When Charles Dickens—the Victorian era’s greatest novelist—traveled through America via stagecoach in 1842, he found the experience absolutely abysmal. The coaches, he wrote, had “never been cleaned since they were first built,” and because they lacked springs, the slightest jolt was enough to dislocate a traveler’s bones. “At one time we were all flung together in a heap at the bottom of the coach,” he wrote of one day’s jaunt, “and at another we were crushing our heads against the roof. Now one side [of the carriage] was down deep in the mire. …Now the coach…was rearing up in the air, in a frantic state. …Never, never once, that day, was the coach in any position, attitude or kind of motion to which we are accustomed in coaches.”
Here in central Virginia, in the era before passenger trains (which first arrived in the 1850s), stagecoach travel—thanks to the area’s heavily rutted roadways—was really no better. Visitors to Charlottesville typically came packed aboard the Fredericksburg or Richmond stage, their trunks lashed behind and on top with mud-splattered leather belts. The scenery along the route was beautiful, no doubt, but the lengthy rides must have been exhausting. In the 1820s, for example, the stagecoach trip from Richmond to Charlottesville—a distance of only 70 miles—took more than 24 hours.
What made the traveling bearable? As any 18th- or early 19th-century American excursionist would answer: It was the taverns. Built along the main stagecoach routes, inns and taverns—the names were somewhat interchangeable—provided the rest, food and beverages that the rattled riders so desperately needed. Central Virginia history is filled with stories of the region’s many famous taverns, and the wonderful events of which they were a part. Nowadays, central Virginia is graced with a number of modern-day inns and taverns—the direct lineal descendants of those long ago way stations. They, too, have stories to tell.
Love of history
The beautiful, rambling Silver Thatch Inn sits five miles north of Charlottesville just off of Route 29. In 1997, Los Angeles-based Jim and Terri Petrovits decided to leave behind their high-pressure jobs. Also trained chefs, they wanted to run an inn and a restaurant. After stumbling across the Silver Thatch online, they purchased the property and moved here in April 1998.
“Because Jim loved everything historic,” says Terri Petrovits, “this place resonated with him. We wanted to be that country inn, a place of respite and rejuvenation, where [historically] travelers could regroup before they got back on that stagecoach.” Jim Petrovits recently passed away. Terri Petrovits, who wants to pursue her love of baking—she says she enjoys making “anything with butter and sugar and cream”—is now selling the 8,000-square-foot commercial property.
The inn’s original structure—a two-story log cabin—was built in 1780 during the American Revolution by Hessian prisoners of war. (They were part of British Major General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s army that had surrendered at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777. Having marched more than 600 miles to Albemarle County, this 4,000-man force—half of which was Hessian, German mercenaries—staggered into their nearby Ivy Creek prisoner encampment known as “the Barracks” in January 1779.)
Appropriately called the Hessian Room, this sturdy cabin is now covered in clapboards. An amazing portal to the past, it contains wall cutouts so that the massive original chestnut logs can be viewed.
The English Room, now the inn’s center section, was attached in 1812 and once served as a boys school. Decorated in period colors, deep greens and burgundies, it features hunting images and a large mahogany sideboard. Above it is the Jefferson Room, Silver Thatch’s oldest guest room.
“These two oldest sections, the 1780 and the 1812, were built so well,” says Petrovits, “that they’ve given us no issues over the years. They’re wonky because they’ve settled, but they’ve got so much character.”
After serving as part of a tobacco plantation, then a melon farm and finally a dairy farm, these structures were purchased in 1937 by Dr. B.F.D. “Dean” Runk, who taught at the University of Virginia. Runk attached two bedrooms and the Hollymead Room on the first floor. The President’s Cottage, a separate building, was added in 1984.
According to owner/innkeeper Petrovits, today’s Silver Thatch Inn, with its seven guest rooms, is classified as a boutique hotel. “Here you can step back into history,” she says. “You can almost feel your whole persona changing to mirror these periods. There’s something that draws people back to a quieter time.”
