As he travelled through Williamsburg in 1765, J.F.D. Smyth made this frank assessment, “There is no distinction here between inns, taverns, ordinaries, and public houses…they are all in one. They are all very indifferent indeed compared to the inns in England.”
But consider Mr. Smyth was travelling on horseback over 250 years ago through a rough and tumble pre-Virginia landscape. The Commonwealth wouldn’t be founded for another 23 years.
The mere availability of a night’s lodging was much preferred to tossing a cape on the cold ground for a restless—and potentially dangerous—night in the open.
England sought commercial success in its colonies and established court-ordered requirements that public houses be established in every community. The cost of such lodging was under the strict guardianship of the government.
Moreover, the British needed to generate revenue and manpower from their colony to fund ongoing military and high seas ventures. But it was difficult to get unpaid citizen volunteers to drop their plows and axes and show up for regular militia training.
The secret to producing fighters? Provide free ale if they agreed to appear at designated public houses for maneuvers. Soon enough well-trained soldiers were at the King’s disposal not to mention a growing cadre of experienced brewers.
Unfortunately, a few decades into the future the Crown’s trained men would become its bitter enemies as the American revolution took hold.
But as either travelers or men under arms, a warm and hospitable place to meet, drink, dine, and sleep was pivotal to the economic growth of the nascent Nation.
As a further control on travel and trade, early on only two licenses per town were permitted by the Brits for an establishment providing lodging and food for the general public. Decades later hundreds of such places dotted the colonies’ post roads.
Licenses were typically awarded to the wealthy and influential. Think yesteryear’s Conrad Hilton and friends.
Warm and comfy or…
Taverns in Virginia closely mirrored the ordinaries of mother England. The proximity to the frontier, however, dictated the establishments be used for multiple purposes such as trading posts for families headed over the mountains.
The earliest dwellings were often a story and a half log cabin. The ground floor was for public use and the upper level for bedrooms. It was not uncommon for two or more strangers to be compelled to sleep in the same bed. And fresh sheets? Not often.
As the decades advanced, the quality of the “hotels” improved. Upscale taverns had a lounge area with a large fireplace, a bar, benches and chairs, and several dining tables. The very best houses had a separate parlor for ladies, a friendly landlord, good food and soft, roomy beds with fireplaces in all the rooms.
Even warming pans were slipped under the covers as guests prepared for bed.
But the further one ventured from larger towns and villages such amenities quickly faded. On the edge of civilization, the inns were little more than dirty hovels crawling with vermin. Still preferable to spending a cold and frightening night camped in the wilderness.
Since permits were required to open taverns and ordinaries, much like today, the locals did not always support such applications.
In 1751, a clergyman’s thoughts were published in the Virginia Gazette on pending requests from a certain part of town.
In part, it read, “…that ordinaries are now, in great measure, perverted from their original intention…and become the common Receptacle and Rendezvous of the very Dreggs of the People.”
Warming to his subject, the man of the cloth went on to claim activities, “…such as without intermission; namely Cards, Dice, Horse-racing, and Cock-fighting…Drunkenness, Swearing, Cursing, Perjury, Blasphemy, Cheating, Lying and Fighting are not only tolerated but permitted with impunity.”
My, my. There must have been some hopppin’ joints in the colonial era. Even unusual capitalization was employed to underscore the sins of our fathers.
As one traveled further north into a bit more civilized country, the positive critiques could still be spotty. In 1789, General George Washington passed the evening at the Perkins Tavern in Connecticut because local custom discouraged traveling on Sunday.
He later recorded his pre-Trip Advisor thoughts on the tavern, “…which, by the way, is not a good one.” George rarely complained so one can only imagine what the place was like.
Nonetheless, in addition to providing comfort to weary travelers, inns and ordinaries were important to local residents. They were a place to gossip, exchange news with guests, transact business such as land sales, and livestock auctions, pick up mail and talk politics.
One could make a case that some of the most consequential discussions on the revolution and constitution occurred in taverns. John Adams claimed the City Tavern in Philadelphia was “the most genteel tavern in America.” It was a favorite watering hole of the Founding Fathers and the First Continental Congress.
In Alexandria, Gadsby’s Tavern often played host to men like John Adams, Alexandria Hamilton, George Washington, and other notables. Thomas Jefferson was honored there with a banquet in 1801, the year he became president.
George Washington’s two favorite dishes at Gadsby’s was grilled duck breast with scalloped potatoes and port wine orange glaze and “Gentleman’s Pye,” a lamb and beef red wine stew in a pastry crust.
Today, Gadsby’s Tavern is opened as both a museum and a restaurant.
Virginia’s Four Oldest Taverns
The vast majority of yesterday’s lodging accommodations have been lost to the exorable march of time. But a few have survived and continued to thrive. Here are four Methuselahs of the Commonwealth’s lodging past:
Located in Hanover, the tavern dates from 1733 and was constructed in five stages. It covers 12,000 square feet over three floors. The almost 300-year-old structure has been graced by luminaries no less important than George Washington, Lord Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Marquis de Chastellux.
Several slaves from the tavern participated in the Great Slave Rebellion of 1800. Both Union and Confederate soldiers took refuge under its roof. It is still an operating tavern serving soups, salads, sandwiches, and full dinners. https://hanovertavern.org/
Corporal William Michie, who served at Valley Forge, started construction of the tavern in 1784. It was a popular and well-kept lodge with the upstairs assembly room hosting dances, church services, and theatrical performances.
In 1927, a local businesswoman purchased the building, which had been turned into a private residence. She had the structure carefully disassembled and moved 17 miles down the road to its current location and reopened again as a tavern. Today, it serves traditional American cuisine by period dressed servers. Specialty items include Southern fried chicken, pulled pork barbecue, mashed potatoes, cornbread, and biscuits. https://www.michietavern.com/
The Red Fox Inn & Tavern
This is the oldest tavern in Virginia and the oldest inn in the United States. It opened its doors in 1728 and has a storied history, including its bar that was used
It is currently owned by the Reuter family who still serves its famed peanut soup, a recipe dating to the early days of the inn’s existence. Specialties include their crab cakes, surf & turf, fried chicken and crispy half duck. http://www.redfox.com/
The Tavern is the oldest building in Abingdon and one of the oldest taverns in the state. Built in 1799, it has operated as a tavern from its earliest days. It has housed such historical rock stars such as Henry Clay, King Louis Phillippe of France, President Andrew Jackson and Washington D.C. designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant.
The inn once served dual duty as the local post office, and the mail slot still exists in its original location. Tavern favorites are the black & bleu medallions, New York strip, New Zealand rack of lamb and scallops au Gratin. http://www.abingdontavern.com/
Today, the story of the inns and taverns of the past is told in the numerous bed & breakfasts scattered across the Virginia landscape. While many of these establishments share a link to our state’s history, many others are simply wonderful places to slip away to for a day or two of stress relieve and sightseeing.
To replicate the experiences of our forefather travelers—without the downside of questionable lodging—unlock the door to your next getaway here: https://www.virginia.org/listings/PlacesToStay/BedBreakfastAssociationofVirginia/
Another great tavern to visit is the Haunted Cracked Pillar Pub in Bridgewater, VA. You can read more about it here.