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Eat Like a President – The Founding Fathers’ Guide to New England Taverns

The first five U.S. presidents, the founding fathers, were all veteran travelers in New England. And in their travels, they left behind tracks of where they stayed that tourists still follow today if they want to eat like a president.

eat like a president

Green Dragon Tavern, Courtesy of the Boston Public LIbrary

Many of the public houses these men stopped at on their journeys around New England have been obliterated by time and many more converted into private houses. Some gems remain where you can still sit down to dinner or trod the floor and feel somewhat close to the founding fathers.

George Washington left tracks all across New England. First coming to the region in 1756 to visit Governor Shirley of Massachusetts on mundane business, his next trip came when he travelled north to assume command of the Continental Army.

His later trips, as president, were political. He needed to thank the wealthy patrons and soldiers who supported the American Revolution and to get a sense for the mood of the country. For this northern tour, he decided not to stay in the homes of private citizens because choosing one invitation over another would surely lead to hurt feelings.

Instead, he stayed at public accommodations, following his usual pattern of rising early and starting his travels, stopping for breakfast and travelling to a town where he would receive a hero’s welcome. As a result, he was often dining with the public.

In Fairfield, Conn., in October 1789, George Washington stayed at the Sun Tavern. Though you can’t eat there, you can visit as it's now part of the Fairfield Museum and History Center.

In New Haven, on the site of the home of Roger Sherman, one of Connecticut’s delegates to the Continental Congress, the Union League was built in 1860. The club was a base of support for Abraham Lincoln. Now a restaurant, the Union League Café, the owners have noted that in its past life it was the site of a Washington’s visit to Roger Sherman. So while Washington didn’t exactly eat there, he sort of ate there.

Beer’s Tavern in New Haven played host to Washington in June of 1775 when he was on his way to take command of the Continental Army at Cambridge, Mass. John Adams also reported staying here while travelling to the first Continental Congress in 1774, and he was a repeat customer on his trips back and forth to Philadelphia. Over the years it’s been through many iterations, but you can still eat there today, as the restaurant now operates under the name 'Ordinary'. It has a wonderful description of its history here.

Another stop Washington made on his way north to Cambridge was at the Silas Deane house in Wethersfield, now part of the Webb Deane Stevens Museum. He also returned to the nearby Joseph Webb House, which is also part of the museum, in May of 1781 where it served as his headquarters. It was here he met with French commander the Comte de Rochambeau, who travelled from Newport, R.I., to discuss plans for the siege of Yorktown.

On his never-ending quest for supplies for his army, Washington also visited Thomas Leffingwell at the Leffingwell Inn in Norwich, Conn., which is open as a museum today.

In Middletown, Conn., Bigelow’s Tavern was the popular place to be. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison stayed here on their return trip from Vermont in 1791, and John Adams stayed here in 1774 when passing through Connecticut.

Started by Timothy Bigelow, it was operated after his death in 1776 by his widow, who managed it successfully for decades, despite being accused of sympathizing with the Tories during the American Revolution. Unfortunately, it is long since gone, but the building in its place, which houses the Middletown Police Department is home to the First and Last Tavern where perhaps the presidential spirit remains.

In Greenwich, Conn., Knapp’s Tavern is also known as Putnam Cottage, for its owner General Israel Putnam. But as Knapp’s, it was run by innkeeper Isaac Knapp who kept it as a tavern and hosted both George Washington and John Adams. No longer a tavern, the building can be visited, however, as it is now a museum.

In Guilford, Conn., Thomas Jefferson and James Madison stayed at the Stone Tavern, with Jefferson rating it above average. That tavern isn’t around anymore, but there is a well-known Medad Stone Tavern in Guilford, though unfortunately it never opened for business.

Stone, anticipating a change in the route of the Post Road in 1802, built a new tavern along what he thought was the new route. The road, however, went elsewhere leaving him with a tavern with no customers. Today it’s a museum.

Another favorite of Madison and Jefferson was Bull’s Tavern in Hartford. John Adams visited this tavern, too, and enjoyed his stays. That tavern was run by Frederick Bull, but his brother, Captain William Bull, ran a tavern in Litchfield that you can still see today. The Captain William Bull Tavern was moved from its original site and incorporated into the Tollgate Hill Inn and Restaurant.

