I was recently given the opportunity to photograph one of the oldest buildings in Ohio – a stagecoach stop that once welcomed the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and many others who had rested or enjoyed a meal within its walls. The years of incredible history still resonate from each dusty barstool, tabletop and tunnel within this amazing place. The saying “if walls could talk” seems to stand out now more than ever among all of the places that I have photographed, and if this tavern could tell its life story, I’m sure it could conclude in the form of at least two novels. So where do I begin?
Over 200 years ago, during the antebellum era, two log cabins were built along what is now known as Route 84, previously known as the Cleveland-Buffalo Road. The year was 1798, and the first log cabin had been built. Ohio had not yet been admitted as a state; people still traveled dirt roads in their covered wagons and would frequent this historical structure while passing through. In 1805, an identical log cabin was built next to the original. Heavy traffic continued to travel this road, reaching a peak in 1818 as the road became a major thoroughfare – 15 years after Ohio had officially become the 17th registered state. With this steady rise in traffic leading to its expansion from two separate log cabins into one two-story inn, it would come to be welcomed as not only one of the first buildings of Ohio, but the state’s very first tavern.
As we take a trip into the past, we find that this tavern was a main birthplace of the antebellum era, hosting many civil war era parties, complete with dances in the second story ballroom as slaves hurriedly emerged from the Underground Railroad seeking refuge and a full meal in rooms below, hoping to soon see a life of freedom. Fugitive slaves were housed, and given a temporary hideout inside the tavern until nightfall, when they would be moved, taken to Ellensburgh docks under dark of night to cross Lake Erie into Canada. Tunnels can be found leading from the Unionville Cemetery into the Tavern’s basement, but many pathways have now been blocked off.
The tavern has cycled through various names over time during its many years as an active structure. First known as the Webster House, the tavern was not long after renamed to the New England House, until yet another name change years later that simply dubbed it “The Old Tavern.” Though the most current change had adopted the community’s name, which surrounded it, leaving it to be called the Unionville Tavern, almost all locals among many others still mainly refer to it, and know it as “The Old Tavern.” After some years in service, this building had become a mailstop, as well as a known stagecoach for people on route through town. A covered carriage entrance was added, as the tavern continued welcoming travelers and revelers alike for years to come.
During August of 1843, the tavern would witness quite a wild and historically significant event known as the “County Line Road Incident,” when two fugitive slave brothers, Lewis and Milton Clarke, had spoken at an antislavery rally at the tavern. A As slave owners became aware, they also became angrier, leading to Milton Clarke being chased down, captured and beaten. Local abolitionists and anti-slavery proponents fought strongly to release him, in the end succeeding. Some years later, a weary traveler known as Harriet Beecher Stowe dropped into this small town, stopping to rest up at the old tavern. During her stay, she had met Milton and Lewis, who told stories of the “County Line Road Incident,” and to this day many believe that George Harris, a character in her famous novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was based on Lewis Clarke.
Though it remained an active stagecoach stop and mailstop for years, it was eventually closed in 1916, but reopened a decade later in 1926, continuing to operate as the tavern many knew and loved. Nearly 50 years later, the tavern was added to the national register of historic places in 1973. Years flew by as events were held; parties and dances continued to take place in the second story ballroom, while life remained loud and vivid inside and around. Liveliness grew in 1986, when a pub was added, leaving the tavern to function mainly as a bar and restaurant. It would be only two more decades from here when things would begin to look grim for this famous corner.
In 2006, the tavern held its final event – a Valentine’s Day meal, concluding the last known activity inside of its walls. Though locals were still partial to calling it “The Old Tavern” or even the Unionville Tavern, this event was held inside the tavern’s winery, which was then known as Phoenix 84. With the end of this dinner came the end of a beautiful structure and wonderful life, as the tavern’s doors were sadly shuttered for a second time. A calming silence now fills the air, while a very loud collection of history flutters among the dust in forms of muted stories, waiting to be heard by those with an interest to listen. Now, nine years later in 2015, a strong attempt is being made to bring new life to this important piece of Ohio’s past.
Strolling along the second story, I noticed some pieces from the original Inn peaking their way through holes in ceilings. Over years of closure, as time continues to pass, this structure sits face to face with Ohio’s continuously changing weather, victim to the constantly shifting elements. Wandering through quiet desolation inside of this magnificent piece of history, I’m immersed in not only its beauty, but also an entire wave of emotions that I believe most of the town surrounding must feel towards the significance of saving this tavern.
I’ve been given the amazing opportunity of working together with a wonderful preservation society, as an attempt is made to shed a brand new and brilliant light on the importance of saving this beautiful building. Hopes remain strong of sharing its legacy for years to come, bringing attention to the importance of why we must save this staple of Ohio’s history.