Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The World of a 19th Century Midwestern Tavern

(Please click here for an updated version of this post)

Here is another blog in my Michigan / Midwestern social history series, once again taken from the Greenfield Village blog I have. Even though I do have a separate blog dedicated to the Village, I realize that there are many wonderful social history facts and stories that I feel readers who may not read that blog might find interesting. I feel it's stories like this that helps to bring the past to life.
I do hope you enjoy it.

Early in the 19th century, a stage line was operated between Detroit and Tecumseh on what was originally an Indian trail. With the coming of the early settlers from the east, however, it became the settler's route as well. As traveling increased and roads were made possible for stagecoach travel, taverns were built along this route. The Eagle Tavern, as it was then known, was built around 1831 in Clinton, Michigan, and served originally as the first overnight stagecoach stop between Detroit and Chicago, offering food and drink for the weary travelers, back during a time when horses were the main mode of travel.
Eventually, the road extended to Niles, Michigan in 1832, and then, by 1833, on to Chicago, which became the Chicago Turnpike, and eventually Chicago Road/US 12 (http://www.us12heritagetrail.org/).
Semi-weekly stages were tried first, but daily coaches soon followed and, before long, there was double daily service, with extra coaches often necessary.

I should like to present here a couple of descriptions of what it was like traveling by stage on this Detroit to Chicago trail. This first one is in the words of Levi Bishop from 1835: "I started west from Detroit in a stagecoach. I had to secure my seat three days in advance. This was when the land speculation fever began to rage somewhat extensively. When the time came, I started west on the old Ann Arbor Road. We broke down once on the way, but there happened to be a wagon maker on board and he repaired the damage in about 15 minutes. We made nine miles the first half day."

Part of the road was corduroy and vehicles broke down, and sometimes stagecoach passengers had to get out and walk. This sets the stage for our second traveling story:
There is a story told of a stage that left Clinton's Eagle Tavern for the west one morning loaded with passengers. The road was very muddy and the coach had managed to get a mile from the village. The passengers walked back to the inn to spend the night, and early the next morning returned to the coach. During the second day it got three miles from Clinton. Again, the passengers returned to the Eagle Tavern. On the third day the coach must have reached another tavern, for the passengers did not return.

The folks that stayed at the Eagle Tavern never left for want of food. As stated, in part, from a Village hand out:
"The foods that tavernkeepers offered came from local farms and grew wild in the countryside, and tavern menus varied tremendously with the seasons. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available only at harvest time, and winter meals relied heavily on foods preserved by salting or drying. Since Calvin Wood, proprietor of the Eagle Tavern in 1850, was also a farmer, much of the food that he served might have come from his own nearby farm.
As quoted from a Detroit News article from 1927:
"People nowadays would be appalled to see the quantity of food that was served then. There were never less than three kinds of meat. There were side dishes of vegetables and salad. Red cabbage was a favorite for salad because of its decorative appearance. Then there were pickles and crackers and cheese always on the table."
Also, the article continues to tell of jellies and preserves, five or six kinds of cake, and two or three kinds of pie, particularly mince pie. On each table were two casters of pepper, vinegar, mustard, and spices in brightly polished containers.

Once again, from a Village hand out:
Alcohol consumption during the 19th century reached a peak that has never since been duplicated, so it is not surprising that the American temperance movement came into being during that time."
Besides being a stopping place, the tavern was also famous for its dance parties and balls.
One who lived near the "Eagle' (as it was affectionately called by the locals) explained in a letter to Henry Ford one her most pleasurable experiences while at the Eagle Tavern:
“My childhood and girlhood home were within 6 miles of that old tavern, and I danced all night in the ballroom at my last ball in July 4, 1859. There was a dance pavilion, a bowery on one side that was covered with flowering vines. I think it was 100 feet long, and the dining hall was at one side in the house, a hall connected it. On that 4th of July night there were 100 couples. I remember well every detail of my last ball at that old tavern in my ball dress. I was a week devising and making it (the dress) sitting up late nights. I was not sorry later, as the best dressed & best dancing couple that won the most votes were to lead in the Grand March. I must say it, with my dress and dancing, won as the leading lady, and a tall young man, whom I had never seen before, and, I think, from Lansing, won as my partner, and was brought to me by the ballroom manager and introduced to me, and we were ever soon gliding down the Ballroom…followed by the other 99 couples. We marched around back to the place we started, and the whole party formed in double rows in a cotillion. I was then dancing with my evening escort, Charles Wood, of Grand Ledge.
The midnight banquet was spread on two long tables, where all the good things were put on, decorated with summer flowers and lighted with hanging chandeliers. At one end of the table a whole roasted pig with a cob of corn in its mouth, and at the other end of the table was several roast turkeys, and in the middle of the table was a huge pyramid cake about 3 feet high, and there were high glass bowls of raisins, nuts, and candies, and every other good edible. The dining room was on the other side of the building from the ballroom, connected by a hall.”

