230112ind history

The Place pizza shop, located at 95 Brown St. in Wickford, recently unveiled a fresh new look but the changes at the downtown mainstay are just the latest in a long line of refreshes for the building, which has a history that can be traced back to the mid 1800s.

It is apparent to anyone passing through Wickford, that “The Place” pizza shop building has been given a well-deserved facelift.  With that in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at the story behind this utilitarian little building and remarkable family that occupied it for many years.

Recent widower, 44 year old Jacob Turck stepped off the proverbial boat in Providence in 1854. We know nothing of his life back in Wallstein, German, other than that it was lacking something, something which drove him to risk it all in the land of opportunity: America.

He was a shoemaker by trade and I expect he took in the lay of the land for a while and tried to find a village where he felt confident he could make a new start. That place ended up being Wickford, where he put down roots for good in 1855.

By 1856, he had met and married another recent German immigrant, Anna Ossman, and they settled down and began a life and a family. At approximately two year intervals, they had five children: Frank, Margaret, Cornelia, Anne and William. During that time they also managed to save up enough money that in 1858 they were able to buy a home/shop where they could both live and make their living.

The building, still extant today (it houses “The Place”) was located near the channel from Wickford Harbor to Academy Cove on a street then known as Bridge Street (now Brown Street) and was previously owned by William Brown for whom the street was eventually named.

Jacob’s shop was on the street level, and the Turck family lived upstairs. Jacob not only handmade custom fit shoes for the wealthy folks in Wickford, he also sold factory made shoes for the average guy as well. These shoes were quite a bit different than the ones you buy in the stores today. If you weren’t fortunate enough to have a pair especially made for you then you purchased a pair where the major differences between the right one and the left one was how it wore down as you used it, and believe me there were not a myriad of sizes and widths like there are now. But, if you could afford a handmade pair of shoes from a master shoemaker like Herr Turck, they fit you like a second skin and were the most comfortable thing available.

Jacob was not only a great shoemaker; he was, as evidenced by the commentary in his obituary in 1896, a well-loved friend and neighbor to all in the village. Jacob, by the way, continued to work each day, bent over his shoemaker’s bench into his 84th year.

The Turck’s second oldest daughter, Cornelia, married another recent immigrant to America, East Greenwich’s Valentin Glass, who settled there and followed his trade as a baker. This marriage brought with it a new face to the story of the Turck’s of Wickford, as it seems apparent that Cornelia’s two brothers, Frank and William became taken with the baking trade, as a short while after their sister’s marriage they broke from the family business and (seemingly with their father’s blessing) and opened the Turck’s brothers Bakery in the street level of a building which once stood a few doors down from their father’s shoemaker’s shop, (now the Rite Aid drugstore portion of the Wickford Parking Lot). So, the newly renamed Brown Street now hosted two Turck-run businesses.

Things went well for the Turcks for a time. But the death of their patriarch, Jacob brought about the end of the family’s association with the shoemaker’s trade, and the death of youngest son, William, just one year later, when he was only 31, surely took some of the spark out of the family.

They held out until 1912 when what was left of the family (mother, Anna, having died as well), sold the old shoe shop that was their home for so long to the founding members of the Wickford Club.

Unmarried siblings Frank and Anne then moved up to East Greenwich where they lived and worked with the Glass family in their bakery. Frank and Valentin, always the savvy visionaries, got in on the ground floor of a new and growing business, heating oil delivery, when they became partners in this new industry. The company they began still exists as East Greenwich Oil.  

All the Turcks and Glass’ are buried together in one large family plot out at Elm Grove Cemetery; husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, they are no more parted in death than they were in life. I guess that speaks volumes about why they all took the chance and left the comfort of what they knew to risk in all in America.

The members of the Wickford Club, which began in 1912 as a private men’s club, utilized the second floor for their members-only functions and supported themselves by renting out the first floor commercial space for 105 years. One of the most intriguing features of their second floor meeting space is a colorful wall mural created by member and artist, and nationally renowned political cartoonist Paule Loring. That mural, it seems, will become part of the focus of this building’s resurrection. New owner and fellow Swamp Yankee Stu Tucker has an interest in opening a Loring themed oyster bar or intimate gathering space where a century worth of Wickford’s men of merit used to meet, chat, and carouse. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed as this building, constructed some 193 years ago, begins a new chapter in its long-running story.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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