The sudden passing of my friend EJ Ryan last week has really got me thinking about Ryan’s Market and its place in the story of our community. EJ, who was named after his grandfather who ran the market in its heyday, was the last member of his family to run this fine establishment. He was a “bigger than life” sort of person and he missed by all who knew him. Let’s look at the story of the Ryan’s market building as a way of honoring both him and this place.
This building was constructed as a two-family house by Peleg Briggs in 1857 on a lot already possessing a store building and a shed that he purchased from Jeremiah Thomas. That existing small storefront had been constructed in the early 1800’s by the Rathbun family and may have been the blacksmith shop of A. Borden Rathbun who lived just around the corner on Main Street. Peleg, who described himself in advertisements as a dealer in groceries and provisions, opened up a grocery store here and constructed the large two-family house for his own family and for that of his sister Lucy (Briggs) Weaver, widow of Nicholas Weaver. All indications are that Peleg, his wife Mary Jane, and sister Lucy worked together running the store along with his brother Calvin, whose family also lived in the house, and their widowed mother Asia Briggs. They operated in this fashion until April of 1868 when they sold the house and store to another sibling, Hannah (Briggs) Kenyon and her husband Oliver, son of the intriguingly named Err Kenyon. Oliver and Hannah owned it until 1868 when they sold out to two recent Irish immigrant families.
Bernard O’Connell and James Kennedy and their families moved in to the house and turned the grocery store run by the Briggs clan into a liquor store. Sadly, Bernard O’Connell perished in 1874. His widow Margaret eventually married East Greenwich resident Sylvester Crogan. The Kennedy family involvement ended sometime in the 1870’s and by 1886, when the house and store were sold, it was owned in partnership by Sylvester and Margaret Crogan and Margaret’s daughter Julie (O’Connell) Sampson. These two families moved their retail liquor operation north into East Greenwich and sold the buildings, but not the land they sat upon to another Irish immigrant family Michael and Mary (Cassady) Ryan in May of 1886.
Michael Ryan had emigrated from Ireland around eight years prior to purchasing the house and storefront buildings from the Crogan/Sampson clan. He began life here in North Kingstown as many immigrants did, working in the Belleville Woolen Mill where he met and later married Mary Cassady. He rose through the ranks at the mill eventually becoming a finisher and then in the middle 1880s, took a leap of faith, and left that secure position to open up a small grocery store on the corner of Tower Hill and Oak Hill Roads, competing with many other small markets that were operating in Belleville and Allenton at the time.
In 1886, the Ryan’s took another chance and purchased this property, although for more than a decade they were required to make yearly land lease payments to Julie Sampson until they finally purchased the lot outright.
Using a different tact than their predecessors here, Michael Ryan, remodeled the two family house into a building with a storefront on the first floor and living space on the second. They opened their full service grocery and meat market in that space and rented out the former small store to others. This gave them adequate space for their fine grocery market, sufficient living space for their growing family and a rental income stream from the small shop. Tenants there in that small shop over the decades included a shoemaker, a lunchroom, and numerous others; including again eventually a liquor store, this time owned and operated by the Ryans.
As the market grew and prospered over the years, the Ryan family obtained the wherewithal to purchase a separate home across the street on Brown Street and then rented out the space over the store as an apartment. In the 1940’s that second floor apartment was remodeled into stockroom space and the building became wholly utilized for the market’s business. The present commercial-style façade was added at that time.
In 1950, the business’ success required additional expansion and the Hunt family paint store on the building’s south side was acquired and then demolished to allow for more store floor space; this expansion was driven in part by changing consumer demands for refrigerated and frozen products. In 1960, the Market, again strapped for space, took the unusual tact of expanding on pilings over the eastern edge of Academy Cove. Eventually, the small circa 1800 store was demolished and replaced with a loading dock area.
Even during the 1970s and 80s when countless other small family owned markets were falling by the wayside due to increased competitive pressure brought on by the influx of numerous supermarkets into the area, Ryan’s Market remained a popular and financially solvent enterprise, largely due to the exceptional quality of its meat and produce and the high levels of service offered by the long running family business. The fact that the Market and the family owned liquor store, known as The Wickford Package Store, and begun in the building once occupied by O’Connells Liquor Store, operated financial as one business enterprise allowed Ryan’s Market to financially weather the ups and downs of the local economy.
Sadly, in part due to the severing of these two businesses and in part due to the untimely closing of the nearby Wickford Elementary School, the business ultimately closed for good in 2007 after 121 years in operation. The building is now owned by the Ocean State Job Lot Corporation and occupied by the Kayak Center. Rest easy EJ!