November 28, 2014
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Then and Now
Prohibition
Don D'Amato

In addition, many residents were stunned by the passage of the 18th Amendment in January 1919, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale or transportation” of intoxicating beverages. There was disbelief, disappointment and a sense of being deprived of a liberty of conscience and free will. At first, many scoffed at the amendment and compared it with earlier temperance movements fostered by mill owners such as Enos Lapham. When it became obvious that every state but Rhode Island and Connecticut ratified the amendment, the disbelief turned to anger. Then, on Oct. 28, 1919, the Volstead Act was passed. It defined intoxicating beverages as “those containing over one-half of one percent alcohol” and set in Jan. 1, 1920 as the date when sales would become illegal.

Even those who didn’t use, or favor, alcoholic beverages feared the new law would seriously curtail business by greatly diminishing the crowds that came to Rocky Point and Oakland Beach to drink and be entertained. Others, having some experience with the “back-rooms” of restaurants in “dry” states believed sections of Warwick, already notorious for their bars, saloons, shows and “fast-houses,” would see an increase in illegal activities and drive the better hotels and restaurants from the scene.

Unfortunately, as the 1920s progressed, many of the fears were well founded. Warwick never did become “dry” in reality, and it would appear that if all 1, 520 federal agents hired to enforce the Volstead Act were stationed in Pawtuxet Valley, the flow of liquor would still have continued uninhibited. Warwick, as many other cities and towns in Rhode Island, became infamous for smuggling and bootlegging. In addition, Warwick, with its many speakeasies in Oakland Beach, Pawtuxet and Apponaug, gained the reputation of being a “wide open” town.

As might be expected, the 18th Amendment gave organized crime a foothold in Warwick. When the Notorious Rettich gang was exposed on Warwick Neck, many Warwick and West Warwick connections were mentioned. It was generally believed that the “Black Duck,” a “rum-running” speedboat, was the property of one of Arctic’s hotel and bar owners. When the Coast Guard riddled the boat with machine gun fire and killed three of the crew on Dec. 29, 1930, there was a great deal of indignation in Warwick.

Many of the town’s senior citizens can recall when cars bearing Massachusetts and Connecticut license plates, as well as those of Rhode Island, were often seen parked at Oakland Beach or at the Hill House in Greenwood or at many of Warwick’s other obvious “speakeasies.” In a number of “restaurants,” wires and alarms were strung to warn of raids form the “feds” and also form rival “gangs.” Observers of the times commented that often before the raids occurred in the morning, trucks were seen carting off the illegal goods from Warwick. They also noted that by 6 p.m. the speakeasies were again open for business.

What many fins more amazing than the ease of obtaining alcoholic beverages is the fact that it was so easily accepted and that, with the possible exception of Warwick Neck’s Rettich gang, no widespread violence of gang wars occurred. Apparently, the fear was there, as some bar owners hired bodyguards and intricate alarm systems were installed in some speakeasies, but no reported incidents of any magnitude appear. One old-timer has explained it in this fashion: “Everyone knew what he could do. Some ran bars, hotels and restaurants with liquor, some didn’t. ‘One-armed bandits’ [slot machines] were given to some, and others were allowed to run card games and numbers. We all cooperated.”

Prohibition, so often glorified in the movies of the ’30s and ’40s was relatively shirt-lived and, in reality, was only one small part of the many more important and exciting changes that took place in the ’20s.

While Warwick’s young men were serving in Europe, the textile industry boomed in Pontiac, Apponaug and Natick as war contracts brought the factories in the Pawtuxet Valley to full production.

When the war ended, many veterans returned home determined to exercise their rights as citizens. Veterans of all ethnic groups now had a common bond and united to vie for mutual benefits and to defeat “native American” movements. Further optimism came when women received the right to vote in 1917. The end of “bossism” and corruption seemed to be at hand. While Warwick was attempting to adjust to the changes brought about by Prohibition and by the Knight family selling their interests in the textiles, adverse conditions battered the area. In 1918-19, a very severe winter, in which trolley lines were tied up and people were isolated, was followed by an influenza epidemic that especially affected those in the mill villages.

In January 1922, the era of paternalism rapidly came to a close as Warwick encountered one of the area’s longest and most devastating strikes. Before the eight-month walkout ended, there was widespread turmoil and suffering throughout the Pawtuxet Valley. Mills closed, nearly 5,000 workers were idle, breadlines formed, armed soldiers patrolled the villages and nearly all business activity ceased.

Warwick no longer lived under the illusion that the prosperous period that followed World War I would continue. When Webster Knight and his brother, C. Prescott sold their mills to the Consolidated Textile Corporation, the new owners purchased the B.B. * R. Knight name and the Fruit of the Loom trademark, hoping to continue to enjoy the same high profits as the Knight had.


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