Pontiac Mills

Complete history, interactive timeline, and architectural notes

Knight Street → Pawtuxet River → → Pawtuxet River → → Pawtuxet River → Dam S1 S1A S2 2 21 Arnold's Mill Clarke's Mill 1 1 Description old bleachery 3 3 4 4* *Originally called Bldg 20 4A 4A 5 6 6 old boiler house 8A 9 old water wheel 8 7 7 10 11 11 14 15 16 19* *Originally called Building 35 20 25 26 28 28 29 29 30 31 32 33 NYLO Dog park Greenwich Village Apts. 1810 OWNER: Dutee Arnold
Click or slide to show a year above.

Pontiac Mills, a large former cotton mill in Warwick, RI, is mostly known for a few key factoids: Being the birthplace of the Fruit of the Loom brand, being a major producer of Union uniforms for the Civil War, and having its bell tower dedicated by President Lincoln upon its grand opening in 1863. But where do all these pieces fit together, and where did it all begin?

1800 Arnold’s Bridge

The history of this area prior to the mill era ranges from foggy to nonexistent, but it’s clear that the Pawtuxet River was always the main character in this village. Prior to the industrial revolution, this woodsy, sparsely-inhabited area was known as Papepieset to the Native Americans, translated by English settlers as The Great Weir, due to the presence of a weir (long, shallow dam) used for fishing.

History comes into clearer focus around 1800, when Benjamin Arnold purchased the land and renamed it Arnold’s Bridge after the new bridge across the weir.

1831 map of Warwick, RI showing the location of Arnold's Factory
1831 map of Warwick showing the location of Arnold’s Bridge and ”Arnold’s Factory” where Pontiac Mills now sits

The first mill on this site was built by Benjamin’s sons Horatio and Dutee Arnold in 1810, variously called “Arnold’s Mill” or “Arnold’s Factory” on local maps. Though it was a modest wooden single-story grist and sawmill powered by a single waterwheel, its existence would determine the use of the land for centuries to come.

1830 Clarksville

Arnold’s Mill was bought at auction by John Hopkins Clarke in 1830. Clarke was the first to meaningfully develop the village around the mill and attract more workers to live there, and after two successful years reviving the business he tore down Arnold’s Mill and built a newer, larger two-story mill out of stone, renaming the village Clarksville. In 1840, one hiring decision would change the course of the mill’s history forever.

Clarke hired a young man named Robert Knight as a clerk at the new Company Store (a one-stop shop to sell cotton products directly to the townspeople along with other household goods.) Knight had worked at Coventry Cotton Mill from ages 8 to 17 and planned to run a mill of his own one day. His wish came true in 1846, when Clarke was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Knight leapt at the opportunity to lease the mill in his absence. Within four years he had grown the business so successfully that in 1850 Clarke agreed to sell the mill to him outright.

Original Fruit of the Loom logo

When his co-investor left to pursue other opportunities, Robert approached his brother Benjamin Brayton Knight to go into business together. In 1852, the B. B. & R. Knight Co. was born, and in 1856 they began selling the mill’s finished goods under the brand name Fruit of the Loom after collaborating with a client whose daughter had been painting fruit labels on the fabric she purchased.

1863 The New Mill

After the most successful decade of ownership Clarke’s mill had yet seen, the Knight Brothers decided to demolish the old mill and build a newer, larger, state-of-the-art mill with the most cutting-edge steam power technology available at the time. That year, the huge brick building now known as Building 1 was erected, powered by a Corliss stationary steam engine. At the time, it was three stories and 200 feet long.

1863 illustration of Pontiac Mills in Warwick, RI
1863 illustration of Pontiac Mills

The Bleachery

The mill was unique in having its own bleachery on-site for bleaching, dyeing, and finishing fabrics, a process that was usually contracted to dedicated third-party bleacheries due to the specialized equipment and training involved. This was part of the Knights’ pursuit of vertical integration, or complete self-suffiency by completing every step in-house without any need for a supply chain. The Knights bought the local farms that grew their cotton, and rapidly expanded the mill complex to include everything from the treating and cleaning of raw cotton to the production of finished clothing.

