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Then and Now
The Oriental Print Works comes to Apponaug
Terry D'Amato Spencer

The textile manufacturing business that Caleb Greene had established in Apponaug in 1809 prospered for a time. By the second half of the 19th century, however, the Greene mills had suffered some financial reverses and the owners were persuaded to sell out their interests. This enabled a new group of entrepreneurs, led by Alfred Augustus Reed, to move into the area. Thanks to the generosity of Anne C. Holst, Reed’s great-granddaughter, a letter dated May 18, 1865 written by Edward D. Boit has been made available. This letter explains the situation and the circumstances surrounding the selection of Apponaug as a site for the Oriental Print Works.

Alfred A. Reed had made his fortune in the East India trade. After 1857 Reed, whose business took him to the Far East, established the Oriental Mills north of Providence. One of his partners, Edward D. Boit, found Apponaug a most desirable site for the establishment of a print works. Boit told Reed that Apponaug was an ideal place as, “the situation is healthy and pretty – good for help and cheap for living and as fine a location as any other for Steam Cotton Mills.” Boit explained that he was able to get “refusal of the property for$14,000.” The reason that such a favorable site was available he added, was because “The man [Greene] is in trouble.” Boit boasted, “Jordan Marsh & Co. have got scent of it and wrote to the owner. I saw him but I was a day ahead of that active firm and have the refusal...”

Boit extolled the fact that the water at Cowesett Pond, or Gorton’s Pond as it is now called, was excellent for their purposes. He wrote, “...the water from this 300 acre pond is like Chrystal, and no other party can interfere with it.” He said, “I do not count at all on the water power although that can easily be made available to about 70 horsepower and would be of great service in reducing the cost of manufacturing. But the entire control of the 300 acre Pond of the purest water is invaluable in Print Works for bleaching and washing.”

The proposition that Boit offered, and Reed accepted, required a capital outlay of approximately $60,000. This, according to Boit, would enable the company to print “5,000 pieces per week, cheaper by quite a few cents than any other printers in R.I.” The Oriental Print works was able to rival the production of the Clyde Print Works in the western section of Warwick, and later with the acquisition of six additional printing machines was able to produce 10,000 pieces per week.

The establishment of such a large enterprise as the Oriental Print Works meant a number of changes in Apponaug. In addition to the Greene textile mill, the purchase by Reed and his partners included one large tenement house and one or two smaller ones. Hotels and boarding houses, such as the Oriental Boarding House owned by the village butcher, A.W. Hargrove, flourished in the early years of the Print Works. The mill attracted large numbers of workers and, unlike the early villagers, many of them were not of English or Scottish origin and were not Protestant but Irish and French Catholics. The increased activity saw Apponaug once again revitalized and an important center for business and trade.

The prosperity from the Oriental Print Works declined in 1873. This was the year of a very serious “panic” or “depression,” which had a devastating effect on Rhode Island. The collapse of the A. & W. Sprague Mfg. Co. in that year seriously curtailed the textile industry for a time. The man behind the success of the print works in Apponaug, Alfred A. Reed, died in 1879, and by 1883 the company had ceased to operate.

Reed and Boit eventually lost the Oriental Print Works. The years following the Panic of 1873 were difficult years for all of the mills in Pawtuxet Valley as well as in other areas of Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut. Ironically, the Jordan Marsh Company, which had been interested in the old Greene mills in Apponaug, was able to purchase the Oriental Print Works and many of the mill hands were once again employed.

J.R. Cole, in his History of Washington and Kent Counties, written in 1889, notes, “The Oriental Print Works, now owned by Jordan Marsh & Co., of Boston, at one time did a thriving business. The works closed, however, in March 1883, since which time a hundred thousand dollars and more have been paid to keep watch over the works and to keep the insurance paid up. In the meanwhile the laboring masses have removed to the surrounding villages for work.”

Fortunately for the “laboring masses,” the period when the mill was closed was of short duration. The company was able to continue in operation after 1896. At that time it was known as the Apponaug Print Works. Due to technical problems, this company was dissolved and a new company called the Apponaug Bleaching. Dyeing, and Print Works Co. was established and concentrated on the printing of staple cotton fabrics. This company enjoyed a limited success until 1913 when, under the leadership of J.P. Farnsworth, it made a major change and began a period of unprecedented prosperity.

Farnsworth and his colleagues decided to direct the company toward the development of finishing processes for fine textiles instead of staple fabrics. This field, which eventually included the finer grades of cotton, rayon, celanese and mixed fabrics, required a greater technical skill and more delicate workmanship. Fortunately, the company was able to acquire the skills of Alfred L. Lustig, one of the world’s foremost color chemists.

Alfred Lustig, a native of Hungary, immigrated to America in the late 1880s, shortly after graduating from the Vienna School of Technology. In 1913, after a brilliant career as a chemist in New Jersey, at the Cranston Print Works, and at the Sayles Finishing Co. of Pawtucket, he was persuaded to come to Apponaug as the general manager of the Apponaug Co. Lustig is generally given credit for making the Apponaug Company one of the leading firms in the textile industry. His brilliance and his innovations proved to be more than adequate to meet the challenges of the early twentieth century.

The bleaching and dyeing enterprises depended a great deal upon the water supply and the skill of the chemists. In Apponaug the water was excellent from Gorton’s Pond, and 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.

During the first part of the 20th century, the Apponaug Company’s business was done entirely for mills and converters. The location of the large complex was within easy reach of the principle textile mills and the most important wholesale markets.

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 that started in Europe in 1914 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 tight labor market gave greater bargaining power to the workers and they eventually 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.

The story of Apponaug in the late 19th and early 20th centuries will be continued.


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