For most of the 19th century, Apponaug’s existence revolved around the town offices and the mills. Because of its location along Post Road, Apponaug often set the tone for the rest of the town. The history of the town indicates that when this village prospered, so did Warwick, and when it suffered the town did as well.
Because of the insight of men like Caleb Greene, Edward Boit, Alfred A. Reed, J.P. Farnsworth and Albert L. Lustig, the mills in the village had adapted to the changing times and managed to continue to operate despite serious depressions and panics. During the early 20th century, thanks to Albert L. Lustig, the Apponaug Company prospered and became a very important center for textiles. Lustig, a native of Hungary and one of the world’s most respected color chemists, had become general manager of the Apponaug Co. in 1913. In 1917, when Farnsworth died, Lustig was made president of the company.
Under Lustig’s leadership the Apponaug plant became a major employer in Warwick, attracting skilled workers from nearby Natick, Clyde and Riverpoint. Many old-timers in these villages recall that when difficult times curtailed the activities in many of the mills of western Warwick, jobs at Apponaug were much sought after. They remember walking to and from work in the bitter cold winters and stopping at farmhouses along Tollgate Road to warm up a bit and, perhaps on payday, buying a chicken or eggs to take home. This was the period before inexpensive restaurants and hotels, and many a hard-working immigrant found that boarding houses in Apponaug, run by enterprising women such as Georgianna Aylesworth, supplied a very important need. Sections of the village remained rural for many years and large vegetable gardens and chickens could be seen in the heart of the village.
While other mills in the Pawtuxet Valley were often unable to compete with England and Europe, the mills in Clyde and Apponaug were successful. Much of this was because the print works, engaged in bleaching and dyeing, depended a great deal upon the water supply and the skill of the chemists. Both were needed and, as stated so well by the owners of the Oriental Print Works, the water from Gorton’s Pond was excellent.
Also important, and perhaps even more so, were the superb chemists in the Apponaug mills. During the early part of the century, the skills of Lustig were rivaled only by those of Robert Reoch at the Clyde Print Works. These two chemists clearly demonstrated that the printing of material in Rhode Island could be successful.
Another reason for success was the fact that the location of the large complex was within easy reach of the principle textile mills and the most important wholesale markets. This was significant, as during the first part of the 20th century the Apponaug Company’s business was done entirely for mills and converters.
As previously stated in an earlier article, it was during the early years of Lustig’s management that the mills witnessed a great deal of prosperity because of World War I. The war caused an unprecedented demand for American goods, and when the United States entered the conflict in 1917 many young men from the mill villages along the Pawtuxet River entered the army, thereby causing a labor shortage. This eventually gave greater bargaining power to the workers, and they forced the textile companies to abandon the 64-hour week for a 48-hour one with higher wages. This prosperity for workers was short lived, however, and the 1920s saw a decline in the textile industry. Mill owners in many of the villages announced the implementation of a 54-hour workweek and pay cuts up to 20 percent. The Textile Strike of 1922 and the further decline of the textile industry in the 1930s cut the work force in the mills in the Pawtuxet Valley, including the newly created town of West Warwick, to one-third of what it had been in the early 1920s.
The mill that was an exception to the decline of the textile industry was the Apponaug Company, which found itself the recipient of increased orders during the 1930s. The reason for this prosperity during the trying years of the Great Depression can be credited to Alfred Lustig and his associates.
Fortunately for Apponaug and its environs, the Apponaug Company was able to keep its doors open during the tumultuous ’20s. To keep pace with major changes and innovations, the Apponaug Company plant underwent a major modernization between 1920-1928. This surprised a number of mill owners, as it was a time when other mills were talking of closing.
During this period, most of the stone mills built by the old Oriental Company were replaced by red brick buildings. The new structure was built in one unit with 10 buildings connected for maximum efficiency. The Apponaug Company’s floor space was now approximately 326,000 square feet. The company now had its own power plant and ample laboratory facilities for research and experimental work.
At a time when competitors were closing and the entire country was experiencing the Great Depression, the average output of the Apponaug Company in the 1930s was in excess of 30 million yards per year.
Residents of Apponaug at the time gave credit for the success of the company to the very talented Lustig family. The importance of the Lustigs to Rhode Island’s economy often prompted full cooperation from the State of Rhode Island. One example of this came during a Lustig family emergency in 1931. At that time, Alfred L. Lustig, who was vacationing in Virginia, was stricken with stomach ulcers and had to undergo surgery. Republican Governor Norman S. Case offered the assistance of the state. As a result, Mrs. Lustig and her daughter, Mrs. Frederick C. Brown of Apponaug, were escorted by state police on an exceedingly fast trip to New York City so they could catch the earliest train south. Thanks to this cooperation, Mrs. Lustig was able to get to her husband’s bedside before the emergency operation.
The economic impact of the mills in Apponaug continued well into the 20th century. For nearly four decades, the Apponaug Company was Warwick’s largest employer and was instrumental in many of the changes that took place in Warwick. The influence of the mill extended well beyond the salaries paid to workers in the sprawling complex, for the prosperity of the mill meant prosperity for the village. Most businesses in Apponaug would not have survived had the mill closed its doors and the Apponaug Company exerted a subdued form of paternalism by sponsoring better municipal services and worthwhile projects.
In 1935 Alfred L. Lustig, the president and general manager of the Apponaug Company, died. The Lustig family continued to control the enterprise until 1944, when they sold to George V. Mechan. After a few years of ownership, Mechan sold to the Aspinools Corporation of Connecticut. During the 1950s, the principal owners of the company were the Lamport Co. of New York City, the Bancroft Company of Wilmington, Delaware and Frederick G. Brown, who was also president and spokesman for the Apponaug Company.
The Apponaug Company eventually became a victim of the decline in the textile industry that had started in the 1920s. In January 1958, Frederick G. Brown announced that the company would close its doors on March 15. By that time, only 300 of the 530 employees who usually staffed the plant were still employed. Both the State of Rhode Island and the City of Warwick expressed their concern over the plant’s closing and tried to find buyers for the sprawling complex. On March 17, 1958, as Brown had predicted, the Apponaug Company shipped its last orders and an era was over.
Frederick Brown said, “The tragedy has happened.” All employees, with the exception of the packers and shippers who were moving out the final yardage of cloth, had been “laid off for good.” One of the older employees, still stunned from the plant’s closing, is reported to have said, “It’s a sad thing. I worked there for many years, and it’s going to be hard to get used to the idea of not getting up in the morning to go to work.”
It was over two years before the vast complex, with its 10 buildings, water tower and power plants, was sold. In 1960 the Anchor Realty Co. purchased the property and soon began renting the space to diverse industries. Among the first to take advantage of the space available was the Thompson and Green Machinery Company and the Greenwood Sheet Metal Company. Far from being obsolete, the Apponaug mills had demonstrated that there was a demand for the buildings despite the near death of the textile industry.
The story of the Apponaug mills in the mid and late 20th century will be continued.