After 202 years, work goes on at West Warwick mill
West Warwick, R.I. – Thomas Jefferson was in the final year of his presidency when Christopher and Charles Lippitt built a textile mill on the banks of the Pawtuxet River in what was then Warwick. The 1808 wood frame building is not only still standing, it's still in the textile business under the name Riverpointe Lace.
Peter Palmisciano and his partner, John Ponte, bought it in a bankruptcy auction two years ago for $300,000.
"We were notified that it was coming up to be bid on in receivership," says Palmisciano. "It was a nice company and had a lot of people who were going to lose their jobs. So my partner and I decided to take a look at it. And it seemed like there was a lot of room to improve here."
The three-and-a-half story building is 202 years old - and it looks every bit of its age. Roofs sag; the wood floors undulate from years of wear and tear. The floor boards are held together with square headed nails characteristic of the colonial era.
They no longer manufacture cloth here but they do jus t about everything else needed to bring textiles to market including washing, dying, bleaching, blocking and napping. About 50 percent of Riverpointe's business is dying lace for companies like J. Crew, Victoria's Secret and Donna Karan. Co-owner John Ponte says lace has made a spectacular comeback recently.
"Over the last two months, lace has just done absolutely incredible," Ponte says. "It's back in fashion where it was off for a long time."
A hundred years ago a plant like this would have been staffed with hundreds of immigrants who worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. It was dangerous work, says University of Rhode Island labor historian Scott Molloy.
"We find time and time again where people lose fingers, hands," says Molloy. "We have a couple examples of women being scalped when their hair gets caught in one of the machines and it just pulls it right out."
Today, though, thanks to automation, only 30 workers operate about 75 machines. And everyone seems to have all their fingers, including machine operator Michael Sylvia.
"The work isn't very strenuous," Sylvia says. "It's tedious but not strenuous. Just a pleasant place to work. Everybody knows everybody. Basically everybody's from town."
Once upon a time, mills like this made West Warwick one of the most productive textile producing communities in America. But beginning in the early 20th Century, most of the mills that lined the Pawtuxet River started moving south in search of cheaper labor. Co-owner Peter Palmisciano says the mill's staying has to do with speed.
"Our niche here is we have the ability to turn product around immediately," he says. "So if you need something tomorrow we can probably get it to you tomorrow. Depending on how big it is, if it's Monday, we can get it to you by Wednesday or Thursday. We can knock things out right away for you and that's what overseas doesn't have."
Something else those overseas companies probably don't have that Riverpointe does: ghosts. People here will tell you this mill is haunted - with doors allegedly opening and closing on their own. Dyehouse supervisor Arthur Potter has a theory about the ghost's identity.
"We used to call him Charlie the Polack," Potter says. "He was here a long time and retired. As a matter of fact he lived in a house over there. And he retired and just couldn't stand being retired. He hung himself in the building. And we swear his ghost is still around here."
When Riverpointe Lace was built two centuries ago, Rhode Island was the epicenter of a thriving
textile industry. Riverpointe's continued existence, while others have gone under, suggests that success is still within reach for companies that offer service and quality that no one else can match.