Cricket Field offers a gateway between Johnston and North Providence, promoting the appreciation of the natural environment and healthy living along the river. Restoration of this neighborhood oasis transformed the park from an abandoned lot to an idyllic respite which will one day connect to the Woonasquatucket River Greenway. Learn more here about how to support WRWC’s efforts to continue revitalizing community around the Woony!
Greystone and the Joseph Benn Company
A Paternal Mill Tradition
Joseph Benn & Sons, Ltd., was one of a number of English textile manufacturers that located in Rhode Island around the turn of the 20th century to avoid foreign competition and U. S. protective tariffs on manufactured textile goods. They specialized in products made from wool, alpaca and mohair. The Benn Company built the mills and abundant worker housing and, more than that, they did much to make their imported English workers feel comfortable in America.
In 1904, the Joseph Benn Company occupied its new mill in Greystone, a sleepy little community on the North Providence side of the Woonasquatucket River. There had been textile making in the village for much of the 19th century, but at a very modest scale. A small stone mill and about six mill cottages were the only buildings standing there at the turn of the 20th century. The company spent two and one half million dollars to construct the new mill, social club, housing and the massive Whitehall Building. In a few years, the population of the village went from 60 to over 1500 people.
The Benn workforce came here from England with a background in mill work, unlike the majority of the Irish, French Canadians and southern Europeans who came to New England with a farming background. The English were accustomed to the monotony and discipline of factory work.
The Benn Company believed in good, old-fashioned company paternalism as we picture it in the early days of the mill villages. The owners of the Benn Company felt that a happy worker was a good worker. Their workforce was highly trained and skilled, and it made good business sense to give them extra perks that were on the way out in most other factory villages. Profit was their main goal, but the mill owners knew mill work was monotonous and often dangerous. To alleviate the monotony, the company provided benefits that would not be expected in most mill villages in Rhode Island during the early 20th century. These included the organization of a cricket team (Benn’s Mohairs), library groups, craft activities, bands and choral groups.
The Life, Recreation and Leisure of a Benn Mill Worker
A Paternal Mill Tradition
One of the most important institutions of the village was the Greystone Social Club. It was the social center of the village.
The club was formed in 1904 so that workers could gather nightly as they had in Yorkshire, England. By 1907 the company had erected a building for the club, where all the fraternal organizations of the village met. The Social Club housed a billiard room, reading room, smoking room and a buffet room. It sponsored such social events as a series of handicap games in December, an English feast every month (featuring “truly English entertainment””, an annual Christmas celebration and weekly dances.
Sports were very important in Greystone for participants and spectators. The mill cricket team (named Benn’s Mohairs), played in a league against other mill teams in the metro-Providence area. Spectators dressed in white to watch the matches. The company donated this land for Cricket Field on Angell Avenue in Johnston.
Water carnivals along the river became quite famous. Swimmers and divers from around New England came to the Woonasquatucket River to compete for prizes. Canoe and boat races were held. In the winter months, ice polo was played on the river. There were also tennis courts, playgrounds, a boy scout troop, gymnasium classes and sewing classes.
In 1938, the Benn Company sold its housing to tenants and closed the plant. One resident of the village recalls that, ‘It was never the same after that,” referring to the effects of the sale.