200305ind History

The Hamilton Web mill building in North Kingstown provides one of the most vivid connections between Southern Rhode Island’s past and present. Above, the building is pictured in present day.

Regardless of whether we are all aware of it or not, North Kingstown, is now poised upon the end of an era. I take note of it each week as I read the local obituaries (an almost uncontrollable habit had by both people who are beginning to feel their years and by folks brought up in the undertaker’s trade – two groups to which I belong) or reach out to members of our senior citizenry for information about our fair town’s past. You see, before long there will be no one left in our community that made their living surrounded by the constant clackety-clack of the fabric loom.

The textile trade, long dead here in North Kingstown, has been kept alive in the hearts and minds of those who worked in those now-quiet mills. They have provided us with a living link to a time; to a way of life no less, that is part and parcel of the very fabric of our community. In an augenblick “the blink of an eye” the last of these good folks will be gone. That story will be over.

One of those folks was my mother-in-law Lillian Budihas (see obit, page B-7), whose death last week at the age of 90, brought this reality front and center in my family’s life. She spent year upon year as first a winder and then an examiner in the last of North Kingstown’s textile mills, the venerable business establishment Hamilton Web.

Begun in the first half of the 1800s, it owed its name and early existence to the Vaughan family; a powerful force in the early history of textiles in Southern New England, and its longevity, its staying power, to the Greenes who ran it for more than a century. Hamilton Web outlasted all others in the local textile trade by virtue of not only the business acumen of the Vaughans and Greenes, but also because of the unique nature of the highly specialized product they made there. Know by the trade name of “web,” this narrow gauge fabric was produced here in every format imaginable; from shoelaces to guitar straps, from boot pulls to minefield marker tape, from fancy lace trim to very utilitarian labels sewn in to the back of shirts, blouses and dresses like the Macy’s tags made here for decades, all of it was designed, spun, and woven here in Hamilton. Hard-working women like my mother-in-law Lillian did most of this work by the way. Another unique fact about Hamilton Web, one it shared with the Belleville Mill, a broadcloth enterprise that operated for more than a century as well out on Oak Hill Road, was that they both had a “seconds store”; a place where workers and local folks alike could purchase fabric that didn’t quite pass muster through the mill’s stringent quality control standards.

I’m betting that, stuffed in boxes in basements or sitting on shelves in storage closets or at the bottom of sewing baskets all across southern Rhode Island, there are woven testimonials to lives and times of the literally thousands of souls who lived by the clackety-clack of the loom, who set their table based upon the sound of the “potato bell” that rang an hour before shift’s end, whose livelihood depended upon the feel of a piece of woolen fabric or the time-tested dependability of a woven shoelace.

A number of years back, the North Kingstown Free Library, the NK Senior Center, and yours truly, in the form of my local history non-profit “Swamptown Enterprises” made an effort to preserve a “swatch” of North Kingstown’s rich history as a collection of textile mill villages, by collecting samples of the fabrics made in the many mills that once click-clacked away here in North Kingstown weaving broadcloth and narrow weave fabrics.

An impressive collection of these sample swatches is available now to peruse at the Library in the South County Room, but we are always looking for more. So if you worked in, or shopped at, one of these mills (Hamilton Web, Belleville, Rodman Manufacturing, Davisville, Shady Lea, etc.) and have samples of the fabrics woven there, won’t you do your part and donate some towards that collection, preserved for all to see right here in town at our fine public library? If you do not have any Hamilton Web products in your home or have never even seen any, go on down to the North Kingstown Library and take a look at what the women of North Kingstown in the 19th and 20th century made here in our fair town. Chances are some of those swatches were already checked for flaws by examiners like Lillian Budihas. If you can help, please Tom Frawley at the North Kingstown Free Library, or me at swamptown@msn.com for more information.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

(1) comment

Mark Thompson

Nice tale, wonderfully told. Please accept my condolences on the passing of your mother-in-law...

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