210128ind History

Pictured at right in a photo captured around the 1940s, both the Wickford Package Store (in its original location) and Ryan’s Market were the results of an Irish immigrant family’s realization of their own version of the “American Dream.”

Last week we left off in August 1894 with the Cullen family purchasing the Gardiner Boarding House and settling into their piece of the American dream. Along the way Edmund Cullen had returned a favor to the Morris Ryan family of Greenville, Rhode Island, and had assisted their young son Michael Ryan as he started out here in Our Fair Town, working at the same Belleville Woolen Mill that he did. It appears from US census records that Ryan may have relocated to North Kingstown during the late 1870s. What we can be sure of is that in 1882, 25-year-old Michael Ryan married 23-year-old Mary Cassady, another Belleville Irish-American mill worker. We can also be certain that the two families remained friends, as St. Bernard’s Catholic Church records indicated that both the Cullen and Ryan families played an active part in taking the Catholic Mission at Belleville (for that is all that the parish was at the time) and transforming it into a fully-recognized member of the newly-formed Catholic Diocese of Providence. Many a fundraiser was held on the lawn and big front porch of Mount Maple along the road to that important accomplishment.

Perhaps it was the success of his friend Edmund Cullen that motivated the 29-year-old Irish immigrant to take a leap of faith and leave his secure job as a finisher at the mill for an uncertain future. We may never know. But for whatever reason, in 1886 both Michael and Mary left the employ of the mill and rented a building at the busy intersection of Oak Hill and Tower Hill Roads, known then as Belleville Corners. This building, seen in the accompanying photo, was ideal for the business they planned to undertake. In that very year, Michael and Mary opened Ryan’s Market and began to compete with the many other small markets located in this busy village.

Their fiscal survival during the nine years that followed is a testament to their success, as there were many competitors along the way that did not fare so well. By October 1895, the Ryans were prepared to take another chance, for it was then that they purchased a somewhat rundown storefront with an apartment above on Brown Street in the up-and-coming village of Wickford. The listed price in the deed of transfer, $35 plus other considerations, spoke volumes about the condition of both the building and the village at that juncture in time. I expect, though, that the Ryans intuitively sensed what we historians in retrospective have said so often. The impact of the combination of the Sea View Electric Railway and the Newport & Wickford rail spur was going to change Wickford in a very positive way. The “Trains that saved Wickford” were going to also secure the future of the Clan Ryan for generations to come. Not that this was a sure bet – here, too, there were competitors. But the Clan Ryan understood then – and still do to this day – that it’s not enough just to have a clean market with good food at a reasonable price. In order to get folks (especially long-term dyed-in-the-wool swamp Yankee folks) to come back to your store for literally generations, they’ve got to enjoy the experience; they’ve got to feel like the shop workers are glad to have them there. It makes a world of difference to know that everyone working in the store makes the effort to know your name, to say hello, to lend a hand with those heavy bags on an icy day. That’s why Ryan’s Market was in business for more than 125 years after Michael and Mary Ryan took a leap of faith and grabbed hold of their version of the American dream. It’s a dream that brought their family from an uncertain future in a destitute Irish village to a position of prominence in another village half a world away.

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

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