A Toll, A Tavern, and A Farm.


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A Toll, A Tavern, and A Farm: A History of Pidge Avenue

By Robert A. Geake

“ Old Pidge House” (undated) courtesy of the Providence Public Lib.

History in our time has a way of fading quickly, or shifting to some preferred memory of a time and place. Real people and places, events fade from view. Resources to find them again are fragmented to what can be found in libraries, personal collections, and on-line.

This humble history, written by a resident of Pidge Avenue for more than twenty years, is an attempt to bring those fragments of the street, the farm, the tavern, and the toll gate which has it’s own long history, into one narrative and hopefully achieve a sense of how the street and community changed over the course of the years examined here.

The first evidence of commerce in the neighborhood was the toll, which had long, lay at the crossroads to main routes to and from Connecticut and Boston. The earliest known building associated with the toll was the Tavern and lodging house built by one Stephen Jackson in 1641 according to evidence of a date and signature drawn in the drying mortar on the “ scuttle”[1] of the old stone chimney built along the western side of the house.

A mortgage found in the attic of the old house dated in 1644, mentions the farm for the first time, naming the boundary as the Old Post Road from Providence to Boston, now Pawtucket Avenue. The house, and presumably the farm, changed hands to one John Morey, and then Philip Esten. The Tavern during these early years of its existence was reputably known as The Ox Tavern.

An addition to the house, basically doubling the structure in size was built in 1761 along with a massive brick chimney in its center.This coincides with the long association of the house with the Sayles family, beginning with Silvanius Sayles who continued to operate the house as a tavern and lodging house. The house was then passed to his son Jeremiah, and by that time, the house had became well known as the “Sayles Tavern”.

During the Revolutionary War, the tavern was to play it’s own role, and earn it’s own place in local history. Situated at the crossroads of the Old Boston Post road, and the Old Smithfield road, a common route to Connecticut and New York, one can easily imagine the variety of company, and conversation that took place in the Tavern during those years.

In early April of 1776, word suddenly came that, because of events in New York and New Jersey, it was desired that General Washington head for Providence, from where he would sail for Newport, and a meeting with General William Shirley.

Excitement must have grown as the General’s journey from Boston took him through Dedham, Wrentham, and Attleboro, before reaching Pawtucket. On Friday, April fifth, a great crowd of dignitaries, soldiers, and common citizens assembled around and inside the Sayles Tavern, with great excitement, awaiting Washington’s arrival. For many, it would have been their first and perhaps only glimpse of the man they hoped would lead the Colonies to victory. As historian John Williams Haley has written,

“ The colorful assemblage that patiently anticipated the approach of Washington on that pleasant spring day included the local company of cadets under the command of Colonel Nightingale, and the company of light infantry under the command of Colonel Mathewson, both units being in their dress uniforms.

Colonel Hitchkock’s and Colonel Little’s regiments under the command of brigadier general Nathanial Greene were also ordered to march out and join the parade of honor.”[2]

After a brief ceremony of welcome, there is speculation that a butternut tree was planted in honor of his arrival by the son of Jeremiah Sayles at this time[3], a procession was organized and set out from the tavern, with a number of citizens caught up in the excitement following the parade on horseback into Providence and the home of Stephen Hopkins.

The young Marquis de Lafayette resided at the tavern for several weeks in 1780. Having impressed Washington at Trenton, and then played a minor, and disappointing role in the Battle of RI, Lafayette had undertaken the task of obtaining French support, and eventually was promised 6,000 troops under the command of one General Jean Baptist de Vimeur, compte de  Rochambeau . Lafayette had disclosed the plan to Washington and had returned to Rhode Island to rendezvous with Rochambeau.

Troops arrived slowly, a first regiment arriving in Providence and marching to an encampment among the fields of Dexter Farm. Rochambeau remained in Newport, awaiting more troops, and was eventually blockaded after their arrival by the British and prevented from sailing to Providence.

