The Magazine of South Carolina

South Carolina Yesteryear

Inns & Taverns in Days of Yore


by Dr. Lewis P. Jones

Jolly old places to be? The food was terrible, the bedbugs ferocious, the ale mugs very recently used. And then there was the snoring. . . .


Members of the Spartanburg County Historical Association occasionally on a Sunday afternoon will sally forth in their cars on tours of historical sites and sights. One type of place in particular always seems to elicit gushing and sighing: an old tavern or inn. Somehow, it brings out the most romantic nostalgia in certain sentimental souls.

Spartanburg County and the rest of the state had its share of taverns and inns in the 19th Century. Woodruff was originally Woodruff's Tavern. There was Gaffney's Tavern. Laurens County has a community still called Hickory Tavern, and a larger one in Greenville County is Fountain Inn. Some old Spartanburg taverns remain standing: Foster's Tavern, Hurricane Tavern, McMakin's Tavern, and so on. Many others, of course, are long since gone.

Maybe the fondness for the magic word "tavern" stems from a tendency to overromanticize popular history, especially if it is local history. (Ancestors, in the hands of some descendants, seem overly prone to emerge from a murky past as aristocratic members of a grand elite.) Maybe we learned about taverns too much from Christmas cards that depict cheerful scenes of rollicking travelers disembarking from a happy stagecoach, being greeted by a jolly innkeeper standing in the snow before his tavern, wherein presumably there is a merry, roaring fire, Miller Lite and Beaconburgers, with decorous college sophomores chirping Christmas carols. Well, dream on. There wasn't a Holiday Inn to be found, and some of these places may have been the 1792 edition of the Honky-Tonk Saloon.

On the Mills Atlas map of 1820, Spartanburg District, among the labeled churches, meeting houses, mills and residences one can spot a number of taverns of the time. Some have "P.H." after the name of a residence, indicating a "public house," i.e., one licensed to sell alcoholic beverages - thus a "pub." A few of these still stand. (Incidentally, for 10 bucks one still can buy a handsome reprint of that old Mills map. Framed, it can add much to a room: discussion, pondering, argument. . . .)

Many of these taverns were similar to the "tourist homes" of the 1930s, private residences that took a few overnight travelers. The modern in thing descending from that concept is the bed-and-breakfast establishment, so long popular with American travelers in England.

None of the taverns professed to be anything like our luxury hotels blessed with executive suites, without which no urban center today can hold up its head with pride. Luxury, comfort and gourmet cuisine were not among tavern characteristics. Private baths - never; one was fortunate if the host had what tactfully and accurately were called "necessary houses" nearby. One did not request a private room. You were lucky if you did not get a stranger as a bedfellow, or if said bedfellow was sufficiently thoughtful to remove his muddy boots and spurs prior to retiring. Some, such as the Mount Pleasant Tavern, had one large room, or dormitory, for all the men and another for all the women. (It still stands at Hobbysville on Road 86, near the junction of I-26 and SC 146.)

To sense the trials and tribulations of early tourists, go to the Price House in Spartanburg County (open to the public and operated by the historical association), ascend to the small top floor and try to imagine it crowded by odoriferous travelers on a hot night - all snoring loudly, no two in the same key.

Most ante-bellum tavern owners probably had other occupations. Many taverns in the Old South were operated by widows; this was one of the few ways in which respectable women in those years could support themselves.

The bill of fare varied, but travelers in the pre-1860 South had few kind words about tavern food. We have numerous "travel account books" from that period, some readable. (They presumably sold well, since so few folks could travel themselves. Those authors have been replaced by your neighbors who take slides and inflict them upon you today.) They seem to agree tavern food was about as bad in one part of the South as in another. The same applied at railroad stations, which served passengers at noon meal stops.

One traveler in Virginia, after a bedbug-haunted night in a tavern, reported he saw "a large hound dog being sent in chase of a chicken, which he caught in his mouth and brought to the cook who forthwith killed, plucked, dissected and fried the same for our use."

At Orangeburg, Sidney Andrews described the bread and biscuit as both heavy and sour, and the meat as swimming in strong fat. J.S. Buckingham, an Englishman, complained in the same village of unwashed glasses that smelled of rum. Another journeyer near Georgetown said he waited more than an hour to get bad coffee, bread, bacon and butter that resembled axle grease, thickened with salt.

Buckingham, always critical, did find a fine "hotel" in a resort popular with Low Country Carolinians: Pendleton. It was he, however, who once reported it required "a very strong appetite to conquer the repugnance which the tavern food creates." Nevertheless, "everyone seems to think it is a duty to accept and be thankful for whatever is set before him, and appears to exercise no more power of rejection than children at school."

Such were the good old days. Pretty them up and dream of them, but occasionally be thankful Howard Johnson came along the pike - or post road.


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