Reflections In Hindsight

Grace in the Rearview Mirror…it's closer than it appears

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Colonial American Motels

Posted by elainemcooper on April 13, 2012

Posted by Elaine Marie Cooper

Some kinds of research can be just plain fun.

For instance, who knew that in place of a chain of motels in the 1700’s, travelers stayed in taverns? Of course, there were no restaurant chains; folks stopped in designated homes called “ordinaries” for quick sustenance while on the road. These accommodations were usually strewn across the countryside every few miles—at least in the more settled areas. If it was frontier, well, better get out the musket to shoot some dinner. :-)

While taverns provided alcoholic beverages, they were also licensed by law to serve not just suitable beds for travelers, but also feed for their horses or oxen.

Food such as roast beef, leg of mutton, ham and cabbage, or perhaps a “fat fowl” were some of the dinners available to guests. Drinks were ale, wine and cider, but drunkenness was frowned upon and cause for a fine.

Most colonials never drank water as it was usually not clean and was known to cause illness. Boiling would have cured that problem but knowledge of bacteria and other microscopic troublemakers was unknown. Folks just knew the water made them sick.

Tavern keepers were usually citizens of good character with a good reputation in their community. Many were magistrates, politicians, or officers in the militia.

Colonial taverns were typically two story buildings with one large main room on the first floor and several smaller rooms for lodgers on the second. Besides offering hospitality to travelers however, these establishments were the main social center of a town. Business meetings were conducted here as well as militia meetings to muster men for the army just in case (let us suppose) they wanted to fight for freedom from England. Just supposing, of course.

One such tavern (still in existence as a historical landmark) is the Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Owned by a well-known patriot in the 1770’s named Timothy Keeler, there was suspicion that musket balls for the Continental Army were being manufactured in the tavern basement. In 1777, the British decided to assault the building by firing a few cannon balls, one of which put a large hole in the north wall. Another shot barely missed a patron ascending the tavern stairs. It frightened the poor man so much that it is said he screamed, “I’m a dead man, I’m a dead man!” until his friends convinced him otherwise. The landlord’s son, Jeremiah Keeler joined the Continental Army at age 17, and the story goes that the young sergeant was the first to scale the British redoubt at Yorktown in that decided victory against England.

Colonial American history is so fascinating!

What is truly fun about researching for fiction, is then translating these historical facts into a story. Here is an excerpt from The Promise of Deer Run that developed from the information I gleaned about traveling in the 1700’s:

The afternoon sleigh ride seemed endless. Mile after mile, forests of chestnuts, oaks, and maples lined the roadway. Occasionally an open field widened the landscape and a few deer in the meadows would scurry away at the sound of their sleigh. Dusk was nearing, and Nathaniel prodded Babe to drive a little faster. They had already traveled a total of thirty miles or more and were trying tor each a town called Brookfield before dark. At last Nathaniel caught sight of a two-story house with a sign in front.
“There! There’s the tavern, Sarah.”
The exhausted young woman peeked out from beneath the quilts.
“It could not have come any too soon.” Sarah sat up, her face twisting in pain. “I feel so stiff and sore.”
They both read the wooden sign out front:

Drink for the thirsty
Food for the hungry
Lodging for the weary
And good keeping for horses

Nathaniel grinned at Sarah.
“I’m certain Babe will be relieved at the ‘keeping for horses.’” He jumped out of the sleigh, the prospect of warmth and rest invigorating his limbs. “Let us get you inside first.” He carefully helped her out of the sleigh and hurried her inside out of the cold. A blast of warmth and pulsating light from the large hearth inside greeted the travelers.
The tavern keeper was pouring ale for a customer. When he looked up and saw the couple a look of concern swept across his face.
“Needin’ a midwife, are ye?”
“No sir…not yet. But we do need lodging for the night.”
“That I can provide. But birthin’? Not part of my hospitality, sir.”

Photo above: Keeler Tavern, Ridgefield, CT

In celebration of The Promise of Deer Run winning Best Romance at the 2012 Los Angeles Book Festival, I will be offering a free book giveaway to one of today’s commenters! Leave a comment with your E-mail address and I will enter you in a drawing!

10 Responses to “Colonial American Motels”

  1. Nat Holmgren said

    this would be cool!

  2. llwroberts said

    Thnaks for sharing, Elaine. That kind of research is what makes your books so authentic.

  3. We have the Old Wade House nearby that’s a WI HS site. They even host authentic dinners a few times a year so visitors can see what all is involved. The tickets require some help in prep for the meal and cleaning up afterward.

  4. Great article, Elaine. Research is fun. Hard work, but fun. I’ve already read this wonderful book. If I win, pass it on to someone else. :-)


    Tom Blubaugh, Author
    Night of the Cossack

  5. Janet Grunst said

    Great research and post Elaine. Colonial ordinaries have long been an interest of mine.

    • Nice to see you here, Janet! Colonial ordinaries and taverns are quite amazing! I did not realize they were a particular interest of yours. Of course, pretty much ANYTHING Colonial American interests me. :-)

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