One Square Mile: Woonsocket Primer

PROVIDENCE, RI – As you drive into Woonsocket a sign welcomes you to a "city on the move". But a more accurate description may be a city in search of an identity.

Once the home of more than 100 bustling textile mills, Woonsocket is today a city notable for empty store fronts and mill buildings.

Its population has been falling steadily since 1950. Back then the city boasted 50,000 residents. Today it has about 41,000.

Woonsocket mayor Leo Fontaine sees his number one job as attracting new businesses to fill these buildings.

"No, I don't think we'll ever go back to where we were," says Fontaine. "What we're doing is trying to forge a new future and establish a new identity for ourselves as the north Rhode Island urban center that provides great services and has good jobs such as CVS. "

This isn't the first time Woonsocket has re-invented itself. It was settled by Europeans as an agricultural community in the 1660's.

Then came the industrial revolution. Emboldened by Samuel Slater's successful Pawtucket textile mill which started operations in 1790, other entrepreneurs - many from France and Belgium - harnessed the power of the Blackstone River in Woonsocket.

By the Civil War dozens of woolen and cotton mills lined the river. To staff them, the owners went to Quebec. Ray Bacon, co-director of Woonsocket's Museum of Work and Culture, says French Canadians were appealing to these early mill owners because they shunned labor unions.

"Unions were not really known in Quebec so as far as organizing themselves into unions no, they weren't aware of that", says Bacon. "Not in the sense we are today. They were known to be docile, to be good workers and I think that's part of the image you get out of these people."

The drive to recruit French Canadians was a huge success. Between the 1860's and 1920 close to one million Quebec residents - a quarter of that province -- re-located to the textile mills of New England.

The average wage, $1.50 a day, was three times what they would have earned in Canada.

"We make more money than we can spend," wrote one young Woonsocket mill worker to a relative back in Quebec.

By the turn of the 20th century, Woonsocket had earned the title the most French city in the United States with 72 percent of its population holding French surnames. Some immigrants never learned English because they didn't have to. Even schools were instructed in French says historian Ray Bacon. "The majority of children in Woonsocket went to parochial bilingual schools until the 1960's so you had half a day in French and half a day in English."

In the 1920's the mill owners organized the Blackstone Valley Industrial baseball league. The idea was to cultivate employee loyalty, reduce turnover and promote Americanization.The League produced some stand out players says historian Bacon.

"It's out of this that we get great players that became Hall of Famers like Napoleon Lajoie and Gabby Hartnett," Bacon explains with enthusiasm.

Lajoie and Hartnett are two of several famous Woonsocket sons and daughters you may never have heard of.

"We have people like Eileen Farrell. Great opera singer. We have Edwin O'Connor, Pulitzer prize-winning author. We have Eddie Dowling, entertainer/producer. He produced, for example, Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie. So we have people from Woonsocket who go out and get themselves known and if you look at some of their background you'll realize they're hometown kids."

Woonsocket's glory years lasted from roughly 1850 to 1950. In the 50's the mills started to leave. First to the South where wages were lower and unions were few and far between. Later, to developing countries.

Today, Woonsocket - like many rust belt cities - faces the challenge of attracting new industry. And Mayor Leo Fontaine says they're having some success. "We're the home of CVS. Their world headquarters is located here. Summer Infant is another one in our industrial park. They manufacture and distribute products for babies. Batesville Casket is up there. They have a distribution center there."

Fontaine bristles at the stereotype often hurled Woonsocket's way.

"Well I just think they think that it's a community stuck in the past .. stuck in their old French ways from all these years back and people who don't speak English and that we're still speaking French up here."

That stereotype bothers lifelong Woonsocket resident Roland La Frenaye too. " They call it the clothesline city because years ago people used to do their wash and hang their clothes on clotheslines. They make fun of Woonsocket for that but it's changed a lot. People got dryers now!"

They not only have dryers, they have Stadium Theatre -- a state-of-the-art performance theatre, fine restaurants and an engaging history museum. But what they're proudest of, says Mayor Fontaine, is their esprit de corps.

"We are a good, hardworking and good-hearted community and our roots as a mill town are strong. The mills may not be here but that spirit of hard work and people wanting to pitch and and work hard are there and their hearts are there."

Woonsocket is definitely a city with challenges. Its bond rating is at junk status. The city had to borrow money to pay a $12 million deficit. Its population is on the decline and there are all those empty buildings. But it's also a city that is refusing to give up , determined to carve out a future that's as prosperous as the one it left behind.

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