire as bosses.  We will hire as we like and we will fire as we like.”

    When asked how the strike started Dunn replied, “They (the strikers) told me that I must fire the Boss Weaver.  I asked for a chance to investigate and they said ‘You’ve got to discharge him’.  I said, ‘I won’t, and they struck.”

Strikers, on the other hand, told the reporter that grievances with the Boss Weaver actually dated back several months, mostly concerning work assignments and manpower.  

With tempers flaring, and the threat of further violence, replacement workers were ushered in and housed in a building located on the mill property that was closely guarded by Smithfield Town Sergeant Jencks Smith and three police constables. 

The Evening Call was careful to point out that although some strikers included union men, “organized labor does not figure in the struggle as most of the workers are non-union men.”  The entire issue, the strikers maintained, was the “retention or discharge” of the Boss Weaver.

By April 30th workers and management were no closer to a settlement. Mr. Levy announced to reporters that the replacement workers, which some called “strike breakers” were there to stay, but added that all of the natives of Greenville were welcome to return to their jobs if they so desired.  While some citizens of the village privately stated their desire to return to work, the strike leaders maintained that their ranks were as unified as ever, and a campaign was begun to solicit funds for striking workers to keep the dispute going.  

Violence erupted once again on May 9, when a group of about two dozen replacement workers walked from Centerdale to Greenville.  As they neared the gates of the mill, they were set upon by a group of children who began pelting them with rocks.  Some of the men drew pistols and began shooting over the heads of the miscreants causing them to scatter.  One news account of the action stated that nearly all of the “strike breakers” took part in “the promiscuous shooting”.

The sound of gun fire brought local police and sheriffs guarding the mill, and a confrontation at the gates ensued. Constable Jenckes Smith Jr., son of Town Sergeant Jenckes Smith Sr., approached one of the armed men and attempted to take his revolver away.  The man shoved the muzzle against the officer’s chin and seemed about to shoot when one of the deputy sheriffs intervened and disarmed him in short order.  One by one, others in the crowd were also disarmed.   

While this was taking place, a sympathizer appeared from a nearby home with a shotgun and aimed it at the officers, but held his fire.  After a brief standoff he surrendered the weapon and was allowed to return to his house. 

 No arrests were made that afternoon, which was prudent thinking on the part of the officers, who were out numbered, out gunned, and without means of quickly gathering re-enforcements. 

 While there were no reports of serious injury associated with the melee, that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be consequences.  Officials met, and decided that enough was enough.  Such unrest couldn’t be allowed to continue in the otherwise quiet village.  The following day a dozen arrest warrants were drawn up, however not for the “strike breakers” who had participated in the shooting spree the day before, but for those who had organized the strike to begin with, and had continued in their efforts to keep it going.  It was their actions, some maintained, that had ultimately led to property damage, gun play, and an overall disruption of the peace. 

    The ultimate outcome of those arrested is not recorded, but as with all labor strikes of the early 1900s, peace was eventually restored, for strikes were expensive and counterproductive for all concerned. 

Town Sergeant Jenckes Smith, served as Smithfield’s top law enforcement officer for more than twenty-five years before he passed away in October of 1910, just five months after the strike incident.   

Sheriff Kiernan went on to serve as Cranston’s Chief of Police from 1912 to 1915.

Mill owner Austin T. Levy is said to have treated his employees well, being one of the first in Rhode Island to offer employee benefits such as profit sharing, stock options, and paid vacations.  He passed away in 1951 at the age of 70.

 In 1963, the Stillwater Mills moved their production facilities to Virginia.   Today, the former Levy Mill is an elderly care facility.  The iron gates that once separated angry mobs from armed guards are long gone.  

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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