Interior of Pontiac Mills Building 3 circa 1870
Interior of Building 3 circa 1870, precise year and photographer unknown

1870 Rapid expansion

The new mill was printing money. The Fruit of the Loom brand was a runaway success, and in 1871 became one of America’s first registered trademarks. Combined with the recent windfall from their Civil War uniform contract, the Knights were suddenly bringing in enormous revenue—and they were determined to invest every cent back into the mill and the community.

From this point onward, extensions and additions to the mill appeared at a never-before-seen pace.

1879 illustration of Pontiac Mills in Warwick, RI
Illustration of Pontiac Mills, J. D. Van Slyck, 1879

The Knights’ building spree wasn’t just contained to the mill, either—they believed firmly that investing in their community was beneficial on all sides. By 1888 they had personally paid for the construction of the Pontiac Grammar School, the Pontiac Library, and the All Saints’ Episcopal church in the village. They worked with the Hartford Railroad Company to approve plans for a branch of the railway directly into Pontiac village and then paid for its construction, as well as a telegraph line from the village into Providence.

Workers pose in front of the new train tracks in front of Building 3 circa 1900
Workers pose in front of the new train tracks in front of Building 3 circa 1900
1889 lithograph of Pontiac Mills in Warwick, RI
1889 lithograph showing Pontiac Mills from the rear

An architectural curiosity

The Knights’ interest in architecture lent the mill a curious and very unique mix of architectural styles as it expanded. Building 1’s traditional red-brick construction was soon followed by several stucco buildings with fanciful brick detailing. Bewilderingly, the stucco on some buildings was artificially scored to resemble ashlar. Yet others replicated classical Italian architecture with Church-like arched windows and roof corbels. The narrow stucco buildings along the riverfront were gradually conjoined with each other and developed into a “village” reminiscent of historic Italian streets, and came to be known by villagers as “The Mews” (a term for tight European streets lined by carriage houses.)

Pontiac Mills Building 3
Building 3’s stucco construction with fanciful brick detailing was highly unusual for a New England mill building.
The winding corridor between the narrow stucco buildings of Pontiac Mills, known as The Mews
The winding corridor between narrow, unusually-shaped stucco buildings by the river came to be known as “The Mews”

The mill entered the 20th century on top of the world. Compared to the 5000-spindle capacity of the old Clarke’s Mill, an 1898 report puts Pontiac at 27,792 spindles, employing 543 workers. The complex was constantly upgraded to keep up with the latest in manufacturing technology, and transitioned from oil lighting to electric lighting in 1908 with the installation of a 240-amp dynamo.

The success of Pontiac Mills allowed the Knights to build and purchase other Rhode Island mills including the Royal, Natick, Arctic, Lippitt, and Valley Queen mills, each of which was upgraded and doubled or tripled in size shortly afterward.

In 1912, B. B. & R. Knight Co. was the largest cotton manufacturer in the world.

1920 New Owners & Deadly Riots

Following the deaths of Benjamin and Robert Knight at the ripe old ages of 85 and 86 respectively, the B. B. & R Knight Co. was passed down to their sons Webster and Prescott, and after a few more successful years the family decided to retire from the textile business once and for all.

In September 1920 the Knight family completed one of the largest sales the business world had ever seen, selling Pontiac Mills, several nearby mills, and the rights to the “Fruit of the Loom” and “B. B. & R. Knight” names for a total of $20 million (well over $300 million in today’s dollars). The buyer was Consolidated Textile Company, a New York company that existed solely to buy up existing mills to add to their portfolio, forming a near-monopoly across the east coast.

It was almost like the departure of the Knights put a curse on the mill. Profit reserves from the World War I manufacturing boom ran dry, sales took a nosedive as the textile market was flooded with lower-priced imports, the village struggled to recover from the Spanish Flu epidemic, and worker morale plummeted as the locally beloved Knight family were replaced with nameless, faceless businessmen shipped in from New York with no connection to the Pontiac community and no mill experience themselves. To add insult to injury, they decided to keep using the “B. B. & R. Knight” name to manage the new Knight mills.

