Then and Now

John A. O'Brien, Warwick's second governor


Apparently, voters approved of the first Green-Quinn administration for, in 1934, the Democrats swept in. Even normally Republican Warwick fell into the Democratic ranks of electing John A. O’Brien as mayor and four Independent-Democrats to the City Council. Representative George Mills, Republicans, of the 6th Ward, voted with the four Independent-Democrats to give O’Brien the support he needed to name city officers. The Republicans, who continually had a majority of the old five-man town council, now found themselves with the inability to control the nine-man City Council.

During O’Brien’s term in office, he was not only mayor but highway commissioner as well. This was a period when Warwick continued to have a sealer of weights and measures, a superintendent of lights and a tree warden as municipal officers. O’Brien was instrumental in getting the General Assembly to pass an amendment to the Warwick City Charter that gave the mayor greater powers over the police and water boards. It abolished the old Board of Police Commissioners and created a Police Commission of five members, one of them to be the mayor and the other four to be picked by the mayor. The new Police Commission vested the authority of selecting the chief of police to Mayor O’Brien.

The Democratic mayor was met with great opposition from the Republicans on the City Council, which was led by Frederick G. Brown, assistant treasurer of the Apponaug Company, and Albert P. Ruerat, councilman from Ward 1. Ruerat’s political career began in 1933, when one of the Republican councilmen died and the party, anxious to find a young, successful businessman to fill the vacancy, asked Ruerat to run in a special election. Despite a growing Democratic swing in Warwick, Ruerat was elected and became a major adversary of Mayor O’Brien.

In 1936, while practically every area of the Country saw Democrats sweep into office on the coattails of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Warwick reversed the trend and put the Republican Ruerat in their highest office.

It was, however, an extremely close election with charges of fraud and chicanery concerning the election ballots. Eventually, Ruerat appealed to the Superior Court to decide results. He won the election by a scant 549 votes. Ruerat was successful in the next five elections and, in his sixth bid for the chief executive post in Warwick, he won by a plurality of 4,335 votes.

When Ruerat was elected to office in 1936, Warwick was regarded by many as a “wide-open town.” It was known more for its speakeasies, gangsters, gambling houses and political chicanery than for its record as a well-administrated city. In one early election, A Ruerat opponent, pointing out the drawbacks of the farm and resort-oriented city, said, “You can’t even buy a suit of clothes in Warwick.”

One of Ruerat’s friends, upon hearing of his election, wrote, “we would be apt to commiserate rather than congratulate him upon his elevation to the stewardship of this corporate headache….” Others noted that Warwick was an “economic catastrophe” and said Ruerat “glided into the highest office Warwick can’t afford.” The mayor’s annual salary at that time was $1,250, and the job was regarded as a “part-time” service. Ruerat, like his predecessors Brereton and O’Brien, was faced with the unenviable task of taking a number of mill villages, farms and summer resorts and molding them into a city. Along with the political disorder, Warwick was faced with the devastating problems of the Depression and the high unemployment rate in the city.

All was not “gloom and doom,” however, for the need of inexpensive amusement and escape seemed more necessary than ever and many saved their pennies throughout the winter for a summer’s day at Warwick’s amusement parks. Prices were cut drastically and a dollar went a long way. There was also a touch of luxury that could still be found, especially at the Warwick Country Club or Stender’s Oakland Beach Yacht Club, where the more affluent were able to maintain their lifestyle.

The old silent movies were being replaced by the “talkies” and could be seen for as little as a dime. There were many areas in Warwick where dancing was featured and a number of bands competed for the biggest crowds. Nearly every church in Warwick had dinners, which often only cost 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. While some beaches charged a 10-cent admission and provided bathhouses and rafts, many areas were free and, as was the case at Gorton’s Pond, an old automobile was used as a dressing room. In many of Warwick’s communities, there was a sense of cooperation and friendship and churches played a large role in helping the destitute.


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