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The Historic Village of Manchaug

We love our home of Sutton, but our move to the town’s historical Village of Manchaug nearly a decade ago has opened our eyes to the quintessential community around us. Since its formation and evolution through today, Manchaug has not lost its warm community and core identity. Like the spirit of Christmas, the magic of Sutton’s Village of Manchaug exists undisturbed by the world around us. […]

This article was written for Vaillancourt Folk Art by Christine Watkins of the Sutton Historical Society.

Some stories are best told from the end. The story of the Village of Manchaug, as a company-owned town, located in an approximate 1-mile square section of southwest Sutton, Massachusetts, is such a story. As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a company-owned town is “a community that is dependent on one firm for all or most of the necessary services or functions of town life”—namely, employment, housing, and stores. Between 1826-1872, The Manchaug Company, a cotton textile manufacturer, followed by the B. B. & R. Knight Co. (1872-1922), considered the largest privately-held cotton manufacturer in the world and holder of the Fruit of the Loom trademark, met this definition and then some. Manchaug was more than a company-owned town. It was a community, with the residents sharing fellowship, common attitudes, interests and goals. Manchaug was a petite Canada with the majority of its residents being French-Canadian immigrants who retained their language, religion, and connections to Canada. Employees not only worked in the mills, but lived in the company-owned housing, purchased most of their goods with company-provided tokens at the company-owned store which had obtained most of its dairy, vegetables, and meat from the company-owned farm, and education was received at the company-established school. Auctioned off not once but, twice, this little village went from self-sufficiency, as evidenced by their tenacious efforts in February of 1917 to extract themselves from being cut off from the outside world for three weeks due to a large snowstorm and subsequent deep freeze, to needing the outside world to recover from fires and floods.

Dependence on one industry for all needs, however, proved disastrous for the Village. The beginning of the end for life as Manchaug residents knew it came in September 1920, as reported in the New York Tribune, when after several months of negotiations, Frederick R. Rupprecht of New York purchased all the B. B. & R. Knight holdings in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including the Manchaug Mills, for approximately $20 million. This change in ownership resulted in the dismantling of the three cotton mills in Manchaug and the auction of all holdings of the Company on Wednesday, June 28, 1922. As reported in the Providence Sunday Journal on July 30, 1922, “with the exception of a few of the factory housings, and three parcels of woodland, the plant, with three mills, the whole constituting one of the biggest cotton textile plants the Knight brothers brought to the final word of perfection, was sold to Francis N. Smith for the Henry W. Cooke Company of Providence.” The Cooke Company was auctioneers who purchased the properties to retain ownership for the current owners as no suitable purchaser bid was received.

B. B. & R Knight was finally declared bankrupt in 1926 with the assets transferred into Knight Finance Company for disposal. On Tuesday, August 23, 1927, Henry W. Cooke Co., auctioneer, held a second auction by order of the Knight Finance Corp. to once again attempt to dispose of all the holdings. This second auction did not prove much more successful than the first. The Knight Finance Co. eventually sold off all of the holdings between 1927-1930 with most of the tenement housing being purchased by the current residents. The days of Manchaug as a vibrant, self-sufficient company town were over with the turn of the 20th century population of 1,647 residents, or 52% of Sutton’s total population, reduced to only 400, or 18%, of Sutton residents by 1924. Most of the remaining residents lived in the area known as “the Flats.” This section, home to St. Anne’s Parish, was central to community life. By the1890s, St. Anne’s Parish, with over 1,200 parishioners, consisted of a wooden church, Victorian rectory, convent and parochial school. Masses were in French led by a French-Canadian priest who had both the respect of and influence over his parishioners. Entrepreneurship had also blossomed in this section of town with many of the early-established families building private homes, shops, stores, and a hotel without investment by the resident cotton company. Many of today’s residents proudly trace back tothese original immigrants as do many residents of the greater Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor. Their “can do” spirit, indefatigable work ethic, and self-sufficiency carried forward into future generations through the great depression, floods, and fires.

Today the Village is experiencing growth and looks to be a gem in the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor. Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018 for its relatively undisturbed turn-of-the 20th century architecture, it is home to many small businesses which are the backbone of our economy, including Vaillancourt Folk Art.

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