Riches to Rags: Brownsville Hotel And Sykes’ Store

By Curt Peterson, Standard Correspondent

A man named Return Bryant Brown moved from Woodstock to West Windsor in 1827 and built the landmark “Return Brown Hotel” on the corner of what are now Route 44 and Brownsville-Hartland Road. It is still magnificent, a brick building with three full stories and two frame annexes, a fitting monument to a man who came from prosperous beginnings and who pursued fortune throughout his life, and for whom the village of Brownsville was named. People have been walking, riding or driving past it for almost two hundred years.

In this 1960 photo, titled “Neighbors” are, from left, Lester Sykes, Clyde Hastings, Deane Parker, Horace Pierce, William Oakes and Fred Hart. (West Windsor Historical Society Photo)
In this 1960 photo, titled “Neighbors” are, from left, Lester Sykes, Clyde Hastings, Deane Parker, Horace Pierce, William Oakes and Fred Hart. (West Windsor Historical Society Photo)
Beginning in 1919, and until around the year 2000, generations of the Ernest Sykes family ran a very popular store in the small frame annex, originally an apartment, that fronts on Brownsville-Hartland Road.

In October 2015 attorney Stefan Ricci, a Vermont native who has his law office in Windsor, purchased the property and is in the process of tearing down Sykes’ Store. Ricci’s plans are to refurbish the main hotel building as a single-family home for himself.

People from Brownsville are sad to see the building being dismantled, but few seem to know much about Mr. Ricci or his plans for the property.

“Unfortunately, the store portion is structurally unsound,” Ricci told the Vermont Standard. “Besides, it does not aesthetically go with the main house.”

He’s doing the demolition himself when he has spare time, and plans to have the structure completely down by winter’s end. Right now the building is without exterior siding or windows, and much of the inside is gutted, with piles of debris and light fixtures hanging by their wiring from ceiling rafters.

According to “The Heritage of West Windsor” (West Windsor Historical Society, 1980), by Erla Bear Scull, “As with the country stores of earlier times, (Sykes’ Store) served as a meeting place for the farmers and townspeople where they could compare crop production and prices and ‘swap’ tall tales and a bit of gossip here and there.”

Mary Jane Wentworth of the West Windsor Historical Society remembers going into the store when Lester and Lou Sykes ran it, and seeing men gathered at the far end.

“There were big boxes of loose cookies lined up against the front wall,” she said, “that you had to open in order to get the cookie you wanted.”

The property has a colorful history, although much of it is recorded hearsay. When Brown, who was called “Bryant”, his middle name, or “Old Bry,” first built the main building there were two perceptions of what he was about – that it was either a hotel or tavern, or he was running a home for the indigent – a sort of “in-town poor farm”.

From Page 3A Local member of the historical society Tom Kenyon, a Vermont Standard correspondent, said he was told Brown had erroneously predicted Windsor was going to be a railroad hub and that his hotel would cash in on all the farmers and manufacturers bringing their crops, wares and livestock for shipping, but that it didn’t work out when White River Junction became the railway crossroads instead.

The first floor has five good-sized rooms, the second has nine, the third floor contains a ballroom, and it is said the basement was the kitchen area from which food and spirits were sent upstairs via dumbwaiter.

The main brick building functioned as a hotel. (West Windsor Historical Society Photo)
The main brick building functioned as a hotel. (West Windsor Historical Society Photo)
Of the store, Kenyon said he thought Brown might have built it first and lived in it while he was overseeing construction of the hotel.

By 1960 the property had passed through twelve deed transfers. In Mary Beardsley Fenn’s “Parish and Town – History of West Windsor, Vermont” (1999- West Windsor Historical Society), she cites the “precarious ownership of the tavern as men bought it and mortgaged it. Since none kept up with the required mortgage payments, the hostelry stayed in the hands of the man who built it.”

At one point the town took ownership of the property, possibly through a tax sale.

The prosperous Return Bryant Brown, builder of the hotel and namesake of the village, had, himself, become a victim of his own investments in the inn and other properties.

“Return, during the same period, had several short stays at the local jail for debts owed on his over-extended finances,” Fenn wrote.

Both the store annex and the hotel have been vacant for some time.

This article first appeared in the December 29, 2016 edition of the Vermont Standard.

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