The '30s, a difficult period
From 1930 until the outbreak of World War II I 1941, Warwick went through a period that balanced difficulties and tragedies with excitement and pleasure. Many of the problems encountered were due to the poor economic conditions and to the devastating effects of the hurricane of 1938.
Even before the Stock Market Crash of 1929, Warwick was struggling with serious economic difficulties brought about y the failure of the textile industry. The giant B.B. & R. Knight Company, with mills in Pontiac and Natick, tried desperately to cut costs by the “speed-up” system, where employees were urged to work faster, and the “Stretch-out” policy, which used fewer workers to reach the same production quotas. These attempts failed and textile mills in Warwick and West Warwick closed, leaving many unemployed.
By 1930, 27 percent of those engaged in cotton textile manufacturing and 24 percent of those in the woolen industry in Rhode Island were out of jobs. The resulting economic depression was felt most acutely by the immigrant workers in the mill villages.
The major exception to the declining textile industry was the Apponaug Company, which specialized in developing superior methods of bleaching, dyeing and printing textiles. The company was also one of the first to enter into the field of synthetic fabrics and, by 1934, was the first in America to produce “wash and wear” no-iron fabrics. The Apponaug plant became a major employer in Warwick, attracting skilled workers from nearby Pontiac and Natick, as well as other sections of Warwick. 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.
Warwick elected to become a city in 1931. The town’s population had grown to over 23,000 and no longer could be considered a small town. Within Warwick’s 36.26 square miles of land there were many miles of water mains, over 100 miles of accepted highways, several hundred town employees, more than 6,000 families and 21 school buildings. Political leaders were becoming very much aware that the 18th and 19th century form of government was no longer adequate to meet the needs of the town.
Warwick was, however, still an agricultural community with its tax base centered on land value. Warwick farmers, trying to retain the independence of an earlier period, were reluctant to concede that the town meeting form of government was no longer feasible. It was a difficult decision to make and only after the town was deeply imbedded in financial difficulties did the change to a city form of government, with a mayor and council, take place.
Harold P. Whyte, president of the Warwick Chamber of Commerce, was the force behind the successful movement to change the form of government. Thanks to his determination, and after a number of unsuccessful attempts, the City Charter was accepted on April 21, 1931. The charter called for an election in November 1932, with the first mayor and the city council to assume office in March 1933.
As 1932 wore on, Warwick was the scene of much political excitement. The Warwick City Times, under editor Arthur W. Paine, sponsored a lively “pick the mayor” contest. The Times, which later became the Warwick City Herald, “due to legal complications” threw its support behind Pierce Brereton, who had been town solicitor from 1926-32.
The 38-year-old Brereton was the great-grandson of Thomas J. Hill, the founder of Hillsgrove. In addition to attending Brown University, Yale University and Harvard Law School, Brereton had served on the submarine chaser Itasca 2nd during World War I. Brereton was the front runner in the campaign and was elected mayor with little opposition. Warwick, true to its earlier political leanings, elected a predominantly Republican city council.