We don’t know exactly why John Jay, one of the “Founding Fathers” of the United States and the first chief justice of the Supreme Court (1789-1795), thought the Wilcox Tavern on Greenwoods Road (also known as Route 44) was a “bad house.” But we do know that he did dine and possibly stay there, for his stop was recorded in his journals.
Visits like Jay’s were not uncommon in the 18th century and early 19th century, as homes were often opened to weary travelers making their way from Hartford to Albany. Apparently, one Rosanna Pettibone Wilcox of Norfolk was the tavern keeper, appointed as such after the death of her husband. Reportedly, each year selectmen named a certain number of homeowners “to keep houses of publick entertainment.” These designations were prized, as shown by the number of individuals who actually petitioned to be tavern keepers.
At times, as one can imagine, complaints were issued for keeping disorderly houses of entertainment. For some reason, Chief Justice Jay did not approve of the widow Wilcox’s tavern. A sign outside a side entrance to the home proclaims "The Widow Wilcox Proprietor," and she must have enjoyed a modicum of success as a tavern owner and innkeeper despite Jay’s less than flattering opinion as the property later became the Bigelow Hotel.
It was once common, especially on farms on main roads, that when the man of the house died and children grew and left the homestead, widows would open a tavern/inn to be able to maintain the home and keep a place for themselves to live. The focal point of stagecoach travel in Connecticut towns at the time was the local tavern, usually run by a person of standing in the community.
Tavern stops were typically 12 to 18 miles apart, and it was not unusual for stage proprietors to have a financial interest in the locations where passengers were to stop for food or to spend the night. From 1820 and 1840, “stagecoaching” was a major enterprise and a source of livelihood for a number of individuals. Stagecoaching was actually the fledgling United State’s first transportation subculture, the means by which a considerable number of citizens became mobile and in touch with neighboring states and different cultures. Though the number of stage routes in the state declined with the growth of railroads, service operated in some towns into the early 20th century.
The Wilcox Tavern, which has 3,795 total square feet of space, originally sat close to Greenwoods Road East, as did most homes in the 1700s. It was later moved back down a driveway on the property and a Dutch Gambrel rear wing attached. Almost all of the floors and woodwork in the home are original as are the fireplaces. A “keeping room” with its massive fireplace remains a center of activity in the house.
The Wilcox Tavern, which sits on 3.42 acres, is currently for sale with an asking price of $589,000. Realtor Tom McGowan speaks to the historical significance of the home and property.
“The property is unique because so much of it is original,” he explains during a recent interview. “To duplicate the wide chestnut, oak and pine floors and paneling is virtually impossible. Today, trees are harvested prior to their growing large enough to even be cut to those dimensions. Also the construction of post and beam is not done today with rare exception, such as post and beam barn homes, which are also rare. To build this home today to its exacting standards would cost twice the asking price.”
McGowan says to find a historic home set back off the road with a sprawling front lawn and approach is also difficult, as these houses were almost always built very near roads for easy access during winter. The floor plan of the house also affords “something most unique,” with its multiple stairways, abundant bedrooms and baths and separate "public" rooms, which make it “the perfect country house” for entertaining and privacy.
“In addition, the town of Norfolk (the home is located within walking distance of the quaint center of town and the Yale Summer School of Music) is positioned for strong growth in the real estate market,” says McGowan. “According to the MLS, 2015 turned out to be the biggest year in the history of Norfolk for the number of sales. Real estate ebbs and flows in Norfolk, and it is due for continued growth in volume and price. For those buyers who want something very unique and individual in a very unique and individual town, this property is it.”
A tour of the home reveals much of the interior as it was over 200 years ago, and one can imagine the goings on that must have transpired during its heyday as a tavern and inn, before telephones, televisions and computers. You know, when people actually sat and talked to one another for long periods of time. Several rooms feature wide plank floor boards, and the second story, which has several bedrooms including a master bedroom, can be accessed from a foyer and the original staircase. When entering the front door of the home, you can see period details around the doorway, such as dentil molding, sidelights and a pediment.
One of the more stunning rooms is a large, 32-by-13-foot living space with a side library that features period details and historical wainscoting. Another stunning room is the 15-by-15-foot dining room that has red walls and ceiling that, as McGowan says, makes those in the room look “20 years younger.” The spacious kitchen measures 19-by-13 square feet.
Two guest bedrooms on the second floor share a bath with the master bedroom having its own full bath and a charming sitting area. A rear wing, built quite a bit after the original dwelling, features bedrooms with Dutch Colonial curved ceilings. A large attic in the addition offers plenty of storage space.
The grounds are attractive, with gardens and mature trees gracing the property and adding color during the warm months. A large brick terrace is ideal for entertaining and overlooks an in-ground pool. There’s also a small play house for children.
For a tour, contact McGowan at 860-542-5506 or 860-309-6043. For more details, visit www.Harneyre.com.