Child of Mill Workers

 I was probably 10 or 11.

I’d meander down the road, peer over Red Bridge, into the swirling waters below, and go on to what I called the “Wrap Around Mill.” I called it such for the fact it traveled along one street and curved around the next.  Today, a thriving Estate Sale business occupies one section.

The bank of mill windows, ground floor, looking out onto Crompton Library in West Warwick fascinated me, for through those windows I’d see men hunched over large machinery in a cavernous room. They never looked up, for they knew: To avert their eyes could mean disaster.

When I got older, I realized: If I’d been born in an earlier time, I might have tended those machines, even as a young child, before laws went into effect, prohibiting such.

Because my family—at least half of them—were mill people.

My mother’s family were from England and Ireland, immigrating to America for jobs that eluded them in the Old Country. They worked at the Apponaug Mill, in Warwick, where my grandfather was night watchman, standing guard in the tower.

Five boys came first, taken out of school by the 8thgrade, to help support their large family. Next, came the first girl and then my Mom. Four more followed. The girls began full time work at the mill when they reached 8thgrade, too.

My mother worked in the office at the Apponaug Mill, filling customer orders for cloth. Attractive and stylish, she was named “Miss Apponaug Company,” one year. She’d work at the mill until she became pregnant with my parent’s first child, 5 years into their marriage.

In the western sector, 14 working mills focused on fabric, dyeing, and cloth-making. And because the mills demanded a steady labor force, immigrants came in waves and settled in geographic enclaves in the town: the Italians in Natick, the Portuguese in Phenix, the Polish in Crompton; the Irish on Arctic Hill.

And because the western sector was so different from the farm-like eastern sector, the town split in 1913 and West Warwick became a separate town.

My father’s family lived in the Phenix section of West Warwick. My grandfather was a laborer who never worked in the mills. They sent 2 of their children to college. My father was one.

When my Mom and Dad married, they made their home on Pulaski St., in Crompton (called the “Velvet Village” for the velvet and corduroy it produced). On one side of us was a French family; a Polish family on the other. The latter introduced me to the galumpki and pierogi I grew to love, but I only liked the cabbage-filled pierogi —never the potato and cheese-filled which I considered  heresy.

I went to school and church with my Polish classmates whose names I learned to pronounce “Mahtz-nee-kee” (Maznicki) and Ving-shan (Wegrzyn). I marveled at the fanciness of their church (Our Lady of Czenstochowa) whose golden spires soared into grand heights; I danced the polka at their church festival.

Even today, I go to Fall River for my cabbage pierogi fix– a throwback to my youth.

West Warwick was a true ethic melting pot and we (her children) happily absorbed her diversity, an appreciation we’d carry through life.

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**2nd photo is the boarded up (but painted colorfully) windows where I saw men bent over machines; 1st photo today houses a photography shop and entry to Evolution Mill storage. If you enlarge this pic you will note lace curtains in upper windows—lace was another product of the mill.

 

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