Johnston native transforms empty factory, aims to reinvigorate Frog City

Johnston Sun Rise ·

Jessie Jacavone wants to spark a Frog City resurgence.

He walked around the second floor of his bare Johnston mill and imagined the 17 luxury apartments he plans to build within the next year.

“I grew up here; I already knew this area,” he said, standing inside the gutted structure, the space almost too big to answer with an echo. “We’ll call it the Residences at Frog City Mill.”

Jacavone recently attended a Johnston Planning Board meeting to renew a master plan, which the 64 Mill St. building’s previous owners had filed with the town. The plans were sound, but the previous developer made mistakes Jacavone plans not to repeat.

For instance, the previous developer installed more than 70 beautiful windows, only to watch them buckle and warp.

“This building needs reinforced vinyl or aluminum,” he said, inspecting the sagging frames. “We’ll have to trash all these windows.”

Built on Wool

According to local historian Louis McGowan, Johnston Historical Society’s former 23-year president, Jacavone’s mill was built in 1909 by Johnston industrialist Charles Fletcher, and attached to the rest of the Victoria Mill in Johnston’s Thornton village.

He described Fletcher, a Johnston native, “as a very powerful Rhode Island textile manufacturer, actually known nationally, for his American Woolen Company.”

The rest of the Victoria Mill was constructed in 1898 “to be used in conjunction with the Pocasset Mill,” which had opened several years earlier,” McGowan explained.

Jacavone’s building was once connected to the rest of the Victoria Mill by a footbridge, on the building’s former fourth floor. The rest of the surviving mill still houses industry — the American Foam Corporation.

Frog City Reborn

According to Ocean State scholar Debra A. Mulligan, a Johnston native, “the village of Thornton … was called ‘Frog City’ because of its proximity to swampland.” In fact, a small brook running next to the mill building has been overflowing its banks regularly, leading to muddy conditions at the work site.

Jacavone paid just over $1 million for the building, and plans to invest around $3 million in renovations. By May 2025 he hopes to be accepting rental applications for 15 single bedroom apartments and two double-bedroom flats — 17 units in all, with a gym and lounge.

McGowan, who’s now in charge of the Johnston Historical Society archives and collections, used records from the archives to track the history of the mill building.

The structure was used as a carding and combing mill, where workers “would prepare” the wool, taking it through multiple steps. They “washed, cleaned and combed the wool,” eventually “making it ready to spin” into thread at the Pocasset Mill Worsted Mill, according McGowan, who examined state factory inspection reports.

The building addition allowed the Victoria Mill to employ more workers. McGowan said that during “the first decade of 1900s, averaged 180-190” mostly male employees, with only 6-8 females. However, “during the teens,” after the new building opened for operations, the mill’s employment level “averaged pretty close to 300.”

Down To Size

According to McGowan, Jacavone’s mill was once twice as tall.

“It was a much bigger mill but they tour down the top two or three floors so that it looks the way it is now,” he explained. “It’s rather odd, but that’s what they did.”

The structure stood at four stories for close to a half-century. The building was purchased by a “Mr. Berker” in 1941, McGowan said.

“It was reduced to its present height around 1958, according to Gary Kulik’s “RI — Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites (1978).” By that time, they were “producing textile machinery on the first floor, and started renting out space.”

The Victoria Mill was one of three built in the village by Fletcher, who’s entrepreneurship transformed the neighborhood.

“There were mills on Mill Street going back to the 1820s at least,” McGowan explained. “The neighborhood or village was actually called Lower Simmonsville — officially they’re called ‘places.’”

Fletcher built another mill, at 62 Mill St., for a British friend named Robert W. Cooper, who was a textile manufacturer in Nottingham England. Cooper opened the British Hosiery Company, and, according to McGowan, “overnight, it changed from Lower Simmonsville to Thornton.”

With the mills came block after block of mill housing (inexpensive homes constructed for employees).

“That’s where I grew up, on Walnut Street,” McGowan recalled. “He built three streets of mill housing.”

Frog City’s population boomed, from around 200 when the mills opened, to around 1,500 after.

Jacavone grew up on Willow Street.

Johnston’s ‘Bedroom Community’

His building may be just a shell now, but changes are in the works. Jacavone hopes to provide homes to employees who may relocate to the area for high-paying managerial jobs at Amazon, off Hartford Avenue (a company spokesman recently said the company plans to open the facility by this year’s holiday season).

He estimates rent for the apartments will be around $2,000 for the single-bedroom units (and $2,350 for the two-bedroom).

“Rhode Island’s housing market is in trouble,” said the developer. He’s betting on Frog City to become the region’s newest “bedroom community” for workers who commute to either Providence or Boston.

“People who make decent money can’t afford a house,” Jacavone said. He pointed to a patch of exposed brick on the building’s exterior, “like in Italy.” When he’s done, Jacavone says the old, empty eyesore will be transformed into a “boutique mill apartment building.”

This story was originally posted by Johnston Sun Rise. Click here to view the original story in its entirety.