Inside the Town Trader – the oldest building in Chepachet

Charlie Wilson stands in the 1690 portion of the the oldest building in Chepachet. Two feet in front of him is the 1750 addition, marked by overhead beams which signify the, "new" portion of the building. NRI NOW photo by Dick Martin

GLOCESTER – What’s it like living in the oldest building in the Chepachet Historic District? Wait, make that one of the oldest buildings in the state, portions of which date back to 1690, putting it into the top few oldest in Rhode Island…?

Just ask Charlie Wilson, owner of the Town Trader Antique Shop, which has sat next to Chepachet River for 334 years.

“I always wanted to own an historic building and sell antiques,” said Wilson, who has been the chairman of the Glocester Historic District Commission for the last 12 years – and also owns part of the river bed. “It’s in my blood. It was just a matter of finding the right old building.”

Of course, the structure at 1177 Putnam Pike wasn’t always the Town Trader. It has been a café, a tavern, a home, a hardware store and a light fixture shop, among other uses, but the original building is still there, enclosed by various additions over the years, including a major addition in 1780 to the front. The original owners sold land on the opposite side of the river to the White family to build the Stone Mill, which is also an antique store now. Buried under, “improvements,” over the years were hand-pegged rafters, chestnut beams, horsehair plaster and even an original beehive oven. On the second floor were remnants of ancient wallpaper, with a Paris label. A portion of that wallpaper is now in the state’s historic archives.

The original beehive fireplace which was at one time the sole source of heat. NRI NOW photo by Dick Martin.

Wilson purchased the building in 2005 and began the process of restoring it to its original condition. He rolled up his sleeves and went to work, tearing out the parts that didn’t belong, such as the vinyl siding, which had succeeded in rotting the original clapboards, and exposing original walls, floors and ceilings.

“I had to go down to the bare bones and start over,” Wilson explained.

First, the second floor had to be taken out and put back to its original place. At some point the floor had been raised, eliminating what was once a living space upstairs. Wilson pointed out the upstairs walls, which still bore the original imprint of second floor windows and doors.

“I couldn’t move upstairs until I lowered the floor,” said Wilson.

The Town Trader building when Charlie Wilson purchased it in 2005

Fortunately, he located 1700s beams and flooring nearby in a home about to be torn down, purchased them and used them to rebuild to the original specifications. That was important to maintaining the historic integrity of the building, which is on the National Historic Register of Historic Places. For 18 days, a seven man crew worked 24/7 to complete the project.

Other improvements included adding a septic system, which didn’t exist when he bought the property. The new system is a self-contained treatment system, which has to be maintained by a septic company. A well had to be added also, replacing the original hand dug well, which would dry up during the summer on a regular basis.

“Basically, I had to put in plumbing, electrical…everything in the building,” he said. “There was really nothing to use.”

Those weren’t the only challenges, however.

“I spent six months fighting with the town, and I had to go to the state to get approval to live above the mercantile,” Wilson explained. “No one had done it for many, many years. The town was against it. They said, ‘Nah, tear the old building down.’ The building inspector refused to give me a permit. So, I had to go to the state.”

As a result of the Station Fire, however, restrictions had changed. Wilson had to coat the exposed ceilings and beams with a special fire retardant, and install an extensive alarm system, among other things.

“I spent three weeks in here coating every single piece of wood,” he recalled. “There were a lot of bumps in the road trying to make this place work.”

The kitchen in the upstairs living quarters, replete with an antique sink and stove, and a live-in ghost, who Wilson believes could be Lydia Slocum, who lived there in the 1700s. NRI NOW photo by Dick Martin

Over the years roofing has been replaced, new paint has been added to the siding, heating has been replaced, and the dirt floor cellar, which floods regularly, has been dug out. Wilson explained when Joe’s Hardware owned it, the two chimneys collapsed into the cellar. Wilson dug it out by hand, hauling bricks and other materials by himself, and, eventually, adding a sump pump to help with flooding. He moved into the second floor in 2006.

As the building has aged, however, so has Wilson. At 72, he admits he is no longer up for climbing ladders and handling the labor intensive duties required to keep the aging building intact. These days, he hires people for the heavier tasks.

Needless to say, that means even more expenses to maintain the structure. Originally, Wilson paid $300,000 for the property in 2004. Since then, it has been a money pit of sorts, when you consider all the changes he has made over the years. Since moving in, Wilson estimates he’s paid more than $275,000 for repairs and upkeep. In 2004, he paid $1,800 in taxes. Last year, he paid more than $6,000.

“It gets expensive,” said Wilson. “There were a lot of challenges. It still is today.”

An upstairs door leading to the main living quarters. NRI NOW photo by Dick Martin

Add to that other unexpected events, such as local insurance companies dropping insurance on historic homes two years ago.

“I was left with a notice of cancellation,” said Wilson. “I had 30 days to get insurance, or I had to shut the business down,”

After searching unsuccessfully in different states and historic districts, with only five days remaining, he located an insurance company in Massachusetts, Quincy Mutual, which would insure the site, but at a much higher rate. All the people in town who lived in historic homes faced the same dilemma, he said.

“They came running to me, asking how I did it,” he recalled.

As a result of his experiences, Wilson has created a manual for those interested in buying an historic home. The book basically tells potential buyers what to look for and what to expect when they move into an historic building.

“It gives them an idea of how to take care of their homes,” he explained.

One thing new owners might not expect is a ghost, which resides on the second floor. He believes it is Lydia Slocum, who lived there during the 1780s, making it her home. Slocums lived in the residence until the 1950s. Wilson says he has seen the apparition from time to time, and it has revealed itself in other ways, as well.

Hand-pegged beams in the roof of the original building, dating back to 1690. NRI NOW photo by Dick Martin

“I had a round oak kitchen table,” said Wilson. “Apparently, she didn’t like it because every morning when I got up it would be pushed over next to the stove.”

After replacing it with a rectangular table, the moving stopped.

After renovations were completed, Wilson researched the Slocums and discovered three of Lydia’s grandchildren, Ellie, Mary and John, who resided in New York, Ohio, and Illinois. He flew them in to check out the home, which they apparently remembered.

“Mary was the only one who could climb the stairs,” Wilson recalled. “It brought tears to her eyes. She said it was so close to the way it was.”

The Town Trader when it was the home of the Slocums.

One of Lydia Slocum’s granddaughters was the first female hired by the state of Rhode Island as an employee, he said. She did two shifts at the West Glocester fire tower. That was also the birthplace of Ziba Slocum, who was the Rhode Island Attorney General in 1887.

Despite ghosts, upkeep, and various expenses, Wilson wouldn’t trade places for something more modern.

“I love history,” he said. “I love old buildings. It is a labor of love for me. I was very fortunate to find this building.”

The Town Trader building, which has undergone a variety of owners over the years, dates back to 1690, making it one of the oldest buildings in the state. NRI NOW photo by Dick Martin
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