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Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Old Town Tavern (1765-1865)

Described in tourist guides as "a comfortable little hotel in Bradford" the Trotter House and stable served clients that arrived by stage or by station wagon from nearby railroad stations.

Newbury's Spring Hotel, located on Main Street in Newbury village hosted guests who came to "take the waters" at the nearby sulfur springs. It may have also hosted runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

This was one of the first taverns in Bradford. Originally located on the west side of the river road (Rt. 5), it was built by Capt. John Barron around 1800. About 1826, it was purchased by John and Hannah Pearsons, who operated it for 16 years. In 1842, they moved it to its present location on the east side of the road and built the new tavern shown below.

The Bliss Tavern, one of several at Haverhill Corner, hosted large crowds attending the nearby Grafton County Court. Owned by Captain Joseph Bliss, it also drew business from its location at the terminus of the Coos Turnpike that led to Warren and points south.

To great fanfair and with liquid refreshments aplenty, Jonathan Sinclair open his newly refurbished Grafton Hotel in 1830. As with the nearby Bliss Tavern, it drew customers from the adjacent Coos Turnpike.

The Old Town Tavern (1765-1865)
As published in the Journal-Opinion, April 20, 2011

“To the public generally he would observe, that his house shall never become the haunt of tipplers, gamblers and idlers, but shall on all occasions be found a pleasant and commodious resort for the weary traveler, the man of business, and the gentlemen of pleasure. On the subject of charges, attendants and fare, the proprietor would remark that fair dealings, trusty servants, and good living shall be found inmates of his establishment. He also professes to be a connoisseur in the article of Coffee and can well distinguish the Coos Domestic, from the Java Coffee. His bar is well furnished with the best of liquors and one toddy stick for the accommodation of customers with none for family use.”

This 1830 advertisement in the New Hampshire Post by Jonathan Sinclair announced the opening of his newly refurbished Grafton Hotel at Haverhill Corner. His was one of scores of inns, taverns and public houses that operated in the region. This column describes these establishments during the first century after settlement. It uses the terms inn and tavern interchangeably, except in the title of a specific business. It draws on standard local history books as well as information collected by John C. Wriston Jr. in his book, Vermont Inns and Taverns.

The first taverns were just simple cabins that provided shelter and food for those who passed by. The roads on which they were located were rough, and the infrequent travelers were afoot or on horseback. As communities grew and improved roads allowed for wheeled vehicles, many hostels developed into framed multistoried houses and later into elaborate hotels.

Taverns were often the first public buildings opened. The first in the region was Uriah Morse’s log cabin “ordinary” in North Haverhill, which offered shelter beginning in1762, a year before the town was chartered. In Orford, Israel Morey’s home was a tavern in 1766, one year following the arrival of the first settler. Robert Johnston opened a tavern in Newbury in 1769, the first one in what is now Orange County. Wells’ History of Newbury states that, “the first spirits sold at his bar were brought up from Concord in square kegs on horseback.”

Innkeepers were often men of local distinction, holding such positions as selectmen, legislators or post masters. Often they operated other businesses as well. Daniel Cooke of Corinth had operated a distillery, gristmill, potash plant and tannery as well as an inn. Many, like Colonel Morey, were veterans. Haverhill historian John Quincy Bittinger wrote that a hospitable innkeeper was expected to be, “agreeable and companionable by his ability to engage in intelligent conversation.”

Taverns were generally located along the well-traveled roads and as the roads increased in number and improved in condition, the number of taverns increased. The first taverns in Lyme were located along the River Road, and others followed as the Grafton Turnpike opened. In Ryegate, there were as many as seven taverns along the Bayley-Hazen Road. Taverns from Thetford to Newbury were stationed on the Windsor-St. Johnsbury Road.

In the 1790s, additional public roads were laid out and in the new century, private turnpikes were constructed. Both had a major influence on the development of taverns.
Situated along these roads, inns serviced teamsters carrying loads of goods, farmers driving animals and taking their crops to market and stagecoach passengers. Sometimes taverns specialized to the needs of these different groups of clients. Some taverns had contracts with stage lines and kept a stable with fresh horses.

Taverns also served the local community. They were the village social center where locals came for mail, supplies, companionship and news from the outside brought in by travelers. Before the building of town houses, they provided a place for town meetings, court sessions, Masonic meetings, militia musters and even worship services. Later ones often had a ball room for dancing and hosted concerts and traveling performers.

As the buildings evolved beyond the small cabin to framed structures, taverns provided more rooms. The Morse Tavern in Haverhill, a teamster tavern, is described by Bittinger as having four large rooms below and two in the attic. “One of the lower rooms was used as the bar-room, and the other opposite was a sort of reception room. Back of these was the kitchen and dining room. In the attic were rooms for the family.” Teamsters and farmers often slept on the floor of the barroom near the large fireplace. Some innkeepers complained that these customers sometimes brought their own food and only purchased drink.

Some inns offered hospitality to an occasional unusual guest. The Three Beaver tavern on the River Road in Lyme hosted, “according to tradition, some Saint Francis Indians [who] lodged there while traveling to Dartmouth College to visit their sons, and slept with their heads outside the window.” In addition to European guests touring the two-state area, hotels sometimes hosted traveling celebrities. In 1832, noted writer Washington Irving stayed at the Orford Hotel and commented quite favorably on the beauty of the village.

