We can look back and see how the textile industry brought so many diverse ethnic groups to Rhode Island. So many of today’s Warwick residents can find roots in that period of time.
The need for laborers in the mills coincided with economic depressions in French Canada, and soon a steady stream of French-Canadians could be found coming into the Pawtuxet Valley. To the economically distressed French-Canadians, the wages paid by Warwick mill owners, while low by Rhode Island standards, were acceptable. A grateful and often docile immigrant, used to near starvation in his native land, seemed able to thrive on “any kind of food, wearing the shabbiest clothes, and having the worst housing.”
An outstanding group of immigrants that made a great impact on Warwick were those emigrating from Sweden, who came to work in the mills at Crompton and Pontiac. Early records show that “the first Swede to move into the area was Andrew P. Magnuson from Hossna, Sweden. He came with his wife, daughter and two young people.”
From Pontiac, the Swedes moved into other parts of Warwick as new employment became available. So many Swedish immigrants settled in the section around East Greenwich Avenue that the area became known to many as “Swede-ville.” The Swedish population in Pontiac played a significant role in the development of the Lutheran Church there and in the success of the Knight Mills in that village.
Near the very end of the century, Warwick, especially in the western villages, was home to a growing number of people from Poland, Canada, the Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Bohemia. They were soon joined by a tremendous wave of immigration that added the Italians to Warwick’s growing number of foreign-born workers.
Charles Carroll, author of "Rhode Island, Three Centuries of Democracy," tells us, “Most of those who took part in the great migration from 1898 to 1932 were from southern Italy and, while they were predominantly farmers, they came to work in the mills. Many of those who settled in the Pawtuxet Valley were hired by B.B. & R. Knight Company mills in Natick and Pontiac. They came from Fornelli, a walled medieval town in the Campobasso Province of Italy, about fifty miles north pf Naples.”
By the last quarter of the 19th century it was evident that Warwick had become two very distinct entities. The western area, with its mills and ever-increasing number of non-English speaking mill workers, contrasted with the “Yankee,” agrarian coastal eastern region.
All efforts to achieve a division of the town were successfully blocked by master politician Charles R. Brayton. Upon the death of his supporter and mentor, Senator Henry B. Anthony, Brayton found that he was the undisputed controller of the Republican Party in Rhode Island.
Within a relatively short time, however, new Providence Journal owners and staff began to attack Brayton and “bossism.” The paper charged that Kent County was especially corrupt and in 1888 tried to stop the election of Centreville mill owner Enos Lapham as lieutenant governor. They charged that Lapham openly bought votes for his election. The charge was that Brayton had collected so much money that the Republicans were willing to pay any voter $15 “to vote for his principles.”
P.H. Quinn and other politicians in western Warwick tried making a strong case for a division of the industrial west from the agrarian east, but Brayton objected, knowing full well that a separation would mean the new town, with its mill workers and immigrants, would vote Democrat.
Even Brayton could not stop progress, and as the new century came to a close, Warwick was beginning to feel the impact of changes being made by new inventions and new standards of living. While it would be a long time before the average workers would reap the benefits, they were aware that a new world was possible.