Lafayette and the General exchanged intense and impatient letters during this time. With the brigade encamped a quarter mile up the road, Lafayette wrote from the Tavern

“ If you knew how strongly England and the Tories endeavor to persuade the Americans that France only wishes to kindle, without extinguishing the flame…I will confide to you that thus placed in a foreign country, my self-love is wounded by seeing the French blockaded in Rhode Island, and the pain I feel induces me to wish the operations to commence.”[4]

Rochambeau’s response was brusque. He had no desire to leave Newport to what he was sure would be a swift re-capture of the city, and the humiliation of the French brigade he would be indebted to leave behind. Washington was also reluctant to enact Lafayette’s plan of action. In his letters, Rochambeau often deferred the Marquis’ ambitious plans to insist that he wait for word from Washington. The missives between the young, American appointed commander and the elder French General grew nearly as heated as the sweltering summer that passed that year. At one point Lafayette wrote in exasperating terms to the General

“ it is pointless to detail these plans minutely, and since you approve of assistance of this kind, I shall tell you frankly that we are wasting precious time and that military preparations should have begun already…”

Eventually the exchanges cooled with Rochambeau giving affectionate and Fatherly advice to the 21-year-old Commander, urging him to retain “ a coolness of judgment in the council room’, as Lafayette set out for his long-awaited meeting with Washington.

He would later fight with distinction and earn his reputation in the South before rendezvousing with Washington and Rochambeau outside of Yorktown.

Those at Sayles Tavern would send off Rochambeau and his men to that great battle in June of 1781, a French soldier writing at the time remembered the women pressing food into their hands as they passed, and they marveled at the plentiful goods, having spent a year or more in the poorly fed camps.

It must have been a lively scene, the diary and drawings of Jean Batiste Antoine de Verger give us a whimsical portrait of the diversity of the soldiers and costumes that made up the French brigades. In many cases, our own American troops were very similar in appearance as local regiments fashioned their own uniforms for war.

courtesy of he Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

Rochambeau returned to greet another contingent of French troops in 1782, arriving in Providence around noon on November 10th, and marching two brigades up the Old Boston Post Road and encamping in a wooded area opposite the Old Dexter House. When the owner objected to the General’s plan to deforest thearea and build a barracks, the troops marched north again until reaching the old camp grounds used by the French under Lafayette.

Rochambeau stayed in Providence, but the officers of the French fussilers repaired to the Tavern, leaving a record of having paid the owner Jeremiah Sayles the sum of forty three dollars and 34p for

“ 4 cords of wood at 2 dollars per cord, fences destroyed, &c.”[5]

Lafayette visited Sayles Tavern again during his extended tour of the nation, arriving on August 23rd, 1824, by carriage from Plainfield, Connecticut and being met at the tavern by

“ a great military and civic procession. The ovation extended him was fully equal to that of Washington…and was participated in by the veterans of the Revolution, and by their children and grandchildren.” [6]

It was on this occasion, that Abigail Pidge, having given birth just days before to a yet unnamed infant, was inspired and asked the aging General for his blessing to name her son for their distinguished visitor. Thus Lafayette Pidge entered the ledgers of town records and though from humble beginnings ( he records himself as “ toll-keeper” under the occupation required for his marriage certificate ) he, like his Father found himself fortunate[7], for he was to raise seven children on the farm.

The coming years continued to bring visitors to the Tavern. For many years it was “ a regular stopping place for the New York to Boston stages, and…reputed to be the oldest house in Rhode Island.”[8]

The toll house that had stood at the crossroads was long associated with the tavern, in some records a toll-house is referred to adjoining the property of the tavern, in other, later records it is recorded on maps as “Williams Toll “ and sits directly at the crossroads.