During that “quieter time” through the mid-1800s, central Virginia boasted numerous taverns and inns. Because licenses were easily obtained—the owner merely had to promise to maintain “good rule and order”—by 1748 (just four years after its founding), Albemarle County had more than 10 such public houses.
Charlottesville’s most famous tavern was the Swan, located downtown opposite the courthouse. Built in the mid-1770s by Jack Jouett Sr., it welcomed visitors to what was then a tiny backwater county seat. The owner’s son, Jack Jouett Jr., rode overnight on June 3 and 4, 1781, from Cuckoo Tavern in Louisa County to warn then-Governor Thomas Jefferson and the state legislature meeting in Charlottesville that British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and 250 troopers were riding hard to capture them. Most everyone, including Jefferson, escaped. Evidently some of that month’s legislative “activity” took place at the Swan because proprietor Jouett later requested compensation for damage done to his structure by the assemblymen. By the 1820s, Swan Tavern had become dilapidated. Soon thereafter it was torn down.
Our region’s countryside taverns were derisively described during the Revolution by one of the British prisoners, Major Thomas Anburey. These businesses, he wrote, “consist of a little house placed in a solitary situation in the middle of the woods, and the usual method of describing the roads is, ‘From such an ordinary house to such a one, so many miles.’ The entertainment you meet with is very poor indeed; you are seldom able to procure any other fare than eggs and bacon with Indian hoe cake, and at many of them not even that. The only liquors are peach brandy and whiskey. They are not remiss however in making pretty exorbitant charges.” (Similar to inns and taverns, an “ordinary house” was an establishment that offered prepared meals—called “ordinaries”—at a set time of day for a set price. “Entertainment” in the 18th century didn’t refer to amusements, it meant the traveler’s basic necessities: food, drink and lodging.)
Located on West Main a block from the University of Virginia, today’s Dinsmore House Inn is owned by Ryan Hubbard and his sister, Lisa Jones, the general manager. Anita Severn is the resident innkeeper. Hubbard and Jones purchased the property in 2003 from the Livers family, who’d owned it since 1915. Known historically as the Heiskell-Livers townhouse, the Federal-style structure was built in either 1817 or 1822 by Alexander St. Clair Heiskell. “We remodeled in 2003 to open it as a B&B,” says Hubbard.
“An old building is a challenge,” he says, referring to all of the maintenance required, “but this house tells us stories.” It was designed by James Dinsmore, the Irish-born master carpenter who, summoned from Philadelphia by Jefferson himself, created much of the elegant woodwork at Monticello, Jefferson’s home. Working out of Monticello’s carpentry shop on Mulberry Row, Dinsmore also trained his enslaved assistant, John Hemmings (Sally Hemings’s younger brother, whose name is traditionally spelled with two “m’s”), who became a highly skilled joiner. Dinsmore left Monticello in 1809 to work at Montpelier in Orange County, the home of then-President James Madison. He subsequently worked under architect Benjamin H. Latrobe in Washington, D.C.—after the British burned most of the public buildings in 1814—and at the University of Virginia.
“This house is a standing testament to [Dinsmore’s] craftsmanship and legacy,” reads the inn’s website. “And you know,” adds Hubbard, “that when UVA was under construction [between 1817 and 1826], Jefferson frequently rode right by. You know he stopped here!”
Hubbard and Jones are almost finished with a second remodeling. “We took down a 20th century two-story porch,” Hubbard explains, that had been attached to its eastern edge. “The new building [in its place] will be a café called the Farm Belt Kitchen.” Upstairs are two brand-new guest rooms with balconies. “We’ve also added a granite terrace out back,” says Jones.
During this recent remodeling, numerous old everyday items were discovered in the attic and in the walls. Now shadow-boxed in the hallway, these wonderful found objects include a little child’s cotton petticoat, cut nails, clay marbles and a check from the 1850s.
The new Dinsmore House—at 7,500 square feet—features nine guest rooms. “All of which have private baths, not customary in the 1800s,” says Jones. It’s furnished and decorated in a wonderful combination of old and new. One of the bathrooms, for example, boasts a large bathtub with ball-and-claw legs. The loft bedroom—accessed by ascending past the building’s monstrous 14-by-14-inch center beam—features an exposed brick wall and a large bed beneath an intriguing birdcage-style chandelier.
