The Westerly Sun
CHARLESTOWN — Mia Byrnes is reluctantly adding another chapter to the history of the second oldest restaurant in Rhode Island.
Byrnes bought the historic Wilcox Tavern on Route 1 in Charlestown in 2018 and has thoroughly enjoyed welcoming guests to the storied wayside inn. But the challenges of running two businesses has taken its toll, and Byrnes and her boyfriend and partner, Dean DeFosse, have put the property on the market with an asking price of $1.5 million.
“It’s bittersweet,” Byrnes said Thursday afternoon as she sat in the structure where one of Rhode Island’s first senators was born, in 1739 — and where President George Washington may have spent a night. “Definitely bittersweet. We love it here.”
Byrnes and DeFosse, who also own Mia’s Prime Time Café on the bridge in Pawcatuck, bought the tavern from the Sculco family, who had operated the business as Old Wilcox Tavern for more than 30 years.
From the moment she first saw the property, Byrnes said, she was charmed. “It spoke to me,” she said. “I grew up in a home from the 1700s and this spoke to me.”
Byrnes grew up on Long Island and worked for her parents at the St. James General Store in Smithtown, N.Y., built in 1857 and known as the oldest continuously operated general store in the country.
Byrnes and DeFosse rented the seasonal business from the Sculcos for a year and began renovations before they bought it. They reopened on Sept. 6, 2017, and had every intention of opening this spring, when they had second thoughts, she said.
The constant back and forth between the two businesses had become too much of a physical and emotional drain, said Byrnes, who has more than 30 years in the restaurant business. Before becoming a restaurant owner, she was a hospitality consultant and former director of operations for a company that runs Michael Jordan restaurants at Mohegan Sun.
“It’s hard to be in two places at one time,” said Byrnes, who was seated with Amy and Christopher Randall of Westerly, the listing agents for the property.
Now she and DeFosse want to find the right people to buy the building, which sits on 2.7 acres overlooking Route One — someone with a passion for the business. Byrnes and DeFosse said they spent $300,000 on a project to renovate the kitchen, five dining rooms, and the bar.
“We tripled the bar space,” Byrnes said with a laugh as she walked through the 7,000-square-foot tavern. “When we bought it there were just five stools.” The dining rooms, which can seat 200, are named after local salt ponds. Continuing the tour, Byrnes stood in a room with sofas and chairs and an enormous fireplace. “In the winter, we’d have the fireplace going, and we’d have events and everyone enjoyed sitting here.”
There are also four one-bedroom apartments in a separate 2,600-square-foot structure, and upstairs living quarters. All renovations, Byrnes said, were made in accordance with specifications of the National Register of Historic Places.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I’m not a complacent type of gal and I was looking for another project,” said Byrnes. “It’s in such great condition,” she added. “The bones are good.”
During the Sculco era, with Eva and Rudolph “Rudy” Sculco at the helm, the tavern — which always featured “Rudy’s Pot Roast” — was a popular place for class reunions, family dinners, graduations, birthday parties and anniversaries.
Amy Randall, a Westerly native, said, “You can’t meet a local person who doesn’t have a happy story or happy memory involving the Wilcox Tavern.”
“We celebrated my grandparents’ anniversary here,” she said.
Byrnes agreed. “People loved coming here,” she said. “People were so happy when they heard we bought it. And we kept ‘Rudy’s Pot Roast’ on the menu.”
The Sculcos bought the property in 1984 from the Szydolowski family, who had bought it in 1955. Before that it had housed Naval officers during World War II. The house was built by Joseph Stanton II around 1730, Byrnes said. Gen. Joseph Stanton Jr., one of the first two senators from Rhode Island and a key figure in the American Revolution, was born in the house in 1739. It remained the Joseph Stanton farmhouse until 1811, when it was purchased by Lt. Gov. Edward Wilcox.
Wilcox opened a country store, according to information gathered by Byrnes with the help of the Charlestown Historical Society.
“Pam Lyons of the society was a huge help,” said Byrnes as she shared documents and papers outlining the tavern’s history.
Around 1820, Wilcox “or some other family member” opened the Wilcox Tavern, which became a regular stagecoach stop. In the early 1930s, a Dr. Fritz Swanson purchased the house and returned it to public use as Old Wilcox Tavern. In October of 1979, the tavern was formally registered with the Rhode Island Preservation Commission and the National Register of Historic Places.
“And there’s the obelisk too,” said Christopher Randall, pointing out one of the building’s 52 windows. The 20-foot-tall monument stands in front of the tavern on a plot of grass, its fencing attached to granite posts. The obelisk was erected in 1893 to honor Joseph Stanton Jr., who died in 1821.
According to documents, Stanton, a brigadier general and major general in the state militia, did indeed visit with Gen. George Washington to plan the defense of Rhode Island. As a politician, he was in close touch with several of the country’s Founding Fathers, but whether Washington actually slept in the house has not been documented. Stanton served as a U.S. senator from 1790 to 1793 and as a U.S. representative from 1801 to 1807.
Records do say that the land was acquired from Native Americans in 1655. The Manesses Indians from Block Island, according to information in the tavern’s records, came to the mainland, attacked the Niantics, who occupied Weekapaug, and carried away a Niantic Indian princess as hostage. In this story, the Manesses (also called the Manissean Indians) demanded such a high ransom that the Niantics, “unable to gather together sufficient wampum,” appealed to Thomas Stanton, an Indian interpreter who “kept a ‘trading-house’ near Westerly on the Pawcatuck River.”
In return for getting the princess returned, “he was deeded a large tract of land in Charlestown which became the Stanton estate.”
After the death of Gen. Joseph Stanton, the estate was divided, the house and land passing into the hands of the Wilcox family, which established the tavern. (For the record, the oldest restaurant in Rhode Island — indeed, “America’s Oldest Tavern” — is the White Horse Tavern in Newport, dating to 1673.)
History says that Hannah Babcock married Edward Wilcox in 1784, and legend has it that Hannah continues to make her presence known.
She’s friendly, Byrnes said with a wink. “We even named a drink after her.”