Machine gun mounted to the roof of Natick Mills circa 1922
Machine guns were mounted on the roofs of Pontiac Mills and Natick Mills - 1922

In 1921, less than a year into ownership, the new owners slashed wages by 22%, then the next year slashed wages by another 20% and mandated a 54-hour work week across the board. Over 2,000 workers from Pontiac Mills and other nearby Consolidated mills went on strike, and eventually turned to rioting after Consolidated refused to budge and began evicting families from their mill-owned worker housing in Pontiac village. As workers began severely damaging office buildings in the mills, Rhode Island governor Emory San Souci called in the National Guard to maintain order, and machine guns were mounted to the roofs of Pontiac Mills and nearby Natick Mills. Two people were gunned down in the mill riots on February 21, 1922. The historic strike lasted eight months. By September, the mills had reopened and many workers returned, but it was crystal clear that nothing would ever be the same.

In 1924 the new owners reported an unprecedented loss of $4 million in a single year, and in 1925 were crippled by a second strike after they announced a desperate plan to double the number of looms while keeping the same number of weavers. The weavers were eventually allowed to return to work with the existing number of looms—but only by cutting their wages by yet another 10%. That year, the company filed for bankruptcy and sold several of its mills. Pontiac survived the selloff thanks to one unique specialty that had made it a valuable piece of the puzzle from the very beginning: the bleachery. The mill’s spinning and weaving equipment was removed and sold, and the entire complex was converted to operate solely in bleaching, dyeing, and finishing fabric and clothing.

The “Pontiac Finishing Plant”, as it came to be known after removal of the spinning and weaving equipment, struggled to stay afloat during the Great Depression. By 1932 it had already experienced at least one more prolonged shutdown due to “insufficient orders to warrant capacity production”. Later that year the mill reopened with 200 workers, compared to 543 workers in 1898.

The company continued to hemmorhage money, and in 1935 the newly reorganized B. B. & R Knight Corporation filed for bankruptcy… again.

Newspaper photograph of Pontiac Mills circa 1924
Newspaper photograph of Pontiac Mills circa 1924

1935 Role Reversal

This time, the reorganization of the bankrupt company left it unrecognizably changed. It was determined that their most valuable asset was not any of their mills, but rather the Fruit of the Loom brand, which had become a household name. The company finally retired the Knight name and renamed itself Fruit of the Loom Corporation, and began licensing the Fruit of the Loom brand name to other manufacturers to bring in additional income. Where Pontiac Mills once owned Fruit of the Loom, Fruit of the Loom now owned Pontiac Mills.

The company sold off all of their remaining mills from the former Knight empire… except one. Pontiac’s bleaching, dyeing, and finishing operations were deemed just valuable enough to save it once more. To justify holding onto the aging mill where the brand had been born, new machinery for printing patterns and graphics onto fabric was installed, and the plant began doing business as Pontiac Print Works.

World War II

The removal of their weaving equipment, combined with the struggling New England textile industry as a whole, meant World War II did not bring Pontiac the manufacturing boom they had experienced with during the Civil War and World War I. Instead, the mill was chronically understaffed as many workers left for the war, and few wanted to return to their dangerous and underpaid bleachery jobs if they were lucky enough to come home. Cheaper imported textiles from overseas were saturating the market, and the financially struggling village of Pontiac hesitantly agreed to be absorbed into the City of Warwick.

1961 Dead Mill Walking

Pontiac Mills’ last years in business were spent being dragged through a bizarre series of lawsuits. In an attempt to finally achieve financial stability, Fruit of the Loom Corporation started a bidding war by offering itself up to a variety of wealthy potential buyers. However, it was revealed that the buyer they selected—Bates Manufacturing Company—had conspired to convince their shareholders to approve the Fruit of the Loom purchase at one price while those in the know—notably including those controlling the shares of a dead employee—secretly traded shares through an intermediary at different prices. The deceased employee’s wife sued, claiming that the buyout was irresponsible and motivated by insider trading.

Pontiac Mills was dragged to the center of this lawsuit when it was repeatedly used as an example of Bates intentionally over-hyping Fruit of the Loom to their shareholders without properly determining its value. Bates directors were interrogated over whether they knew the bleachery they’d raved about to their shareholders was actually a 100-year-old mill that had produced “unsatisfactory returns” for over a decade and was projected to do so in the future.

Through this, it was revealed that a plan to sell Pontiac Mills already existed, and in the meantime it was being treated merely as a “safety valve” in Fruit of the Loom’s portfolio. As the lawsuit uncovered more suspicious trading, the SEC sued to stop the sale. Fruit of the Loom eventually sold to another bidder, the Philadelphia & Reading Company, who already owned several other companies that had been licensing the Fruit of the Loom name for decades.