During George Washington’s celebratory trip to New England in 1789, he left Rhode Island off the itinerary because the state hadn’t taken any action to ratify the U.S. Constitution. When Rhode Island did ratify, Washington made things right in 1790 and travelled to the state for celebrations in Newport and Providence.

In Providence he stayed at the Abner Daggett's Golden Ball Inn, since demolished. In Newport the only tavern in business today where he might have visited is the White Horse Tavern. French commander Rochambeau was a frequent patron of the establishment and, though there is no record of it, Rochambeau might have dined with Washington there when Washington came to spend a week in Newport in 1881.

Two locations where Washington definitely dined are Massachusetts museums now. The first, of course, if the Longfellow House in Cambridge, which is where he spent the most time in Massachusetts while commanding the Continental Army. He also dined at the Munroe Tavern in Lexington, which was a hot spot for anti-British meetings before the war and near the site of the Battle of Lexington. Washington visited the tavern on his 1789 celebration tour, and today it’s open as a museum.

Several other stops along Washington’s tour in Massachusetts remain open to the public. Ye Olde Tavern in West Brookfield (which also hosted John Adams in addition to Washington) remains a restaurant today. He dined at Faneuil Hall in Boston and visited the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, which is a museum today. And in Newburyport, Washington stayed at the Tracy Mansion, now the public library.

Washington also dined and danced at Salem, Mass.’ Cotting-Smith Assembly House, which was a Federalist club. It’s now accessible through tours by the Peabody Essex Museum. James Monroe also made a stop in Salem on his 1817 tour of New England. Monroe, who was conducting a road show to soothe New Englanders’ bad feelings over the War of 1812, probably travelled more extensively throughout New England than any of the founding fathers apart from John Adams.

His trip took him through all the states, including extensive travels in Maine and Vermont. As with the other presidents, most of the places he stopped at (Clapp’s Inn in Walpole, Mass., Wyatt’s Inn in Dover, N.H., Gilman’s Hotel in Newburyport) are no longer open to the public. Salem, Mass. hosted a reception for him at the Old Town Hall, which would have been new at the time.

While Monroe made it to Vermont, Thomas Jefferson has the distinction of visiting the northernmost part of the Green Mountain state. He crossed Lake Champlain from New York and landed at Crown Point and Chimney Point, now an historic site owned by the state. On his travels south through Vermont, Jefferson visited Bennington, and he was so intrigued by Vermont’s maple syrup that he sent 20 maple trees to his Monticello home, in hopes that America could free itself from dependence on sugar from the West Indies.

John Adams, meanwhile, did the most travelling around New England, and his diaries tell of many taverns where he stopped (now gone.) He stayed at Newcomb Tavern on a trip to Barnstable on Cape Cod, ironic because it became the watering hole for Tories in the run up to the American Revolution.

He visited Allen’s in Biddeford and Webb’s in Falmouth (Portland), an inn that doubled as the town jail, and Tilton’s in Portsmouth, N.H. Washington also made it to Portsmouth in 1789, dining at the Langdon House, now a Historic New England museum. He also visited the Pitt Tavern, which is now part of Stawbery Banke, and made a stop at the Folsom Tavern, now open in Exeter, N.H., as a museum.

11 comments

  1. And The Dudley Tavern on the old Douglas,MA common. Built c1740 on the middle Boston Post Road.

  2. Ruth Bobzin

    Lots of nice decriptions of the Green Dragon Tavern in Philbrick’s Bunker Hill.

  3. Great post! One note. Cotting-Smith Assembly House has been used as a function rental space by the Peabody Essex Museum for at least the last twenty years. It’s not on any public tours and is not currently interpreted as a historic house.

  4. While riding circuit for the federal court system in the 1790s, John Jay lodged and/or dined at approximately 200 inns and taverns throughout New York and the New England states. Jay kept a diary during his travels and many of the journal entries comment on the public houses that he visited. The diary therefore often reads like an 18th Century Yelp and evaluates cleanliness, food quality, and sometimes even comments on the landlord’s temperament. The original diary is available on a digital database of The Selected Papers of John Jay and can be read at http://wwwapp.cc.columbia.edu/ldpd/jay/item?mode=item&key=columbia.jay.07351
    To find out more about Jay’s travels and tavern visits, follow @John_Jay_Papers on Twitter.

  5. Margaret Dragon

    did Wiggins Tavern make the list….Northampton, MA… it is still standing.

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