The recent demolition of the circa 1888 Belleville district schoolhouse on Oak Hill Road has got me thinking about the little forgotten mill village of Belleville and some of the unique stories that originated from this little hamlet. The rise of James R. Wilson is one of those tales.
James R. Wilson must have been a remarkable young man. Born in Pennsylvania in 1847, by the time he was 18 years of age, he was here in our fair town, supervising the carding and spinning departments of the Belleville Mill, owned and operated by the J.P Campbell Company. The Belleville Mill was the second largest textile mill in North Kingstown at the time, eclipsed only by The Rodman Mill in Lafayette and the J.P. Campbell Company was truly an up and coming Rhode Island manufacturing corporation. It was headed by John Campbell who began as a Westerly wool and cotton broker, and was now branching out into mill ownership; the Belleville Mill, formerly owned by William E. Pierce was his first acquisition, and James R. Wilson was one of his first supervisory hires.
As JP Campbell grew and expanded, so did the responsibilities of James R. Wilson. Campbell quickly acquired the large Riverside Mill in East Providence and a smaller mill in Westerly and at the same time Wilson moved up the ladder at Belleville. James, when he started, was a single man, living, like the other workers in the cramped mill boarding house. Before long, he was married to local gal Sarah E. Matteson and living in a large company owned home that he shared with his brother, who ran the dyeing department, and his family. By the time the 1880’s rolled around, John Campbell was joining forces with C. Prescott Knight in acquiring another enormous mill from the Sprague’s, a powerhouse family in the local textile industry. Campbell and Knight called their newly formed textile conglomerate “The Cranston Printworks,” and it became one of Rhode Island’s most important businesses. While all this was transpiring, back here in Belleville, James R. Wilson was promoted to supervisor in charge of the entire mill, a position he obtained before his 35th birthday. He too, like the JP Campbell Company, was a man of importance, a force to be reckoned with.
After a time James and Sarah Wilson decided they needed a new home, a house that made a statement about who they were and their standing in the community of Belleville. They hired well known local architect L. Rodman Nichols, who lived just around the corner in West Wickford, to design such a house. They then contracted with Lafayette house builder Jarvis Himes to construct their dream home in 1897. They lived out the rest of their days in the fine 2 ½ story cross-gabled Victorian home he built for them.
Eventually, J. P. Campbell Company, consolidating their business empire at the Riverside Mill and the Cranston Printworks, sold the Belleville Mill to the Curry family. James Wilson stayed on here and ran the newly formed Curry-owned Belleville Woolen Company for a time and then retired to his Belleville home. He passed away in 1922 and his wife Sarah passed on in 1936. Both of their funerals were held in the front parlor of their fine home. The impressive Belleville Mill eventually closed and then burned to the ground in the 1960’s. The James R. Wilson house though, which stayed in the hands of his descendants until just two decades ago, still stands, 123 years after it was constructed, to remind us of what a remarkable young man its owner once was.