The reputation of a tavern was enhanced by the quality of the food and drink served. While the price of the services varied, in the 1830’s one might expect to pay ten cents for lodging, 12 cents for “a bite” and 25 cents for a regular meal. “With what was left at the bar, the landlords managed to collect quite a revenue in those days.” Principal drinks of the day included rum, cider and flip, a popular beverage made with sweetened beer. Some establishments probably had the same reputation as Haverhill’s Colbeth Tavern, where it was said, “the fast men of the day met and drank and handled cards.”

Local communities licensed the sale of alcohol by taverns. Overindulgence in alcohol was common, and proprietors would be fined or lose their license if they did not maintain an “orderly house.” Bittinger relates one example of overindulgence: When Jonathan Sinclair opened his tavern in Haverhill and, “the sign-post was raised, the whole crowd, it is said, was drunk, and one of the prominent citizens in Ladd street, who aided in raising the sign-pole, went home so far to ‘windward ’ that he tied his horse up by the tail.” It can be assumed that when liquor was served, barrooms were sometimes the scene of alcohol-fueled brawls. Friendly discussions or card games sometimes ended in disputes.

There were also legal disputes between proprietors. The Newbury history recounts the dispute between Widow Lovewell, who ran the Sawyer House, and Col. Thomas Johnson “over a barrel of rum, which she had bought of him and which she averred was more than half water. The colonel stoutly affirmed that it was rum, and nothing but rum, when it left his premises. The affair made much talk, and the colonel sued the widow for slander. It came out in the trial that the barrel had taken a whole night to travel the mile which lay between the two taverns, circumstances which Mrs. Lovewell’s hired man, and two others were very backward about explaining.” A dispute between the owners of the Bliss Hotel on Bradford’s Main Street and the neighboring Trotter House made it all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court.

With the growth of the temperance movement in the 19th century, attempts were made to restrict public drinking. There was pressure for establishments to forswear the sale of alcohol and become “temperance houses.” There was also pressure to discourage taverns from allowing dice or card games. While there were many ways around prohibition, the statutes passed in the two states between 1844 and 1855 closed down use of the bars in many taverns and inns.

Some taverns offered larger accommodations. During sessions at the nearby Grafton County Court, the Bliss Tavern on the common in Haverhill was filled with crowds attending the court. Katharine Blaisdell, whose Book Five of Over the River and Through the Years, details many of the taverns of the area, and describes the lodging provided by Captain Joseph Bliss. “By furnishing each of the bedrooms with six beds, plus straw mattresses on the floor, and assigning 3 or 4 men to each bed, he could provide lodging for a hundred or more people.”

Even more elaborate facilities were Newbury’s Spring Hotel, Bradford’s Trotter House and the Orford Hotel north of the turn to Fairlee. The Spring Hotel was opened in 1800 and run in connection with the nearby sulfur spring, where guests “took the waters.” Over the next 65 years, it was enlarged and, by the end of the Civil War, it had four stories, contained 40 rooms and was lighted by gas manufactured on the premises.

Wells writes, “In that house, as originally constructed, there was a secret apartment, known only to the proprietor…for the concealment of smuggled goods.” In her research on the Underground Railroad Journal-Opinion staffer Michelle Sherburne mentions that a tunnel leading from the hotel may have provided refuge for runaway slaves. The Beal Tavern on Lyme’s Dorchester Road and the Bliss Tavern are also mentioned as stations on the Underground Railroad.

Proprietors who had a house near a busy road or turnpike prospered. Those situated in a busy village did better than those in more rural locations. In his 1870 History of Warren, William Little, given to fanciful representations, has the following description of taverns that may not have existed in reality: “These taverns flourished wonderfully, and the proprietors all arrived at considerable wealth. The landlords had comely daughters for waiting maids; strong armed sons to attend the great ox teams that stopped to bait or rest over night, or to groom the saddle horses of gentlemen who patronized them. These inns of the old days were good ones, the table was always well set, the cream the sweetest and richest, the butter and eggs always fresh, vegetables and everything else nice, clean white beds, snowy linen sheets, well swept floors, all was bright and neat as strong hands could make it.”

The arrival of the railroad in the late 1840’s had a major impact. Those in villages with stations prospered. New ones were built in railroad villages such as Woodsville and Wells River. Station wagons brought passengers from the railroad stations to neighboring hotels. The flow of what would now be called tourists grew steadily as rail travel improved.

Just as some taverns and inns prospered, others disappeared. If traffic on a road disappeared, so did the taverns. Some such as Bradford’s Vermont House burned, and were not rebuilt. Other owners lost interest, died or moved away. Many structures throughout the area still exist, but have been converted to private homes. Current owners of those homes may not realize that their front room was once a barroom or that in an upstairs bedroom once slept eight or ten patrons.

The history of hotels and taverns did not stop in 1865, the period covered in this article. Later history will be covered in future columns. But it can be said that the hotels, motels and restaurants that currently operate in our region are the heirs to a tradition of hospitality, of eating out and staying over, established by the numerous taverns, inns and public houses of the past.

(Editor’s note: Additional articles in this series can be found in the author’s book In Times Past: Essays from the Upper Valley)