Note: This story is from the January-February 2015 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
Before the days of motels at every freeway exit and the comforts of traveling in your own RV, anyone on a journey away from home had limited choices of where to spend the night. If money was tight and the weather was good, a campfire and a bedroll on the ground would do. Or, if you came upon a small farm, you might be fortunate enough to be invited inside to sleep on the floor, or at least offered the comforts of the barn.
If you had a little bit of money, you might even find a tavern where, for a penny, you could share a bed with two or three other travelers. For just a little bit more you could even get a drink and something for dinner.
The Rising Sun Tavern in Fredericksburg, Virginia is a fine example of the many such businesses that welcomed travelers in Colonial America.
The wood frame building was built by George Washington’s younger brother Charles around 1760 as a home for his family. The home was a popular stop for many of the most well known people of the day, including George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Paul Jones.
It became a tavern in 1792, the only “proper” tavern in the bustling Rappahannock River port city of Fredericksburg. A proper tavern was one that welcomed the upper class traveler, although common people were also allowed, though they had to enter through the back door. For 35 years travelers knew that some of the best accommodations awaited them at the Rising Sun.
In those days taverns were more than a place to eat and sleep; they were often the center for news and information from outside the area, sometimes serving as a post office and public meeting place. Quite often tavern keepers were widowed women.
Tavern life had its own strict protocols. While the men gathered in the main dining room to drink, talk, and maybe play cards or checkers, ladies were sequestered in a separate room to rest after their long day on the road. There they could nap, read, or sew while attendants brought them food and something to drink.
Male travelers on a budget slept in a common room, where they slept on straw mats. They kept their clothes on, and since men slept head to toe, keeping boots on was also strictly enforced. No heat was provided, although a light blanket might be issued, and the only amenities were a common washbowl, candlestick, and a chamber pot. When things like the fair, court days, or a horse race brought a lot of visitors to town, it was not uncommon for as many as fifteen men to sleep in the common room.
A room was reserved for women traveling alone, or in the company of another woman. Here the furnishings were more refined, with a bed, chair, and a fireplace. A goffering iron was available to press clothing and ruffles so they would look presentable for the next day’s travels. On cold nights, a brass bed warmer was filled with coals from the fireplace and slipped beneath the cover to warm things up before retiring. If there were no single lady travelers, a husband and wife might share the same room.
The tavern also had a family room, which could accommodate children in a trundle bed. If there were no families in need of the room, as many as five gentlemen could pay a little extra to share the room.
When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Fredericksburg in 1824, a banquet in his honor was held at the Rising Sun and he stayed in one of the upstairs bedrooms, which has been preserved much as it was during his visit.
Today’s visitors to the old inn are greeted by “tavern wenches” and male indentured servants as though they have just stepped off a stagecoach, and given a look at 18th-century tavern life. The building is filled with period furnishings, and much of the woodwork in the tavern is original. The tables are set as they would be for dinner and the bedrooms are ready for overnight guests.
Preservation Virginia acquired Rising Sun Tavern in 1907 and a complete restoration took place in the 1930s, and they later transferred ownership to the Washington Heritage Museums. The tavern is located at 1304 Caroline Street and is open daily for guided tours. Because it has been restored to its original state, the building is not handicapped accessible. For more information, including hours and entrance fees, call (540) 373-1569 or visit www.WashingtonHeritageMuseums.org on the internet.
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Thought For The Day – Freedom is something that dies unless it is used.