Today, Rhode Island Public Radio kicks off a week-long series we call `One Square Mile’ where we focus on one of Rhode Island’s communities. This week the focus is Burrillville. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay brings us the story of Austin T. Levy, an unconventional industrialist, who built up one of the mill villages that now make up one of Burrillville’s central neighborhoods.
The stereotype of an early 20th Century Rhode Island textile mill owner is etched in our state’s florid history: A wealthy Yankee bereft of social conscience who made his fortune through child labor and exploiting poor immigrants.
Then there is Austin T. Levy (Lee-vee), a Burrillville textile manufacturer who became the town’s leading citizen. Levy was everything the typical mill owner wasn’t: a son of Jewish immigrants, he cared about his workers so much that he introduced employee profit sharing, raised wages and gave employees paid vacations.
If Levy’s story seems improbable today, it may be because he was from a generation of immigrants for whom anything was possible in the United States.
He was born in New York City in 1880, the only son of an immigrant couple. Levy’s parents would not see him live to manhood. His father died when he was four and his mother perished when he was 11.
Levy’s aunt raised him and his sister. He left school at age 16 for a job as an office boy at a New York linen importer where he earned three dollars a week. Moving up in the textile industry, he became assistant to the cloth buyer of a big manufacturer of men’s clothing.
That job took him to Rhode Island to inspect textile factories. He soon went into business on his own as a woolen commission sales agent for a series of mills. And he learned that crucial to success in the business was the performance of the factories he represented.
Levy’s biographer, the late Woonsocket Call reporter Louis Bleiweis, said the experience as a textile salesman whetted an interest in the manufacturing end of the business. In 1909, a 29-year old Levy leased a small, 40-loom factory in Greenville. He was so successful that within three years he expanded to a larger facility in the Burrillville village of Harrisville.
In an unconventional coupling for that era, Levy married June Rockwell, a scion of the Bristol textile magnate Rockwell family, a Mayflower descended clan and pillar of Rhode Island society. The two met when he was a salesman for her father’s textile mill.
Levy and his new wife shared an interest in violin, which both played, moved to Burrillville and began their life-long love affair with the unpretentious farming and factory community in Rhode Island’s northwest corner.
Levy’s business prospered. As it did, he developed a business philosophy that was both worker-friendly and community-minded. He outlined his philosophy in a speech at a profit-sharing meeting with employees in 1918.
``One of the first functions of any enterprise is to contribute something to the well-being of the people who carry it on, and to the community of which it is part,’’ said Levy. ``There isn’t any such thing as unskilled labor. Now, if you think so, I will defy anyone to go out and dig a ditch and dig it well. I know, I have tried it.’’
No business, ``that makes money and merely makes money is a success,’’ Levy said. ``If that is all we make, we are a failure, and I say the things we should make here are an ideal product and an ideal community.’’
Levy kept his mills running throughout the Great Depression. He lobbied in the U.S. Congress for higher wages and a shorter work week to combat the depression.
Throughout his life, Levy made speeches, wrote pamphlets and lobbied on behalf of higher wages and shorter hours, which he believed were the fulcrum of economic growth.
``It seem self-evident that a civilization that demands and intends to supply a fairly abundant life must be based on a scale of wages that is higher than any scale that prevailed when life was less abundant,’’ he said.
In testimony to a U.S. Senate Committee in 1935, Levy said that the American people ``do not want relief. They want occupation and the spiritual and economic independence that can come only through occupation and the reasonable assurance of its continuance.’’
A growing economy can be achieved, Levy said in 1936, only by establishing wage scales that support a decent livelihood for workers. He was also paternalistic and no fan of labor unions.
Kenneth Proudfoot, a Rhode Island filmmaker and writer who is working on a documentary about Levy, wrote a book entitled `The Life and Business Philosophy of Austin T. Levy.’ When Levy introduced profit-sharing to his employees, he explained his rationale:
``We have just two reasons in our company for sharing profits. Firstly, because we think it is a fair thing to do; we think everybody who helps to create a profit should share in it.
``The other reason is that we expect to make money by profit sharing.’’
Proudfoot also points to Levy’s attitude toward wealth, which had much in common with another great immigrant business success, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who used his fortune to build libraries. ``People don’t own wealth,’’ said Levy. ``They are merely custodians of it during their lifetimes.’’
Levy lived his philosophy. He built houses for his workers where rents were based on their wages, not his costs. He and his wife covered the cost of building a post office in Burrillville, a bridge in the village of Pascoag and contributed land to build a town high school.
He and his wife also paid to build the town hall and a community gathering spot named the Assembly. And they were instrumental in forming the Harrisville Glee Club and the Village Players.
Near the end of his life, Levy entered politics as part of a group of Republican activists who wanted to make the party more liberal. In 1950, he ran as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate against legendary Democrat John Pastore of Providence, the first Italian-American to be elected to the Senate.
Levy carried 21 of the state’s 39 communities, most of them rural, while Pastore vanquished him in Providence and the vote-rich Blackstone Valley. Levy did win Burrillville, a Democratic bastion, by a comfortable margin.
Levy sold his business interests to his workers. He died at age 70 at Rhode Island Hospital. His money went to a foundation run by his wife, who would outlive him by 20 years. She continued his local philanthropy, building a hockey rink for the youth of this hockey-crazy community. The June Rockwell Levy rink is named for her.
But no building he financed carries his name. As biographer Bleiweis wrote, ``He wanted it that way. He felt deeply that service was its own reward.’’
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on all Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’; blog at RIPR.org