Austin Theodore Levy was born December 16th, 1880, in New York, NY, to parents Theodore Levy and Jahannah Offenheim. Levy’s father was a recent immigrant to the U.S., and his mother a first-generation American. Theodore Levy passed away in 1884, when his son was only four years old, followed soon after by Jahannah in 1891, leaving young Austin an orphan at the tender age of eleven. Under the guardianship of his aunt, Levy completed his adolescent education at New York City’s Grammar School 69, from which he graduated in 1894. He then enrolled in the City College of New York, but quit after only one year at the age of sixteen—electing, instead, to enter the workforce. Levy secured his very first job in 1896, working as an office boy for a linen importing company in the city, for which he was paid the meager salary of three dollars per week. This was to be his first introduction to the New England textile industry, which would go on to shape the course of his life and career.
June Rockwell was born June 14, 1886, in Brooklyn, New York, to parents Charles Bristed Rockwell and Martha Briggs Skerry. Her family later relocated to Bristol, Rhode Island in 1891, when she was only five years old. Rockwell had a privileged upbringing, attending Rosemary Hall in Greenwich, Connecticut, Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island, and, additionally, a private school in Paris, France. A devoted artist, Rockwell enrolled in courses at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence; however, because of recurring health problems throughout her life, Rockwell was unfortunately unable to earn her college degree. She was, however, cited at Brown University’s 1959 convocation, and, in 1967, was named an honorary Doctor of Jurisprudence by the University of Rhode Island. Rockwell first met her future husband, Austin T. Levy—who had, at that point, relocated to Rhode Island—in Bristol in 1905. The pair became fast friends and, after a nine-year-long courtship, Levy and Rockwell tied the knot in 1915.
Austin T. Levy began his industrial career, in earnest, in 1909, when he signed the lease on a textile mill located in Greenville, Rhode Island, originally owned by the Waterhouse family. The Waterhouse Mill was a relatively small operation, with forty weaving looms, and in-house fabric-dyeing and finishing facilities, but Levy saw the promise in it. That same year, Levy renamed the property and founded his own mill business, Stillwater Worsted Mills, which over the next thirty years expanded into an eleven-mill operation across three states. Having come from a working-class background himself, Levy was always sympathetic and attuned to his workers’ needs, pioneering numerous workplace innovations over the years to improve his employees’ quality of life and safety on the job. These improvements included a profit-sharing scheme, a higher pay scale, paid vacations—four weeks’ pay for two weeks’ off—as well as physical alterations to his mills’ interiors, including better lighting and machine spacing to reduce cluttering and possible accidents.
In 1916, Levy became one of the first Rhode Island businessmen to hire on a full-time industrial nurse to oversee his mills, and in 1918, he ordered the construction of twenty-two seven-room houses for his mill employees, with a flexible rent plan—the cost of lodging was based not on the quality of the house, but on what they employees were able to pay. Additionally, in 1924, Levy offered Stillwater Worsted Mill employees the voluntary option to buy stock in the company, an opportunity to which many workers opted in. Levy’s mills were renowned throughout Rhode Island for producing quality product and a safe working environment, and as such, Levy was able to keep Stillwater Worsted Mills open for forty-eight out of fifty-two weeks per year, even during the worst years of the Great Depression.
While her husband was occupied building an industrial empire, June Rockwell Levy was hard at work serving the communities of northern Rhode Island and beyond. She served as a trustee of her alma mater, the Lincoln School, Chair of the Providence Art Club’s Ladies Board, and the President of the Providence Garden Club. Closer to home, Rockwell was closely involved in the Burrillville-Glocester District Nursing Association and, later, Northwest Community Health Care; she was elected President of the latter for fifty-one consecutive terms.
During the darkest years of the Great Depression, Rockwell and Levy turned their attention to their hometown of Burrillville, Rhode Island—founding, in 1933, the Burrillville Town Buildings Project. This undertaking, funded entirely by financial donations from the Levy family, resulted in the construction of the Burrillville Town Hall, Burrillville High School, the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library, the Assembly Performing Arts Center, the Ninth RI District Court, the First Universalist Church, and the American Legion Hall within the town. The Levys also constructed the Burrillville Ice Rink, and set up a fifty-thousand-dollar endowment for the town, in order to help with the upkeep of their donated properties. In 1947, Levy founded the June Rockwell Levy Foundation in his wife’s honor—still in place to this day—which provided financial donations to Rhode Island hospitals and universities. Rockwell additionally funded scholarships to both the University of Rhode Island, and Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Later on, in the 1950s, the Levys constructed and donated post offices to the towns of Harrisville and Pascoag, Rhode Island, as well as the Pascoag Bridgeway. June Rockwell Levy’s many charitable contributions to the community and infrastructure of northern Rhode Island earned her the moniker “The First Lady of Burrillville.”
One of Austin T. Levy’s most cherished projects was the charitable work both he and Rockwell undertook in the Bahamas. In 1936, Levy had purchased two thousand acres of land on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, on Hatchet Bay. Initially introduced to the area through his wife’s family, who had owned a home in Nassau, Levy and Rockwell quickly came to realize the many difficulties the residents of the island nation faced—particularly when it came to procuring fresh food and dairy products. As a result, Levy established a dairy and produce farm on his Hatchet Bay property, building chicken coops and shipping in a herd of dairy cows from Harrisville, Rhode Island, employing local workers to tend the land, and purchasing a special fleet of boats to transport the milk, eggs, and ice cream from his farm to Nassau. There, Levy’s products were sold daily at milk stands throughout the city. During the Second World War, Levy raised the wages of all his Bahamian workers to help combat the increased wartime cost of living on the island. Levy and Rockwell’s successful charitable work on Eleuthera was later celebrated by the Crown—in 1963, June Rockwell Levy was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of her and her husband’s work in the Bahamas.
Throughout the later years of his life, Austin T. Levy remained actively involved in his industrial ventures, charitable projects, and local government, while also pursuing his many personal interests—he was an avid athlete, tennis player, musical history enthusiast, and an accomplished player of both the viola and violin. Levy also held a passion for musical theatre, founding the Harrisville Glee Club and a dramatic troupe known as the “Village Players,” who often held shows in the Assembly Performing Arts Center in Burrillville. Soon after an unsuccessful campaign for Rhode Island Governor against John O. Pastore in 1950, Levy fell ill, and after a brief stint in Nassau to help recover his health, he returned to the U.S., and, later died at the age of seventy on November 24, 1951, in Providence. June Rockwell Levy followed him some twenty years later, passing away in 1971 at the age of eighty-five. Both husband and wife are buried together beneath a granite monument behind the Assembly in Burrillville, Rhode Island—the town they had loved and given so much to during their lives. Austin T. Levy’s life and accomplishments are explored further in Kevin Proudfoot’s 2015 biography The Life & Business Philosophy of Austin T. Levy: Visionary Entrepreneur, available from Shoreline Press.