The above is an actual recollection by 89 year old Mrs. Marie L. Moreaux (formerly Tripp), speaking of what was, perhaps, the most special night of her life. The ballroom in which she writes of still exists but is no longer in use, and is located on the 2nd floor. It was constructed so that the floor had a slight spring to it to give the dancers the experience of a
-->“delightful sense of exhilaration as they glided over the smooth surface.” The ballroom was known throughout that section of the country for its spring dance floor. Mrs Moreaux continued, -->
“It was a very popular place and supported the finest ‘orchestry’ music in that part of the country, especially the violin…of whom was one Ray Anthony Niles, who was a pattern of old Beau Brummell of ancient times. He played the violin that charmed all his hearers, and helped to make that old tavern popular. He was before my time as he went with the crowd of gold diggers to California.”

That may have been the former Miss Tripp's last ball but it certainly was not the last at the Eagle Tavern. In 1872 it hosted a "Union Dance Party" and a leap year ball in 1876. This last ball was truly the final dance for the tavern - the Clinton Town Hall was built in that year and all future dances were held there instead.
The inn became the Union Hotel during the Civil War, and lodged soldiers going to and coming from the front.
Walter Hubbell Smith purchased the inn in 1864, and it was his daughter and heir, Mary Ella Smith, that sold it to Henry Ford.

A gathering room (or a ladies room) is off to one side, this being a spot for the women to gather before or after dining, out of earshot of the, at times, boisterous men.

On the other side is the tavern itself, for the men who like to drink while they have discussions that could be too harsh for feminine ears.

Of course, the large dining area was where politeness reigned and folks fed on the delicious fare offered. The following are two pictures taken from either end of the dining area.

Henry Ford purchased the building and renamed it the Clinton Inn in 1925. To look at the dilapidated structure at the time of the exchange made his ardent helpers and followers wonder what he saw. "There was only one man in 4,000 that would consider it anything but a pile of junk," said his right-hand man, Ed Cutler.
And the inside was even worse! Piles of old magazines, ten year old bottles of milk, eggs, and "tons of stuff."
But, restore and relocate the structure they did, and by the spring of 1929, the restoration was complete, using original materials whenever possible.

In 1982 the name was changed from the Clinton Inn back to the Eagle Tavern, for this was in line with Greenfield Village's new goals of making itself more functional and accurate. Period correct meals continue to be served along with desserts of the season, much as it had over 150 years ago, and is done so by candle light. During the Christmas season, a roaring fire in the fireplace helps to give off an ambiance rarely found elsewhere. It is one of the few locations in Greenfield Village where 1st person is practiced (1st person is where the workers dress and act as if they are from the time they are portraying, in this case, 1850).

What so many do not realize while strolling the hallowed grounds of Greenfield Village is the 'hidden' social history of the structures that are there. I do not mean purposely hidden, because one could hear hours of stories about each building if all were told! But, it is these little facts that make the buildings come to life. To think that the Eagle Tavern, of which my wife and I frequent often for lunch and considered to be our favorite place to dine, held grand balls in the mid-19th century never even crossed my mind. As with all the buildings here that I research extensively, I will look at it a little differently than I have before, and I will try to imagine the 100 couples entering this wonderful piece of Michigan history back in the summer of 1859.


Mrs. G said...

Ken, have you heard from Chandra lately? She was going to e-mail me but I haven't heard from her. Wonder if everything's OK?

Historical Ken said...

I wrote her - - I hope she continues her blog, albeit in a different vein.
I enjoy her writing.