The “Turnpike” was commissioned for improvements by acommittee formed in 1807, and an Act of the Town Assembly onJuly 6th of the following year, addresses reparations for “ the damages done to individuals thro’ whose land the same should pass”. This included the promise to Jeremiah Sayles, that “ the Corporation by agreement, are to erect as good a fence on the east side of said turnpike as now stands on the west side, to remove the buildings off the road & leave the old fence at said Sayles disposal.”[9]

A resident recalled that in 1824, the toll keeper’s name was one George Williams. She also recalled that at that time, and long after,the Old Post Road was among “ the most beautiful in the state”, with great trees on either side that stretched branches overhead in a long, leafy canopy. Another resident named Georgianna Austin, recalled helping her Father, John Utton at the toll around 1856 when she was eight years old:

“ I used to pick up the nickels tossed out by impatient drivers as they passed.”

She also reminisced about  “ romping around Pidge Farm.”

Gas lamps were introduced to the area in 1848, and the city gave permission for eight lanterns to be installed along the road. By 1853, the old Toll House was in disrepair, and funds were provided by the City Council to build a new house and tollgate just opposite the present entrance to Pidge Ave.

Traffic continued to grow on the old routes. Stagecoaches were replaced by the horse drawn Omnibus, an early, and often colorful predecessor of the horse drawn trolley, as they were often no more than refitted coaches painted with flags and banners in patriotic fashion.

The first organized trolley service in the state traveled the Central Falls to Pawtucket to Providence line along the route past the tavern in 1864. By this time, the tavern had passed to a son in law of the Sayles family, Ira Pidge; and became known as the “ Pidge Tavern” and later as the “ Olde Pidge House”.

The “Pidge Farm” of Pawtucket is listed among the National Archive of stops on the famous Underground Railroad as were several other houses nearby, including the Buffam Chase house in Central Falls. It seems that Pidge Farm was a minor stop on the route, but in an interview in 1934, Samuel Swan Pidge recalls that as a boy, he knew that his Father and Grandfather Ira helped hide “ the dusky fugitives in the Pidge House stables”, just up the “ lane”  from the Tavern. Runaway slaves would be directed to the tavern  by sympathizers, and often Pidge felt, by many of the police whose duty it would have been to arrest the slaves.

The elder Pidge recalled in particular, “ two big men fugitives and one woman who were hidden in the barn at different times” and that  “ Their Southern accent was too much for me, I could hardly understand a word they spoke.”

In Samuel Pidge’s account, slaves would generally arrive at dusk and be hidden in the stable among the cattle. Meals would be brought up from the Tavern, though it is not unlikely that meals were also given fugitives in the large kitchen of the Tavern behind the main room. Runaways usually stayed for one full day before heading out again at dusk. While some later local historians have downplayed the elder Pidge’s account, the interview, published both in the Pawtucket Times  and Providence Journal in 1934 is a long and vivid account of the times.

In addition, one of the last residents of the old house, Charles Clegg, recalled exploring hidden passageways and discovering false walls within the structure.

With the passage of time, the old Tavern’s reputation grew and as the 19th century closed, the “ Old Pidge House was featured inseveral books and articles as well as  lectures about New England and Colonial times.

One such lecture , entitled “ Old Taverns of Providence” appeared in the Narragansett Historical register in 1886. The Hon. Elisha Dyer tells of visiting the old Dexter house, the site of another early tavern, and assuming the place to be the oldest he had visited until informed by “ Mr Benjamin Burns…. a most worthy person, ….that the old “Pidge Tavern” now standing very near where the old “ Toll-House” was, and the present horse car barn is, was older.”

Visiting the house, he met James S. Pidge, the son of Ira Pidge, and the present owner who recounted the history of Lafayette’s visits to the house and let him into the attic to examine the dates on the chimney and old deeds he had stored away to verify the age of the structure.

Stepping into the main chamber he describes

“ The quaint old “ bar” is as it was, and the wooden bolt which fastened the front door still hangs on its nail for nightly use. “

He reports that:

“Lafayette’s room is the same as when he was it’s occupant, and very few changes in the general appearance and arrangement of the house have ever been made, so far as can be ascertained.”

Somewhat overwhelmed by his find, Dyer waxes poetic about the old house:

“ Here stands  { July 11, 1883, ) the oldest tavern of memory, rich in its time honored memories and associations, as yet unscathed or weakened by the severest blasts of a northern winter as well as by the withering rays of a more than tropical sun. …Long may it stand as one of the very few links connecting the past and present, that remain to us.”

