By the early twentieth century, the "French Mills" were some of the largest and most important in Woonsocket. These mills, including the Guerin Mills, Lafayette Worsted, French Worsted and Riverside Worsted, were owned by foreign born industrialists who were convinced to set up operations in Woonsocket by Aram Pothier.
Pothier felt that foreign investment was essential for Woonsocket to continue its industrial growth. Foreign owned mills would pay taxes to the city and paychecks to local workers, contributing millions of dollars to the local economy. In two trips to Paris as Rhode Island's Delegate to the International Trade Exposition, Pothier met with many important French-Belgian manufacturers. Attracted to Woonsocket by its large, highly skilled, French speaking work force, the mills set up by these industrialists produced yarn using the "french process" for distribution nation-wide. In all, Pothier is credited with bringing $6,000,000 in foreign investment to Woonsocket
It was during his first trip to Paris that Pothier probably met Belgian manufacturer Joseph Guerin.
Born in the Belgian village of Foret, Guerin worked in textile mills in Belgian and Italy before coming to Woonsocket in 1892 at the age of 41. With Aram Pothier's help, Guerin set up the first large scale, "foreign" spinning plant in Woonsocket, the Guerin Spinning Company, in 1895. By the time of his retirement in 1918, Guerin's holdings included the Alsace Spinning Company, Montrose Weaving Company, Rosemont Dying Company and the American Paper Tube Company. These companies were located in an extensive mill complex (now home to Tinsel Town) that Guerin built on East School Street.
Guerin died in 1923 and is buried in the Pothier Mausoleum in the Precious Blood Cemetery. His mills continued operating in Woonsocket for many years before moving south in the 1950's
Auguste and Louis Lepoutre
The next large enterprise to come to Woonsocket was the Lafayette Worsted Company - the first French spinning company in Woonsocket.
Lafayette Worsted was founded in 1899 by Auguste Lepoutre et Cie of Roubaix, France, an old established textile company. Its President was Auguste Lepoutre. Its Vice President was Louis Lepoutre. Both were residents of Roubaix, France and never permanently lived in Woonsocket. The company built a large mill complex on Hamlet Avenue near the Blackstone River that spun wool using the "french" process. The Beaux Arts office buildings built by the company at 134 and 150 Hamlet Avenue are unique to Rhode Island. By 1910, Lafayette Worsted employed over 500 people.
By 1936, Auguste and Louis had died and their heirs decided to divide the vast estate. In Woonsocket, the Lafayette Worsted Company was retained by Auguste's heirs. A new company, the Argonne, was formed by Louis' heirs. The Argonne Company received the newest mill building, now occupied by the Miller Electric Company. Both companies operated in Woonsocket until the 1950's.
The next large French textile firm to establish operations in Woonsocket was the the French Worsted in 1906.
French Worsted was owned by the firm of Charles Tiberghien and Sons of Tourcoing, France. Its President was Charles Tiberghien. The firm already had mills in Austria and Czechoslovakia when it built a large complex at 153 Hamlet Street - across the street from the Lafayette Worsted. By 1910, the firm employed over 400 people.
Charles Tiberghien remained president of French Worsted for 40 years, although he spent very little time in Woonsocket. Still, the firm made a huge contribution to the city and remained in operation until the 1960's.
Jules Desurmont and Eugene Bonte
The next of the French industrialist to set up operation in Woonsocket was Jules Desurmont.
Desurmont founded Jules Desurmont Worsted Company, later Riverside Worsted Company, in 1907. Like the Lafayette Worsted and the French Worsted, the corporate headquarters remained in France and Desurmont spent little time in Woonsocket. The company built a massive mill at 84 Fairmount Street, across the street from the Alice Mill. Built of concrete with a brick veneer, the building was virtually fire proof. Desurmont Worsted spun yarn using the french process" and employed 350 people in 1910. The company was reorganized in 1935 and its name was changed to Riverside Worsted Company. It was still owned and controlled by Jules Desurmont et Fils of France.
The President of Riverside Worsted from 1935 until it ceased operation in 1952 was Eugene Bonte. Bonte and his family moved to Woonsocket from France in 1928. When Riverside Worsted closed in 1952, Bonte purchased the assets and reopened the company as Bonte Spinning Company. The Bonte family operated the mill until 1974.
Jacques Lepoutre was born in Roubaix, France in 1893. He was son of Auguste and nephew of Louis Lepoutre - owners of Lafayette Worsted in Woonsocket and Auguste Lepoutre et Cie in France. After distinguished service in World War I, Jacques married and moved to Woonsocket in 1920.
In the years between 1920 and 1922, Jacques built the Verdun Mill at 413 Manville Road. The mill carried on all phases of textile manufacturing. It was the only French owned textile mill in Woonsocket that actually wove cloth. By 1948, theVerdun employed 170 people.
Unlike the other French industrialist, Jacques Lepoutre lived much of his life in Woonsocket. In 1922, he built a beautiful neo-classical mansion for himself and his bride off Roberts Street in Bernon Heights. In the 1920's and 1930's, this house was the scene of many elegant social affairs. He was a religious man who was active in his local parish, Precious Blood Church, and in the development of Mount St. Charles Academy.
Jacques was President of the Verdun Mills from the day they opened until his death in 1956. He is buried in the Precious Blood Cemetery.
This page utilizes information from:
For Woonsocket residents, both books are available at the Woonsocket Harris Public Library.
- Woonsocket, Rhode Island - A Centennial History 1888 - 1988 published by the Woonsocket Centennial Committee in 1988.
- Woonsocket - Highlights of History 1800-1976 written by Alton Pickering Thomas, MD and published by the Woonsocket Opera House Society in 1973.
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