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City’s WWI monument finds new home

September 18, 2011

WOONSOCKET – Local historian Elizabeth Vangel noticed the old monument one day when she was conducting a census of historic sites in the River Street area last year.
She found it outside the office of the former Woonsocket Rubber Company’s Alice Mill which, by then, had become a plant for Tech Industries.
The metal plaque was attached to a large glacial boulder and bore an inscription that she found in keeping with her studies of local residents who played a role in the nation’s Civil War.
The Alice Mill memorial was created for an entirely new generation of local heroes who had done their part in the first war of the 20th Century, The Great War.
Its inscription was a direct one:
“In honor of the employees of the Woonsocket Rubber Company Alice Mill who at the call of their country laid aside their vocations and entered the service to fight in the Great War for World-Wide Liberty 1917 to 1919.”
The tribute includes the names of 90 mill employees who participated in that service.
Vangel said she knew at the time the memorial would be a fitting addition to the museum and media collection that the Foss board is establishing at Oak Hill Cemetery on Rathbun Street to preserve Woonsocket’s connections to the national and world events of history.
Oak Hill is the last resting place of more than 200 city residents who played a role in the Civil War and many others who participated in the anti-slavery movement that led up to that conflict.
“It totally ties into the mantra of the Foss Media Center,” Vangel said this week while noting how the World War I memorial honored a new generation seeking to preserve the cause of freedom.
“We chronicled the fight to win freedom for southern slaves during the Civil War and that phrase ‘to fight in the Great War for World-Wide Liberty’ encapsulates everything that we are about,” Vangel said.
She expressed her interest in the World War I memorial to the Alice Mill’s new owner, Steve Triedman, and left it at that for the time being. The June 7 fire that leveled most of the Alice Mill complex revived Vangel’s interest in preserving the World War I memorial at Oak Hill where a number of Civil War memorials were erected long ago. That effort was capped by the successful relocation of the memorial to a new home at Oak Hill that will be rededicated during the city’s upcoming Autumnfest celebration next Month.
Norma Jenckes, an Oak Hill trustee and descendant of Woonsocket’s first mill owning family, said she also was touched by the inscription the first time she read it.
“To me, it was in memory of all their workers who went to war,” Jenckes said. “We know today that wars keep taking lives and that soldiers’ futures are forever changed when they come back, and this monument was dedicated to the workers who went off to World War I.”
The names on the plaque were of just ordinary people from the area as Ann Bebyn of Bellingham found out several years ago when she happened upon it while living in Fairmount at the time.
Bebyn said this week that she discovered the monument under the canopy of some overgrown trees at the Alice Mill and began to read its inscription.
There, among all the names, she found that of her grandfather, Omer J. Michaud, who had worked at the mill and gone off to fight in World War I. Omer came home and married Bebyn’s grandmother, Exilda, and started a family, she said. He died at middle age in 1935.
All these years later, Bebyn said, she believes her grandfather would be pleased to know the memorial plaque bearing his name has been rediscovered.
“He died so young, no one ever knew he had been a part of history,” she said. The fact he gained a mention on the plaque would have been “his claim to fame.”
Getting the plaque and its memorial stone to Oak Hill was not an easy task, Vangel said this week. The memorial weighs six to eight tons and had to be strapped to a lifting crane to get it on a truck for the ride to Rathbun Street. Some wrecking crew experts working for Triedman at the Tech Industries site and Foss movers worked out all the details of the lifting project and got the job completed.
The boulder is now mounted at its new home and can be viewed off the cemetery’s access road.
“A desire to preserve a collection of memories, I think, is one of the most important aspects of human nature,” Jenckes said.

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