Would that it were so. The old house was to remain for another seventy years, appearing again in an early guide to the State with another description of the interior:

“ The building contains many Colonial relics, a large beam runs lengthwise through the house, a fixture of colonial construction known as “the summer tree” In the corner of the old common room or bar room is a closet used for serving ales and liquors. It has a half-door, a narrow serving shelf, and a broader shelf within. In the latter is a slot through which coins were dropped supposedly into a half bushel basket. Behind the bar room is the kitchen with a well preserved old oven. The house also contains some of the furniture of it’s halcyon days.”

The guide also mentions an old well outside and

“ a large, flat boulder used by Lafayette as a mounting block.”[10]

The Tavern was also featured in the White Pine Monograph Series of Old Houses. The photograph in Volume 5 of the series, published in 1928 portraying Old Colonial Houses of Providence, shows Pidge House likely little changed from Elisha Dyer’s visit forty-five years before.

The subsequent years were not so kind to the old tavern. A map from 1870 shows the first building to appear on the farm above the tavern, and this is presumably the first “ farm-house” built separate from the Tavern that we know, and stands directly across what is now Williams Street. This would be the plot registered to Sarah Pidge in 1877 among the Register of Deeds in North Providence.

By this period, the old bustling activity on the road based on commerce, would have largely disappeared with the advent of the Providence-Worchester Railroad. The old Williams Toll was closed in 1869 and the turnpike declared a “ free-way” to much celebration. which included a circus, and a twenty five gun salute from the local Tower Light Brigade.[11

Passengers passing by the Tavern would have largely been those on the horse drawn trolleys, with the large horse barn nearby for switching the poor beasts used on the “ animal railroad” which at it’s height, traveled the old route every fifteen minutes between Pawtucket and Providence.

What is remarkable about this period is how encapsulated Pidge House, the farm, and its environs remained. The farm property extended all the way back to what is now Chace Avenue, which held a pair of houses about a third the way up from North Main, and another building, perhaps a barn, up-road from there.

A long-time resident remembered that even at this late in the century, what we now know as Pidge Avenue was an often “ muddy lane” down which cattle was driven to the old turnpike. He also recalled an orchard of Apple and Cherry trees which grew in the triangular area between Pidge and the lane later named Williams Street.

But all was to change in very little time. By 1880, a large horse stable for the rail cars had been built where the orchard had grown and the increasing traffic on the road perpetrated a period of rapid growth in the neighborhood. The city of North Providence built a school on the plot adjacent to Swan Street, and by 1881, when Pawtucket incorporated the area, their map of the “ Pidge Farm Plats” shows the old farm had largely been parceled out. Some lots and presumably the houses thereon remained in the family. There is a long line of descendents living on what became Pidge Avenue.

On the site of the first house above the tavern, or136 Pidge Avenue, the family line runs from James and Sarah in the 1870’s right through to Mrs Nellie Miller Collins who died in the home in 1939, and Mrs Joseph Williams who occupied the house in the 1950’s.

Samuels S. Pidge, of the aforementioned interview on the Underground Railroad, died at his home on 144 Pidge Avenue, just a few months before his cousin Nellie.

The Old Pidge House also remained in the family it appears until after James S. Pidge’s death. It was sold to a Mr. Ballou ofProvidence in 1901 who in turn sold it to the railroad company just five tears later, when it was feared it would be razed as the railroad was again, widening the turnpike to accommodate the growing traffic.

Efforts by the local Cerce Social Franco-American, recognizing the importance of the old house to French-American history, were made to persuade the city of Pawtucket to purchase the house.

Eventually, the house fell into disrepair. Photographs of this period show a house that seems abandoned, or nearly so, but the great house’s final  years were to have one last transformation.

For many years the Old Pidge House and farm seemed to defy the effects of time. They remained even as automobiles, Texaco stations, and massive buildings of factories and warehouses took the place of the leaf canopied lane.