“It’s a big moment for us to reimagine this house and to start entertaining,” says Hubbard. It’s now a “boutique inn,” and to Hubbard that connotes a certain level of service and amenities. “We have fewer rooms,” he says, “but we have the most comfortable beds, the most comfortable robes. We’re catering to the experiential traveler.”
On the eastern side of Charlottesville, on Route 53, visitors to our area have been experiencing a Southern specialty since the late 1960s—Michie Tavern’s famous fried chicken. But that wasn’t how the buffet-style meal got started. “When my mother and stepfather [Josephine and M. Joseph Conte] first started in 1968,” says executive director Greg MacDonald, “they knew nothing about food. Their first attempt at Southern food was Brunswick stew as the main entrée. That lasted about a month. It wasn’t particularly good, so they switched to fried chicken.” Nowadays, in high season, he says, “we average a pound of chicken per guest. We can go through about 600 pounds of chicken a day.”
“We’ve been doing the same themed meal for 48 years and it still works,” he continues. “We don’t try to be all things to all people. We have modified it a bit because people are eating a little healthier nowadays; we’ve added pulled pork, baked chicken.” Once guests pass through the buffet line, their second helpings are brought to them by servers in period costume. “We pride ourselves on our service,” says MacDonald. “We think the food tastes even better when the service is good.”
Michie Tavern sits perched on the western slope of Carter’s Mountain, the eminence that overlooks Monticello. The view to the west over Charlottesville is superb, and particularly striking at night. William Michie—a former Continental Army corporal—built Michie Tavern alongside Buck Mountain Road, about 17 miles northwest of its present location, in the early 1780s. His father, “Scotch” John Michie, had bequeathed him the property, fed by a natural spring. Michie received his tavern-keeping license in 1784.
“The two-story inn featured an upstairs Assembly Room,” wrote Cindy Conte, Michie Tavern’s curator, in a tavern recipe book. “This expansive space served as the social center of the tavern, as well as for the whole countryside.” It was big enough for dances and church services, but traveling magicians and itinerant doctors and dentists made use of the space as well, sharing their profits with the innkeeper. The large tavern later served, she wrote, “as a post office and makeshift school.” By the Civil War, however, thanks in part to the newfangled railroads, stagecoach travel and, thus, tavern business, had greatly fallen off. The rapidly aging Michie Tavern was sold out of the Michie family in 1910.
Enter Josephine Henderson, whom Conte calls “a pioneer in the preservation movement.” In 1927, Henderson, a local businesswoman, purchased Michie Tavern with the idea of establishing it as a museum for her large collection of antiques. To take advantage of Albemarle’s rapidly growing tourist trade—Monticello had just opened for visitation—Henderson moved Michie Tavern to Carter Mountain. To facilitate this 17-mile journey by truck and horse-drawn wagon, the old building elements were dismantled and numbered. The tavern was not exactly reconstructed, however. Some parts were not rebuilt, and some previous stand-alone outbuildings were now attached.
Opened as a museum in 1928, Michie Tavern was awarded status as a Virginia historic landmark thanks in large measure to Henderson’s efforts. She sold the property in 1932 to local architect and preservationist Milton Grigg, who in turn sold it to the Contes in 1968.
Nowadays, visitors can enjoy their Southern-style lunch, served in the Ordinary, then take a guided tour of Michie Tavern. “We just love telling the story of 18th-century taverns,” says MacDonald. “The average person doesn’t know about their significance.”
“We take folks through the oldest section,” says Conte. Furnished with a collection of original period pieces, Michie Tavern features prints by English painter and editorial cartoonist William Hogarth, an original 1751 Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia (surveyed and illustrated by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter), a tilt-top tea table and a one-of-a-kind tap bar, almost like a service window. It allowed guests and servants to be served beverages outside on the porch.
“Our tours are inviting, flexible and hands-on,” says Conte. “We do a Colonial dance in the Assembly Room—we get the visitors involved. We play tavern games. The kids can get dressed up in 18th century-style garb and get their photos taken. Locals can always tour free of charge.
