FREEPORT, Maine — The owner of the historic Jameson Tavern blames his decision to shut its doors last week on hard economic times.
“The recession hit us hard. We’ve been struggling for a couple years now,” John “Jack” Stiles said Tuesday. “I thought by leasing out the front to [textile and home products retailer] Brahms Mount that would be our salvation, and we thought we could get an addition put on and that would give us a nicer-sized restaurant, but we weren’t able to pull it off.”
Stiles said he was negotiating with his bank up until Tuesday night, Feb. 12, but couldn’t continue any longer. On the morning of Feb. 13 he broke the news to his employees that the restaurant at 115 Main St. was closing after 31 years in business.
The restaurant claimed to be the place where the papers were signed carving the state of Maine out of Massachusetts in 1820.
“Most knew we were struggling for a while,” he said, noting that many were part-time employees with other jobs. “We had a fabulous staff, and I’m not just saying that for any other reason, just that they’re wonderful. They were a wonderful and very loyal staff, and I just feel terrible.”
Restaurant patrons and people in the community have shown support, Stiles said. But he believes the closure is permanent.
“I have had a lot of sympathy and an outpouring from people that have said they are sad and sorry and asked what they can do, but there’s nothing they can do,” he said.
Although the 7,800-square-foot building is listed for sale by Cardente Real Estate for $1.85 million, Matthew Cardente, broker for the property, said the business is not completely out of options.
“I think [Stiles] is probably a little bit down,” Cardente said of the owner’s outlook. “The fact is I’m not personally convinced Jameson Tavern is gone yet.”
Cardente said there are two options: the building could be sold as an investment with Stiles continuing to operate the tavern under a 10-year lease agreement, or it could sell as a “turn-key” restaurant to another operator.
The investment-sale option was presented to Stiles two weeks ago, Cardente said, adding that the lull of the winter season likely played a role in the closure.
“If it was May, this story wouldn’t have even been in the paper,” he said.
News of the closure surprised community business organizations.
“We were all shocked,” Carolyn Krahn, interim director of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce, said. “It was an awesome restaurant. I feel for the employees.”
Krahn said the restaurant was not a member of the Freeport Chamber or Freeport USA.
Keith McBride, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp., said he thought the restaurant would be able to pull through after leasing the retail space at the front of the building.
“Quite frankly, with the Brahms Mount money coming in, I thought they had a great plan to sort of make it through to the summer months,” he said.
McBride said he hopes if someone else buys or leases the business that they will maintain the historic character of the building.
“I hope someone will come in and realize the importance of keeping it a public house,” he said. “There’s something really special about walking into that place and stepping back in history.”
The tavern, established in 1779, has been a town fixture, where ship captains and boat builders gathered during the area’s early development.
In addition to being a former inn, the old tavern also served as host to historic figures including poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, and the 14th U.S. president, Franklin Pierce. It has long described itself as the “birthplace of Maine,” but the Freeport Historical Society calls that a myth; the society says there is no record of the Joint Commission of Massachusetts and Maine ever having met in Freeport to discuss Maine statehood.
Stiles, meanwhile, said that after more than three decades running the restaurant, he doesn’t know what he’ll do next.
“I don’t know what the bank’s plans are and I don’t know what my plans are, quite frankly,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful ride, I’ve met wonderful people and had terrific staff in the 30-odd years. I’m very proud of the fact that many have worked through college here and law school; we’ve had a couple of doctors. We’ve had a wonderful ride and I’m sorry that it’s over.”