BURRILLVILLE – Every spring for the past 49 years, fresh flowers have appeared at the gravesite of Burrillville textile industrialist and philanthropist Austin T. Levy.
Made from native granite, the memorial stone surrounded by a wrought iron fence is located in back of the Assembly Theater and overlooks the scenic Harrisville mill pond. You can visit the gravesite by walking across the street to the vacant lot next to the First Universalist Church.
The epitaph on the stone's bronze plaque reads: “He loved life and his fellow man and gave his best to both.”
Newcomers to town might not know it, but on every Memorial Day for as long as folks can remember, fresh flowers, usually geraniums, have been placed at the stone, which covers Levy's – and his wife's - cremated remains.
But placed by whom?
Levy, founder of the Stillwater Worsted Mills in Harrisville, died in 1951, and his wife, June Rockwell Levy, 20 years later. As far as anyone knows, there are no surviving family members left who would come to Burrillville every May to pay their respects with fresh flowers.
Former longtime Burrillville Town Clerk Louise R. Phaneuf says the mystery is really no mystery at all. She says the Town of Burrillville purchases and plants the flowers at the grave marker every spring, which was requested by Mrs. Levy herself before she died in 1971 at the age of 85.
“Mrs. Levy set up an account to preserve the Levy grave site,” said Phaneuf, who retired as town clerk in 2019. “Specifically, she asked for geraniums - coral, if possible - to be placed at the grave site each Memorial Day.”
“In the past, the town clerk took care of this, but the board of administration took over a few years ago,” she explained. “They purchase and place the flowers and are reimbursed from the Levy grave site bank account.”
It's a routine reimbursement the Burrillville Town Council traditionally approves every June. At the council's meeting this week, in fact, the members will consider a motion to authorize Town Clerk Vicki T. Martin to reimburse Bob Pascale of the Board of Administration $74.86 from the Austin T. Levy Memorial Fund for flowers placed at the Levy grave site this year.
Levy was a successful textile manufacturer, and his wife, June, was known as the "First Lady of Burrillville." Levy’s influence on Harrisville began in 1912, when he leased the mill in Harrisville and named it Stillwater Worsted Mill. In 1918, he built 22 seven-room houses for his workers. He rented houses not according to their cost but what each tenant’s earning allowed him to pay.
In 1933, when the Depression was at its worst, Levy began an initiative called the Burrillville Town Buildings Project in which he erected new buildings and gave them as gifts to the town. These included the Town Building, the Assembly Theater, the Ninth District Courthouse, and the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library. He also remodeled the First Universalist Church, changing the architecture from Victorian to Colonial.
In 1937, Levy’s mill was very prosperous. He gave his workers vacation pay - two week’s vacation with four weeks pay. This vacation arrangement was the first of its kinds not only in the region, but in the United States.
In 1949, he built the Post Office in Harrisville and gifted it to the United States government. It was the first time in the country’s history that a privately-funded building was donated to the nation. It took an act of Congress to enable the government to accept such a gift.
Other projects included building a new high school (now the Callahan School), the Bridgeway in Pascoag, and the Pascoag Post Office.
According to Betty Mencucci, president of the Burrillville Historical Society, Levy's memorial stone was dedicated two years after he died at the age of 70 on Nov. 24, 1951. Thousands of mourners came to pay their respects while his body lie in state at the Stillwater House (now the Stillwater Mill apartments).
About 1,000 people attended his funeral. The service was held at the Assembly Theatre with all 354 seats taken. The vestry of the First Universalist Church was filled as well and a public address system was set up so they could hear the service.”
His memorial stone was dedicated on Sept. 14, 1953 in back of the Assembly building overlooking the mill pond and waterfall, which Mencucci said was his favorite view in town.
“Mr. Levy thought this view to be among the most peaceful he’d ever seen,” she said.
Mencucci said Levy was admired and loved by his workers. When Levy retired in 1951, his employees presented him with a photo book showing the workers in all departments along with a signed message from each worker.
The opening page of Levy’s retirement book says, “To Mr. Levy, our Chief and Friend. We dedicate this book to you with grateful appreciation of the many benefits and kindness we have enjoyed while working for you and with you throughout the years. The Harrisville Family, 1951.”
Aime Bonin, a man who worked in the wool shop, expressed these words, “Mr. Levy, no one will ever take your place. Your kindness and generosity will always be remembered. The beautiful buildings you have built will always be a wonderful memorial to you and Mrs. Levy.”
Mencucci says Harrisville would not be the same without the philanthropic gifts from the Levy and his wife.
“He did so much for the town and the people of Burrillville haven't forgotten him,' she said. “For him it wasn't just about making money, it was about making life better for everyone.”
Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter @jofitz7