September 21, 2014
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Then and Now
Warwick's growing pains
Don D'Amato

During the ’20s, Warwick nearly doubled in population as it went from 13, 481 in 1920 to 23,196 at the end of the decade. Warwick was a town of dramatic contrasts as it became home for some of Rhode Island’s most affluent and most destitute citizens. This period of prohibition, gangsterism, high stock market profits, strikes and flamboyant political campaigns saw Warwick’s fire and police personnel at times acting more like comic vaudeville actors than public servants and, at the same time, these people were struggling to make progress towards creating real significant police and fire departments.

For the very wealthy, the fine estates along the Cowesett shore and Warwick Neck vied with those at Newport, Jamestown and Watch Hill for opulence and glamour. Beautiful automobiles, including Pierce Arrows and Marmons as well as Cadillacs, Packards and Lincolns, driven often by Irish chauffeurs, elegantly proceeded up bluestone or oyster-shell driveways to multi-colored mansions.

Many of the fine Victorian houses at Warwick Neck had rooms large enough for dancing and large soirées. Those who didn’t come by auto could get there by trolley and take a taxi to their destination. Most of the Irish maids and Italian gardeners who took care of the houses and grounds, however, usually walked from the trolley stop and while employers spent vast amounts on food, liquor and pleasure vehicles, these servants were among the lowest paid in the state.

Many of the large estates were actually farms. On the Kirby estate alone, there were 200m cattle and 1,500 turkeys. Other estates in Warwick were also interested in raising purebred sheep, prize cattle and horses. As the decade wore on, however, the increased interest in yachting brought about a Warwick Neck Country Club. By 1927 55 yachts were registered at the club and an excellent golf course and tennis court were built. The prosperity of the ’20s was very obvious on the Neck as new and fabulous inventions made life easy and luxurious.

While members of the Warwick Neck Country Club were discussing the merits of the Bristol-made Herreshoff racing yachts and their most recent successes on the stock market, others in the Neck, such as Carl Rettich and his friends, were inquiring about adding layers of telephone directories for “armour-plating” and triple Liberty airplane engines to their sleek speedboats. The only races they were interested in winning were the ones with the Coast Guard, for these people represented the rum-runners and the bootleggers who found Warwick’s many coves and inlets ideal locations for their illegal activities.

Warwick Neck was also the center of political activity as the very wealthy Peter G. Gerry, using his Warwick Neck address, successfully ran for the U.S. Senate. Gerry, whose great wealth made him a leader of the Democratic Party, often found himself at odds with the rank and file members. For a number of years, a behind-the-scenes struggle for supremacy in the party was carried on between Gerry and Theodore Francis Green.

For a brief period in the 1920s, the Democratic Party began to make giant strides on a state level and second-generation descendants of immigrants began to forgo ethnic rivalries and unite. Feeling betrayed by the Republicans in the Strike of 1922, the mill workers helped put Democrat William S. Flynn in as governor, Felix Toupin as lieutenant governor and elected large numbers to the General Assembly. While they did not control the state legislature, Democrats found that their numbers were large enough to frustrate Republican legislation.

Unfortunately, the standard of living in Warwick’s mill villages and on the small farms was much lower than that of the middle class. In 1920 the average wage in the textile industry was a little over 18 cents per hour and, while it did rise to 40 cents by the end of the decade, there were many unemployed and without any income. The exception to much of the decline of the textile industry was the Apponaug Company, which found itself the recipient of increased business. To keep pace with major changes and innovations, the plant, under Lustig, underwent major modernization between 1920-28, a time when other mills were talking of closing.

After the Strike of 1922, many workers found it difficult to find work and to afford even the meager lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. In addition, the Ku Klux Klan grew in the state. Klansmen met in Pawtuxet, openly walked through Rocky Point, and burned crosses in the fields near Hardig Brook. In Rhode Island they were more anti-Catholic than anti-black and their presence was ominous. More subtle forms of discrimination, such as the variety of jobs open for certain groups, the denial of membership to certain organizations and other indications of prejudice loomed large in Warwick as it did in other areas of Rhode Island.


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