WESTERLY — Famous for its granite, which is found in grand buildings, statues and monuments around the world, and well-known as a summer destination, Westerly has carved a unique commercial niche.
Conveniently positioned along the Pawcatuck River and Route 1 — the old Post Road — where coastal Rhode Island and Connecticut intersect, the town quickly became a natural place haven of commerce.
Early historical records show that settlers set up shop in the vicinity as early as 1649, when Thomas Stanton had a trading post. Dutch traders frequented the area as well.
Other small businesses soon followed, such as blacksmith shops and stores, and by 1681, a shipbuilding operation owned by Joseph Wells was established on the Pawcatuck River.
Haven for mills
The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries brought mills to the area, especially along the Pawcatuck. In the late-1700s, George Potter owned and ran a grist mill, saw mill and fulling mill, plus a store, at Potter Hill. Later, the White Rock Company operated large mills along the river that produced woolen goods.
And nearby, the Bradford Dyeing Association textile mill was once the largest employer in town. It operated from 1911 to 2012.
Modern-day major employers include the Moore Company, which makes narrow fabric for athletic clothing, bathing suits, safety wear and work uniforms. It was founded by George C. Moore in 1909.
“The Moore Company is renowned for its longstanding commitment to the town,” said Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Konicki. “They’re one of the largest employers, and some have worked there for 30 or 40 years.”
Another is the Westerly Hospital, employing more than 600 full- and part-time clinical, professional, technical and support staff. It also has more than 200 volunteers who provide vital functions in numerous departments.
“It’s part of the fabric of our community,” Konicki said.
The hospital, which opened in 1925, was acquired by L+M Healthcare in 2013 and is now part of Yale New Haven Health.
One business survivor of more than 200 years is still a major presence in town, but it’s not a mill.
A bellwether bank
The Washington Trust Co. was founded in 1800, and its headquarters is still downtown, on Broad Street.
The bank was born of necessity, as more mills and villages for their workers sprouted up nearby. The closest banks, however, were in Providence and New Haven, requiring long and difficult trips by horse.
Westerly needed its own financial institution to lend money and extend credit, as well as hold savings and issue bank notes. Unlike money printed by the U.S. Mint today, the federal government then didn’t print bank notes, leaving it to state and local banks.
“It was founded by local merchants on both sides of the river,” Beth Eckel, the bank’s chief marketing officer, said. “It was pretty progressive for the town.”
It started operating from a small rooming house in Dixon Square just six months after President George Washington died, notes state Sen. Dennis Algiere, a senior officer with the bank.
“If you look at the town and the villages through the eyes of the bank, you can see the growth of the community,” Algiere said. “We’ve weathered lots of storms, from wars and hurricanes, to the Depression. But we’re still here, both the bank and the community.”
Small family businesses have been the lifeblood of Westerly. The landscape isn’t the same as it was 50 or 80 years ago, before malls, chains and big-box stores moved in, when “mom and pop” shops dominated the downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods. But some survivors live on.
“Look at Toscano’s Men’s Shop downtown. It’s been around since 1911,” Konicki said. “They are classic Westerly.”
John P. Toscano, the store's founder, who opened the shop in 1911, was a graduate of a “cutting school,” the place where all quality tailors once learned their trade. His certificate hangs on the wall of the newer shop. Toscano moved the business to its current home in the early 1920s. His two sons, Vincent and John, bought the business from their father. John went on to become an attorney with his law offices above the Canal Street shop and Vincent ran the clothing store. Paul Gencarella has owned the shop for decades.
“Vincent taught me the trade — how to clean and stack the shelves, how to sell and how to buy,” he told The Sun during the shop’s 100th anniversary year.
It’s a similar story for some of the town’s grocers.
Three generations of the same family have owned Reale’s Grocery on High Street ever since it opened in 1915. Jimmy Reale founded the shop, which is known for its exceptional grinders — some say the best anywhere. His daughter and son-in-law, Eleanor and Leo Moroso, took over, and today the store is operated by their son, also named Leo.