In 1922, the Old Pidge House was bought by Granville S. Standish, a direct descendent of the founder of Plymouth, Ma. After years of neglect, his efforts to restore the historic house were duly reported by the Providence Journal:

“Reconstruction work on the Old Pidge House, one of Pawtucket’s oldest and most treasured historical landmarks,…is rapidly nearing completion…The house, a two-story wooden structure, was fast falling into decay until the work of reclaiming it was started. The dwelling, in it’s dilapidated condition, was the source of continual criticism by members of various organizations in Pawtucket.”[12]

The article then mentions that by October of that year

“ A squad of men, under the direction of the present owners, set out to repair the building. Broken window frames were replaced. The roof, which had been minus many of its shingles has been recovered. The four walls, which evidenced the ravages of time, have been strengthened. The exterior has been lathed with newstripe.”[13]

In addition, the large brick chimney, which reputedly was connected to fireplaces throughout the house, had also been repaired.

In 1924, the house was featured in the published collection of George D. Laswell’s “ Corners And Characters of Rhode Island”, a regular feature in the Providence  Journal. The accompanying text to the sketch of the Old Tavern notes that

“The property was recently acquired by Granville S. Standish of Providence who is refitting the interior in as near it’s original condition as possible. He hopes, with the assistance of the Rhode Island Historical Society, to preserve it as a historical shrine, opento the public.”

Pictures at this time show a beautifully restored historic house. For some reason, the hoped for “museum” never came to fruition. The Standish-Barnes Company commissioned artist Lyman Slocum to draw a sketch of the historic house in 1932, and this was later used in promotional materials and reprinted on calendars.

The efforts of Standish and others including Philip D. Greer, listed the house in 1940  with the Historic American Buildings Survey, and also achieved status for the property with the placement of a small plaque designating the house as an historic landmark on the Old Post Road, which was placed on a pole at the edge of the property facing North Main Street.

A Plaque on the house’s west end gave the Tavern’s date as “ circa 1700 “.

Standish owned the house with his business partners until his death on October 23, 1953. His son and heir died less than a month later. With the passing of these men, passed also the legacy of the Old Pidge House. Within a few month’s, the remaining partners at Standish-Barnes had erected two large billboards in front of the tavern and begun dismantling the historic structure. An article from the Providence Journal on March 28, 1954 chronicles the sad demise of the once revered house:

“Behind the billboards, the stout frame structure is falling in ruins. The carved doorway has been removed, and the vast central chimney, which provided a fireplace for every room, has largely disappeared.”

Reputably, parts of the interior were also removed and reinstalled in the Standish-Barnes offices. One of the house’s last inhabitants, Charles Clegg, is reported to have said that his Uncle, who assumed the place in the firm that Standish had held, tore the old tavern down for his business interests, and that the loss of the house was “a damned shame”.

He recalled that his fascination with the trolleys and the “horse barn“  just across from the old house formed his lifelong interest in trains and led to his distinguished career with the Virginia Railroad, and his impressive collection of railroad memorabilia which was donated to the University of California after Clegg’s death in 2002.

All who could shed some light on the tavern’s final days are now gone, yet any explanations would not diminish the great loss that the community and the State suffered when they allowed “ the oldest home in Rhode Island” to be destroyed.

Fifty-five years later, little remains to remind us of what had been here for so long as a tangible part of history. The historic Chase house still stands beyond the old borders of the farm. The Old Dexter House on North Main Street is now the home of the Providence Preservation Society, a monument commemorating the encampment of Rochambeau’s troops rests on the corner of Brewster  and Summit Ave.,

and lying directly on the Providence boundary, but just opposite the entrance to Hillside Avenue is an old granite marker on which is chiseled 2 MI, and beneath O.H. It is a stone that passengers on horseback, in carriages and trolleys and finally automobiles have seen to mark the 2 miles to the Providence stop on the old highway.


