I guess it is an expected part of getting a “bit long in the tooth”, as I am, to find that friends and acquaintances that you have known for years are passing on. Such is the case with the recent death of Normand Leclair. I knew of him for decades — Gosh everyone knew of him, whether it was from his first restaurant the ‘Chick n’ Pick’ or from his more famous venture ‘The Red Rooster Tavern’, Normand Leclair was a local celebrity of sorts. We became friends though years later at local book shows. He was selling his wonderful and quite successful cookbooks and I was hawking, of course, local history books. We sat next to each other during these shows and came to be friends. Once you got to know Normand, you quickly realized what an exceptional person he was. Kind, modest, funny. I am not sure there are enough positive adjectives available to do him justice. So as way to remember him, lets look at the story behind the former farmhouse that he made famous.
Just about everyone in town, who has been around for a while, is acquainted with the familiar sight of the Red Rooster Tavern building. I also expect that most of you have also taken note of the fact that the building which housed North Kingstown’s second most famous restaurant ever (the now demolished Custy’s being the first) looks an awful lot like someone’s home. The fact of the matter is that this indeed was a home long before it was a place to dine on some of the best fancy vittles this side of the big city. Plenty has been said and written on the story of Red Rooster Tavern and its owner Normand LeClaire, but that only covers about 35 years’ worth of the history of the circa 1875 home. Let’s take a Swamptown gander at the rest of the story behind the little house at 7385 Post Road.
Back in the 1870s, when this very typical little farmhouse was constructed, the land it sat upon was a part of the larger Carpenter family farm that existed largely on the eastern side of the Post Road. Just 10 years earlier, Samuel Carpenter had purchased this piece of land on the west side of the road from the family of another North Kingstown farmer Daniel Brown, whose farmhouse still exists and is now occupied by the ‘White Elephant’ antique shop. The Carpenters, Browns, Harts, Reynolds, and, yes, even a branch of the Cranstons farmed this area for many years, long before anyone had ever imagined the concept of shopping plazas and strip malls. Indeed, this section of Post Road was as rural, at that time, as anything that exists today out on the back roads of Exeter or West Greenwich. There was nothing but farms and forests between Wickford to the south and Sand Hill Village (centered on present day Chadsey Road) to the north. I’m not certain why Samuel built the little farmhouse, more than likely it was for the family of one of his children or perhaps for a tenant farmer who worked the land owned by Carpenter and paid out of the proceeds of the crop. But whatever the case, this house was an integral part of the working family farm.
For reasons unknown — although I suspect it probably had something to do with cash flow as farming is a difficult business — Samuel Carpenter carved out a two-acre parcel of land centered around the house and sold it to Wickford fisherman and businessman Rollin Mason in 1896. Mason was a man of substance and owned a number of properties during that timeframe. He, more than likely, viewed this purchase as an investment and rented the house out. He held onto it until 1903 when he sold it to William Wilcox. The home subsequently changed hands a number of times until 1922 when a local man by the name of George A. Gardiner Jr. purchased it as a home for himself, his wife Annie (Stanton), and their growing family. George Gardiner worked as a road crew foreman at the state highway garage in Belleville, still located in the same location as it was when George reported to work there each day for some 40 years. In this home, George and Annie raised three children: Wallace, Ruth, and Lillian. George Gardiner died of heat exhaustion on the job, running a work crew along the edge of Route 102 in Exeter. He was 65 at the time and most certainly contemplating retirement on that hot August day in 1949, when he picked up a shovel with his men for the last time. His sudden death shocked and saddened the close-knit community.
Lillian, one of George’s daughters, eventually ended up with the house. This was most appropriate, as she had spent her childhood there. Lillian Gardiner married and became Lillian Hackett, a much beloved and long-standing employee of the town of North Kingstown. As a matter of fact, in 1969, Lillian became the town’s first non-elected Town Clerk, a position she held until 1986 when she retired after a 35-year career. Later, she sold the house to LeClair, an already established restauranteur and owner of the Chick ‘n Pick Restaurant that was located across the street from the Red Rooster. Lillian was known to joke with local folks who frequented the place, saying that they were having dinner in her old bedroom. Normand ran the Red Rooster with his business partner Frank Hennessy for nearly 30 years. It won more awards than I can ever begin to tell you. Nationally-recognized numerous times as a top fine dining establishment in Rhode Island, it was also chosen by Wine Spectator magazine as possessing one of the nation’s finest wine cellars. Everyone who was anyone ate at the Red Rooster Tavern. In addition to this fine place, Normand was also co-owner of the Pump House Restaurant and Via Veneto. Aspiring restaurateurs who worked for Normand over the years in these places, now operate fine establishments all over the country. He was a culinary force that still impacts that world.
The Red Rooster Tavern building, nearing 150 years old, is looking pretty sad now and probably won’t be with us too much longer. But if I squint my eyes just right, I can almost see the long lines of well-dressed folks waiting to get a table and the mess of cars cruising that oddball parking lot looking for a spot. The breeze back then always carried two things, the wonderful scent of seafood, grilled steaks, and fine wines, and sounds of the Red Rooster tavern crowds punctuated by the quiet satisfied laugh of Normand Leclair. Rest easy my friend.