Over on Oak Street is another of the few remaining neighborhood grocers, Ritacco’s. It opened in the fall of 1969 under Umile and Maria Ritacco and remains a family operation.
"The reason why we've been in business all these years is because people have been happy with our product,” Robert Ritacco said for a Sun story several years ago concerning soupy, that most Westerly of foods. Indeed, several local family-run businesses such as the Westerly Packing Company devote their time and talent to continuing the ancient annual tradition of soupy-making.
Carving a legacy
Soupy’s not the only thing closely connected to the area’s large Italian-American population. There’s also the generations of families whose members worked in or around Westerly’s granite quarries.
For the curious, the Babcock-Smith House Museum’s website has a wealth of information about Westerly’s granite industry and the quarries that sprang up in the mid-1800s.
Native Americans used granite for tools and weaponry, and by 1892 it was reported that 4,000 of Westerly’s 7,000 residents were involved in the industry. The Smith Granite Company and New England Granite Works both employed hundreds of men in their heyday. The Joseph Coduri Granite Co. flourished between World War I and the Great Depression.
Frank Sullivan bought several Westerly quarries in the early 1900s, giving rise to an extensive operation that lasted until the late 1950s.
“Using modern equipment, my grandfather quarried the best fine-grained blue-white granite anywhere around,” Susan Sullivan Brocato wrote for a 2010-11 series about the industry written by The Sun in conjunction with the Babcock-Smith House.
The postwar years saw the industry downsize, and quarries were closed or sold off in the 1950s and 60s. The Bonner Company, which closed in 1995, Buzzi Memorials in Stonington and the Comolli Granite Company in Westerly were all that remained. For brief periods, both Bonner and Comolli harvested small quantities of Westerly blue-white granite from the former Sullivan property.
In 1955, St. Pius X Church on Elm Street was constructed partially with granite donated by Angelo Gencarelli from Smith Granite's property.
In 1978, granite artisan Richard Comolli, then working for the Bonner Company, carved the veterans memorial on the Westerly side of the Pawcatuck River Bridge.
“These may well be the last significant contributions of local carvers of Westerly granite,” John Coduri said. Comolli, one of the area’s last active carvers, died in 2017.
While the granite quarries are largely silent, the shores of Misquamicut and nearby Watch Hill are very much alive as major parts of the town’s economic engine. Each summer, tourists and vacationers flock to Atlantic Avenue to spend time on some of the top beaches in the region. Others might stay at the rebuilt Ocean House and take their kids for rides on the historic Watch Hill carousel.
Misquamicut mainstays such as the Andrea Beach Bar and the Windjammer have weathered — literally — many changes, including the 1938 hurricane, Hurricane Bob in 1991 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which forced the demolition of the Andrea hotel.
“My grandfather purchased it in 1946, so it’s been in our family since then,” Andrea co-owner Rebecca Colucci said in a recent Misquamicut Business Association podcast.
“It was originally houses in 1912 and they merged into a bed and breakfast until he changed it over to a hotel.”
MBA Board President Charles Trefes owns the Windjammer, Atlantic Beach Park and Dusty’s Dairy Bar.
“Atlantic Beach Park was started in 1921 by my grandfather and he built it up,” Trefes said. “It was the end of the Norwich-Westerly trolley line and everyone got dropped off there.”
The business passed from grandfather to father and an uncle, and then to Trefes. As a business owner, one of the challenges is to get visitors to realize Misquamicut is “more than just the parking lot,” at the state beach, he said.
“We’ve been here almost 100 years now,” he said.
In the last 20 years, the beach’s reputation has improved. Once seen as a hangout for drinking and drug use, MBA Executive Director Caswell Cooke Jr. said it’s now home to annual family fare such as a luau, car shows, movies on the beach and festivals.
Cooke puts today’s Misquamicut in a historical context, part of the bigger picture of Westerly’s three-and-a-half-century saga.
“That seven-, five-, 10-year-old kid that comes to the festival will remember that their whole life,” he said. “Fifty years from now, there could be some 60-year-old guy saying, ‘When I was 10, Misquamicut Beach was the place to be.”