Notes:

[1] The scuttle is the inside of the chimney where added mortar and materials are added to protect the roof, accessed by the attic of the house. There is mention of the tavern being a “ stone-ender” in it’s earliest days. This chimney would have been removed for the central one built in 1761.

[2] This account of Washington’s visit is from Mr Haley’s pamphlet “ Washington’s Second Visit to Rhode Island in the Old Stone Bank series, copyright 1939

[3] This speculation being mine as there is mention in 1883 of “ a great butternut tree, estimated at 104 or so years old”, so large in circumference that it took three men to encircle the trunk.

[4] Written from camp August 18,1780

[5] record of expenses Rochambeau submitted to the Continental Congress

[6] Field, Edward “ State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century” 1902

[7] Ira Pidge had in fact been “evicted” from Providence as a young man and found his way to the tavern, where he found employment and his future wife in Jeremiah Sayles daughter.

[8] Editor’s notes to online version of the Old Stone Bank series.

[9] Early Records of the Town of Providence Vol. XVIII

[10] “ A Guide to the Smallest State 1902

[11] Grieve’s “ History of Pawtucket”

[12] The Providence Journal December 31, 1922

[13] Ibid

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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4 Responses to A Toll, A Tavern, and A Farm.

  1. Raymond F Laurie says:

    The Geogianna (nee Utton) Austin you quote in this article is my great-great grandmother who was born in what is now Pawtucket, RI in 1848. She died in Pawtucket in 1941 in her 94th year. Her Husband was William Henry Ausin of Cumberland. John Taylor Utton her father was my great-great-great grandfather. Georgianna’s mother was Maria Louisa (nee Lambert) Utton, daughter of Thomas Lambert and Nancy (nee Lawrence of Sandwich). John T Utton was the son of John W Utton of England and Phebe Snow (nee Taylor) Utton of Chatham. Georgianna was a descendant of the Mayflower passengers John Tilley, John Howland and Stephen Hopkins via her father. She was a descendant of Mayflower passenger William Brewster via her mother Maria. Maria married Asa Phillips after John T Utton’s death and moved to Easton, Mass where she resided until his death. Maria then moved back to Pawtucket and lived with her daughter (Ellen Maria (nee Utton) Bucklin until Maria L Phillips died on January 8 1905. Maria is buried in the Mineral Spring Cemetery grave she bought in Dec 1856 for her first husband John T Utton. Georgianna’s daughter Sarah Ella Austin married Joseph Laurie and became my great grandparents. The Lamberts moved to what is now Pawtucket RI in the late 1820’s while the Utton family moved to Pawtucket in the late 1830’s. Both families lived in the Lonsdale section of the area and attended the same church of which the Lamperts were church elders. There, their children met and married and their descendants still live in and around the Pawtucket area to this day almost 190 years later..

    • rag57 says:

      Thank you Raymond- for the wealth of information.

      • Raymond F. Laurie says:

        Update to the fate of the toll taker: in the story above. On Tuesday 14 May 2014 I discovered what happened to my great great great grandfather John Taylor Utton. The story is below. In the 1856 23 May edition of the Pawtucket Times on page 2 lower left of the page is the following:

        Drowned – At an early hour yesterday morning, four gentlemen belonging to this place, (one of whom was Mr. John Utton, toll gatherer on the Providence and Pawtucket Turnpike,) left Providence in a boat for the purpose of fishing. When they had got down the river as far as the vicinity of Field’s Point, they passed so near a sloop loaded with lumber going in a different direction, that the boom of the boat caught in the lumber on deck, and the boat was capsized. All four of the persons in it were precipitated into the water, but three of them clung to the boat and were taken on board the sloop. Mr. Utton, however, was drowned. He remained above water considerable time but fright or some injury which he received appear to have rendered him incapable , thought a good swimmer, or regaining the boat, or even seizing hold of the boats which were with a few feet of him when he disappeared. His body had not been recovered at the latest accounts. He was about forty years of age, and leaves a wife and four children.

      • rag57 says:

        Thank you Raymond, I appreciate you adding to this story.

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