“We also tell them about 18th-century travelers,” she says. “One story is about a traveler from France who stayed in a crowded Virginia tavern. That night he was forced to sleep across two chairs that kept separating. People gamed in his room all through the night and kept waking him up. I’m sure he went back home and said, ‘Don’t go to the British colonies, they’re a bunch of heathens over there!’”
Preserving the past
Twenty miles north of Charlottesville—and standing three stories high with a fourth-story cupola—the Lafayette Inn & Restaurant is the tallest structure in downtown Stanardsville. The Federal-style brick structure was built circa 1840 by a prominent local citizen, William Pritchett, as a robust and lucrative stagecoach stop. The Lafayette faces what was then the Spotswood Trail, today’s Business Route 33, which a few miles west conquers the Blue Ridge Mountains via Swift Run Gap before descending into the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. This was an important byway connecting the central Piedmont with the valley of Virginia.
Alan and Kaye Pyles from Fairfax, Virginia, purchased the property in 2005. For years they owned an Internet-based real-estate training company. They sold that and bought the Lafayette as, says Alan Pyles, “our second career, our semi-retirement.” It includes a restaurant open three days a week—Friday, Saturday and Sunday—and six guest rooms (three of which are in the main building). He says the buying decision was easy: “If it had been smaller we would have had to do everything, if it was much bigger we’d be running a hotel.” He says he loves the business. “The building’s got its own charm. It’s got creaks in the floor, but it’s also recession-proof: Nobody can come in and supplant me as the old place in town.”
Extremely sturdy, the Lafayette’s exterior walls are made of three courses of brick. The spacious interior, once heated by 12 fireplaces, features a large central hall and stairway, with rooms on either side. The first floor—today’s restaurant and tavern room—originally housed both a saloon and a general store. The entire second floor served as a ballroom, while the third floor was the Pritchett family’s home. The fourth-story cupola offers a magnificent view all around. Above it hung a bell that rang to announce meetings and meals.
Alongside the Lafayette stands a small two-story brick structure that was constructed first, in 1820. Built to house some of the men working on the hotel, in the 20th century it served as the offices of the local newspaper, The Greene County Record. Now it contains two of the Lafayette’s guest rooms. The other guest space is the Main Street-facing two-story brick building known as Dicey’s Cottage. According to the Greene County Historical Society, this was the slave quarters for a Miss Dicey—her first name now unknown—and perhaps other enslaved African-Americans.
Two of the main building’s second-story guest rooms are accessed via a marvelous wraparound veranda. “All of the rooms have private entrances and bathrooms,” says Pyles. “This one,” he continues, “has taupe-colored walls with a wine-colored bedspread and green accents. All the guest rooms are named after Virginia-born presidents.” This particular room sports a bust of Jefferson on the mantel. “The dining room is named after James Madison,” he says, “because our daughter went to JMU.”
Long known simply as the Lafayette Hotel, the Pyleses changed the name to include “inn and restaurant” because they believe it better defines their business. Though only open three days, the restaurant takes up a lot of their time. “This is the kind of restaurant Kaye and I like to eat in,” says Pyles, also head chef. “Uber-fancy isn’t what we really wanted. I said this a lot in the beginning, but it still holds true: ‘If I can’t spell it or I can’t pronounce it, we’re not serving it.’” The fare, which the Pyleses call “sophisticated Southern,” includes Lafayette shrimp and grits, Baltimore-style crab cakes and, for lunch, the Montpelier double burger.
Central Virginia’s modern-day taverns and inns are merely following in the footsteps of those essential 18th- and 19th-century establishments. For the jostled and road-weary visitors of those days, the inns and taverns offered the only creature comforts available. Some of these guests just needed a good night’s rest. Others came to slough off the cold and pass an evening behind a tankard of ale. Sometimes the accommodations were rough, and sometimes the hoecakes and eggs went down hard. Those long-ago taverns were a hotbed of commerce, news and social interaction, however, and they left us a legacy rich and fascinating.