In 1966, the inevitable finally happened. Fruit of the Loom—a brand born at Pontiac Mills 110 years earlier—sold Pontiac Mills. The buyer was a New Jersey corporation called Allied Textile Printers, who scooped the mill up for a bargain price as Fruit of the Loom shifted to newer facilities in the midwest and overseas. But this last lease on life wouldn’t last long.

1970 End of an Era

Like a game of Monopoly, Pontiac Mills was not lost suddenly or swiftly, but in a long, painful, gradual decline. The heartbeat finally stopped in March 1970, when it officially ceased operations for good with one week’s notice to employees, and was immediately vacated. The heartbroken Pontiac community organized a successful campaign to get the mill added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

After several years of uncertainty in which the mill sat abandoned, an unnamed buyer purchased the property in 1973 and began leasing it out to miscellaneous commercial tenants, at various times including a local clothing reseller, a furniture store called Stylewise Convertibles, and a branch of Unclaimed Freight Co. But tenants were few and far between, the century-old buildings were starting to deteriorate, and the future of the complex was uncertain. One 1987 newspaper column mentions Pontiac Mills simply as “a clothing store in Warwick” which “lacks proper lighting”.

Children playing outside the abandoned Pontiac Mills in 1972
Children playing outside the abandoned Pontiac Mills in 1972 - ©1972 National Register of Historic Places

1990 Artisans’ Gathering

Pontiac Antiques & Art Emporium in Pontiac Mills circa 1998
Pontiac Mills Building 1 as Pontiac Antiques & Art Emporium circa 1998

By the 1990s, it seemed the complex might have some life left in it yet. In addition to a few tenants remaining from the 1970s, the quaint location had begun to attract a small community of local artisans and craftmakers, incuding an antiques shop called Pontiac Antiques & Art Emporium, a metal crafter’s shop called Handle With Care, an Egyptian-palace-themed arts emporium called Diva’s Palace, a piano repairman, and a stone artisan called Castique. As recently as the late 90s, the community had hopes of fully rejuvenating the mill site with new businesses, cafés, and outdoor holidays parties.

The owner of Pontiac Antiques sent in a lengthy and quite funny interview about her time renting space in the mill in the late 90s, when it felt like a wild west and everyone was just scraping by. to display the full interview below.

2001 A Failed Rebirth

A new player entered the scene in 2001, when Texas businessman and oil baron H. Hampton Hodges purchased the dilapidated Pontiac Mills, planning to renovate it into a mix of residential and commercial real estate and office space. Despite all appearances, this Texas oil man swooping in to renovate a property he’d never seen actually turned out to be one of the most sympathetic characters in this entire saga.

Pontiac Mills in 2002
Pontiac Mills in 2002 - ©2002 The Warwick Beacon

For over a decade, after temporarily moving to the area and working closely with local governments to determine the right path forward, Hodges encountered setback after setback in his plan to save the mill.

  • In 2002, he lost his personal friend and the plan’s primary architect Bruno D’Agostino to cancer.
  • The Station Nightclub fire in 2003 resulted in huge changes to fire safety codes, which required starting over from scratch.
  • Further replanning was required by a string of environmental concerns due to a landfill upstream and the obstruction of fish migration due to the mill’s dam.
  • The tax credit program that would have funded much of the renovation was canceled in 2007.
  • 2008 brought the “Great Recession” which tanked the real estate market.
  • A massive flood in 2010, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, caused severe water damage to the already-dilapidated mill. (photo during flood)

The only part of Hodges’ plan that actually came to fruition was the NYLO Hotel, and even that had its share of troubles. The mill building that intended to be its home, a large storage building called Building S2, was deemed unsalvageable and had to be demolished and replaced with a new building “inspired by” mill architecture. The hotel finally opened its doors in 2008, but then NYLO (the company that operated the hotel) went bankrupt. The hotel’s future remained uncertain until it was purchased by Hilton, which operates the hotel today. It retains the NYLO moniker in name only.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction, the mill had deteriorated to the point that Hodges could no longer afford to follow through with required renovation plans.

