French Canadians led the textile industry from Woonsocket
John Landry is a historian in Providence and a member of the Journal’s advisory board for “Our Hidden History”. Descendant of French Canadians via Louisiana, he wrote a book on the economic development of Rhode Island. Contact him at [email protected]
Conventional wisdom is that established Rhode Islanders first build a thriving economy, then let immigrants in as cheap labor. But the process was actually interactive, as Woonsocket shows.
The town was initially just a village in the town of Cumberland, notable for one of the largest drops in the Blackstone River. But in the 1800s, that 30-foot drop began to feed dozens of textile factories.
Meanwhile, agriculture in eastern Canada, particularly in Quebec a few hundred miles to the north, was in long-term decline. Farmers looked for opportunities in fast growing industrial cities.
They were particularly interested in Rhode Island, where French-speaking Huguenot refugees had settled (initially in the Frenchtown section of East Greenwich in 1686). As recruiters from the spinning mills facilitated the passage, nearly a million French Canadians arrived in New England after 1840, many here.
These immigrants soon dominated the Woonsocket mills. They replaced their agricultural rhythms with an industrial discipline and developed special skills in the manufacture of textiles. French was more common than English in many of the city’s schools, churches and shops. (The city’s Museum of Labor and Culture describes this process in detail.)
In turn, they gave Woonsocket extra life in the 20th century. By 1890, most of the state’s textile factories had begun long-term decline, including Woonsocket’s mammoth Social Mill. But a young and energetic state representative, Aram Pothier, had other ideas.
Pothier, a clerk at the Woonsocket Institute of Savings, was himself from Quebec. He moved to town at the age of 18 with his parents in 1872, settling in a house on Pond Street that he would never leave.
A term on the city’s school committee made him notice, then his fluency in French earned him a crucial appointment as state delegate at the Paris Trade Fair of 1889.
By the end of the 1880s, French and Belgian industrialists had developed a new textile technology superior to the methods used in the United States, particularly in woolens. But why would they risk their capital in such a foreign country?
Pothier offered two advantages: the first was the high US government tariff on textile imports. Unless manufacturers produce here, they would lose most of this rapidly expanding market. But the second was that Woonsocket would be familiar territory as a textile center, dominated by French culture and language. Pothier later added a 15-year exemption from property taxes to soften the deal.
He ends up convincing Joseph Guérin, Auguste Lepoutre and other entrepreneurs and together they build a new group of woolen mills in the city. The most important was Augustus’ son, Jacques, who settled here in 1920 and had a mansion built near the city center. Jacques helped convince hundreds of skilled French and Belgian workers to immigrate as well, thus developing Woonsocket.
Pothier took this success to further achievement, becoming mayor in 1893, lieutenant governor in 1897, then governor in 1908. He was the first (and so far the only) general manager of the state born in a non-English speaking house, and it performed well. enough to win several elections in 10 years. He paved the way for future leaders from immigrant political bases.
Thanks to its superior technology, the Woonsocket industry continued into the 1950s even as its cotton mills closed. The southern woolen mills eventually caught up and the proud French-speaking workforce refused to accept drastic pay cuts to keep their jobs. All factories, except the most specialized, have closed.
At that time, however, Woonsocket had a significant business base to diversify its economy, as well as strong institutions such as Mount St. Charles Academy. Its French heritage was not only a beautiful feature, but a long-standing economic driver.