History Notes

Charles Fletcher, a giant of the textile industry

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History Notes is a biweekly entry in the Sun Rise that features a passage from the Johnston Historical Society. This week’s story comes from March 2014.

Charles Fletcher, a giant in the U.S. textile field, may not have been Johnston-born and bred, and he never even lived in town, but he was arguably one of the most important people in our town’s history.

Mr. Fletcher was born in Thornton, England, near Bradford in Yorkshire on Nov. 20, 1840. He learned the textile business in the mills of Bradford. After emigrating to America, he spent one year working at the Pacific Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and later worked very successfully for nine years as a supervisor at the Valley Worsted Mills on Valley Street in Providence.

In 1875, Fletcher decided to go out on his own and leased the Rising Sun Paper Mill, also on Valley Street. He was soon supervising operation of his mill, doing the books and selling the product of his mill. When requested by his old employers, he additionally took on the supervision of the work at the Valley Worsted Mills.

He soon became well known for the quality of the worsted goods that he produced, and became so successful, that he embarked on a large expansion program. In 1878, he purchased in total 213,000 square feet of land on Valley Street with a frontage of 852 feet. On this property between 1878 and 1890, he built six large mill buildings, as well as numerous smaller ones. In 1883, this complex became the Providence Worsted Mill Co.

As president and principal owner of this company, he soon became the largest consumer of wool in the United States. Fletcher went on to open other mills in Massachusetts and New York, he owned the Narragansett Hotel in Providence, and he was one of the prime movers initiating the cable railway over the city’s East Side.

He also was a key figure in organizing and running the American Woolen Co., a huge textile trust, which remained in existence until Textron purchased it in the 1950s.

In 1883, Charles began working the Johnston connection to his textile empire. In that year he purchased the Providence Thread Co. on Mill Street in Thornton (Lower Simmonsville at that time). He changed the name of the company to the Thornton Worsted Mills, naming it after his birthplace. His son, Joseph E. Fletcher, was made superintendent.

During the period of our town’s greatest growth and helping to usher in that growth, Fletcher built three of the largest textile mills in our town’s history, the British Hosiery Mill (1884), the Pocasset Worsted Mill (1898) and the Victoria Mill (1898). Fletcher leased the hosiery mill to Robert W. Cooper before finally selling it to him. Both the Pocasset Mill and the Victoria Mill were kept in the family – Fletcher ran the former and his son-in-law, Harry Hartley, ran the latter.

Immediately after the British Hosiery Mill opened its doors at the beginning of 1885, the village’s name was changed to Thornton, in honor of Fletcher. The influx of a totally English workforce to man the hosiery mill brought profound change to the little village of Thornton. Soon, cricket was being played in the village, English choral and literacy groups were in place and a brass band lent its sounds to the culture the inhabitants. A new Congregational church was added just across the border in Cranston, and numerous stores were erected along Plainfield Street and some of the side streets.

These mills provided thousands of jobs. Many of these openings were filled by new people moving into town. They needed housing and dozens new duplexes were built for the workers’ use by the Fletcher mills and by the British Hosiery Mill. New people in the village meant more accompanying services were needed.

Dozens of new stores and a post office were added in the built-up section of Thornton, as well as new churches, including St. Bridget’s and St. Rocco’s, both Catholic, and Holy Nativity Episcopal Church. Fire services came to the village. In 1898, after the Johnston section of Olenyville was annexed to Providence, the town hall and police department were moved from Olneyville to Thornton.

Eventually, the textile industry went into decline, and the three textile companies in our town that Fletcher was involved with all ceased production by the 1930s. The mills sold off their housing and other companies took over the mills. As time went on, many of the old stores closed, and new businesses took over.

But, even today, much of Thornton still looks the same as it did 100 years ago. Fletcher’s mills, though, changed our town forever. Thornton truly became the business and residential center of Johnston. We could argue that things have changed in the last 30 or 40 years (with the Town Hall area becoming the new center of town), and I guess that would be true. Fletcher was still probably the key figure in bringing Johnston into the modern age, though. He really was a giant of a man.

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