Pontiac Mills’ dilapidated state following Hurricane Sandy, as captured by photographer Joe Malachowski (Flickr)
  • The original Building 4, whose roof had already collapsed, was completely destroyed. It is now a courtyard.
  • Building 7’s wooden third story was destroyed, leaving the second floor roofless. The third story was never rebuilt.
  • Building 11’s first floor, filled with abandoned equipment, was left in chaos. This area is now Studio B Salon.
  • A skybridge between Building 11 and the now-demolished Building 28-32 complex had an entire side ripped off.

2014 Pontiac Lofts

After decades of speculation, the fate of Pontiac Mills was finally solidified in 2014 when Union Box Company, a development company specializing in restoring historic buildings, purchased the mill with the promise to finally follow D’Agostino’s now 13-year-old renovation plan as closely as possible. A full renovation of the property commenced, and Pontiac Mills finally reopened its doors in 2018.

Cover illustration of an ambitious restoration plan from 2014 for Pontiac Mills in Warwick, RI
Cover illustration of an ambitious restoration plan from 2014. Note the initial intention to fully restore Buildings 4A and 8, as well as the third floor of Building 7.

Today, the complex is a mix of residential and commercial space.

  • Residential apartments make up the largest buildings on the property, comprising Buildings 1, 2, most of 3, 4, 7, and 9. Building 21 is home to the mail room and gym on the ground floor, and one apartment each on the second and third floors.
  • The ground floor of Building 3 is home to a branch of Evoqua, a water treatment company. Building 6 houses ABI Interior Design. Building 11 is home to Studio B Salon, Apponaug Brewing Company, and Knight Street Capital which currently manages the property. Building 30 (a former garage and machine shop in back of the property) is home to On The Ropes Boxing. Building S1A is home to Epic Promotions which makes branded marketing materials and clothing.

The only building still under construction as of 2024 is Building S1. Its second and fourth floors have been removed, turning five cramped floors originally intended for storage into three spacious floors which more closely match the height of the other buildings. (See before/after).

Bldg Built Original purpose Today
1 1863 Main mill building, carding, spinning, weaving Apartments
2 1867 Spinning and weaving Apartments
3 1870 Bleaching, dyeing Floor 1: Evoqua Industries
Floors 2-3: Apartments
4 ? Originally referred to the building behind Building 3 which is now a hollow ruin hollow ruins
? Later applied to the narrow building on the edge of the tail race Two apartments
4A ? Extension of original Building 4 along the riverfront Equipment storage; off limits and no longer signed
5 ? Small extension at back of Building 3, housing boilers and/or steam engine Considered part of Building 3 (Evoqua Technologies)
6 ? Extension to Building 4A (pumping & filtration) ABI Designs
7 ? unknown Apartments
8 ? Waterwheel and/or water turbine house hollow ruins
8A ? Extension to Building 8 Single apartment
9 1930? New boiler house c. 1930 - Judging by building numbering, may have been applied to previous boiler house as well Four apartments
10 ? unknown demolished
11 1890 Extension of Building 1; spinning/weaving Commercial (Studio B Salon, Apponaug Brewery, Knight Street Capital)
12 ? unknown demolished
13 ? unknown demolished
14 ? Large building across the river; storage? demolished
15 ? Small building across the river; office? demolished
16 ? Small building across the river; office? demolished
17 ? unknown demolished
18 ? unknown demolished
19 ? Originally designated narrow building between 4 and 6 where 4A currently stands; later designated gatehouse in front lot (original bldg) demolished
(current bldg) Gatehouse
20 ? Originally referred to small building where current Building 4 stands; purpose unknown
Now refers to small building in parking lot; former café for employees
(original bldg) demolished, replaced with Building 4
(current bldg) Commercial tenant
21 ? Engine room Floor 1: mail room and gym
Floors 2-3: one apartment each
22 ? unknown demolished
23 ? unknown demolished
24 ? unknown demolished
25 ? Extension of Building 11 demolished
26 ? unknown demolished
27 ? unknown demolished
28 1895? Storehouse demolished; foundation is now dog park
29
30 ? Garage Commercial (On The Ropes Boxing)
31 ? unknown demolished
32 ? Extension of Buildings 28-29 demolished
33 ? unknown demolished