Thanks to Mike Halloran, the great grandson of Michael Halloran (1867 to 1919), I can present these photos of the elder Michael’s blacksmith shop on Atwell’s Avenue (that was the spelling in the 19th century). The photos were taken in 1915 but depict a Federal Hill not so different from fifty years earlier. They were still making horseshoes by hand. In fact, the massive factories in Providence in the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th century relied on jobbers who did production work in small firms like Halloran’s.
Halloran was born in County Kerry on October 22, 1867 and came to the United States in 1882. Why Providence? In a typical pattern for immigrants, Mike was following in the footsteps of his relatives, in this case Delaney cousins from Kerry who were already in the city. Perhaps the Delaneys had been part of the early arrival of men from Kerry and Cork, who built the Providence’s railroads and worked on city’s work crews building roads, bridges and the beautiful promenade circling the Cove. Many of those men, once the railroad terminal was completed, sent for their wives and settled on what became known as “Corky Hill” near Fox Point. In Halloran’s case, he made his home on Federal Hill.
The advertising on the front of his shop reflects the society of the day. That smoking was a prominent part of everyday life is reflected in the add for Liberty Tobacco, a product of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In an age before national brands came to dominate the marketplace, Good-Will Soap was a New England product, manufactured by the George E. Marsh Company in Lynn, Massachusetts.
The advertisement that stands out most prominently is for John Huston and Bayonne Whipple’s musical production of Spooks, a 18 minute light-hearted vaudeville presentation. Huston was the father of the movie director, John Huston, and grandfather of Angelica Huston. The Albee Stock Company was a regular feature of Providence for years, performing summer stock at B.F Keith’s theater. Keith himself was said to be the father of vaudeville. Keith and Edward F. Albee (whose adopted grandson was famed playwright, Edward Albee) created a business that owned theaters in both Providence and Pawtucket. Their company was sold to RCA and became RKO Pictures.
In addition to vaudeville acts, two very famous films were shown at Keith’s theater in Providence in 1915. Charlie Chaplin appeared in his most famous role, The Tramp. In March of that same year one of the most infamous American films of all time, Birth of a Nation, inspired attacks on African-Americans across America.
While B.F. Keith’s advertisement gives a sense of Providence’s entertainment scene, it is the photos of Halloran’s shop that speak to a time quickly passing. For centuries, it was the horse that powered transportation and powered the fields that produced the world’s food. Yet the automobile revolution was quickly changing that. In 1893, Charles and Frank Duryea produced the first gas-driven automobile in Springfield, Massachusetts. By 1915, there were a number of automobile manufacturers in Providence County.
While horses likely still outnumbered automobiles in Providence in 1915, that would not be the case ten years later. At a time when a world war was raging, a war in which horses played a significant role, horses were still central to life in Providence. However, between 1911 and 1919 the number of automobiles in the state increased nearly six fold to over 35,000 cars. Horses and horse-shoeing was no longer in the same demand as before.
One man who did make the transition from blacksmith and horse shoe manufacturer was Joseph Monahan. Monahan was the son of Thomas Monahan, a native of Ireland who had come to Providence in 1860. Within a year he had work as a blacksmith and within ten years he had his own blacksmith shop on Harris Avenue and was living on Federal Hill. In 1902, his sons John and Joseph started the Providence Vehicle Company, dedicated to making wagons. By 1908 they were trying their luck with automobiles, as well. As the auto industry consolidated in Detroit, the brothers changed the name of the company to the Providence Body Company and concentrated on building chassis for trucks and fire trucks. As late as the 1970’s, the company was still producing chassis for fire trucks.
The photographs of Michael Halloran’s blacksmith shop are a reminder of a time not so long in the distant past, and yet light years away from us today.