Tennessee Mountain Stories

Stories of Early Inns and Taverns of the East Tennessee Country

If you are following “Author Beth Durham” on Facebook, I mentioned last week that I have run upon a fascinating book related to last week’s post.  I wanted to share some of it with you this week but it turns out after skimming it, that this will largely be a book review of Stories of Early Inns and Taverns of the East Tennessee Country by LaReine Warden Clayton (1995, The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America).

Mrs. Clayton introduces her stories with an entry from her grandfather’s journal, “He wrote that in 1847 while traveling from his home in Virginia to Alabama to teach school he had forgotten to exchange his Virginia scrip for Tennessee scrip at the state border.  He ‘had stopped over at the best inn in Knoxville and waited while I got this done at some loss’.”

I would certainly have been intrigued by such an entry from my any of my family, and Mrs. Clayton began a quest to learn about the accomodations that existed in the wild country that would become Tennessee. 

In early frontier days, almost any cabin would give shelter to a traveler.  And the travelers were scarce.  I can only imagine that a family was as happy to see the guest as the traveler was to see the comfort and safety of their home.  The first inns in East Tennessee were only family homes and they really had no extra room for guests.  However, the family was willing to ‘move over’ and make room for them.

What I first noticed in this book and had mentioned on Facebook was the absence of ‘stands’ from the index.  You will recall last week that a number of the inns along the middle Tennessee stagecoach route were referred to as stands.  This book notes that such places were referred to as inns, taverns, ordinaries, stops, stands, stations, public-houses, necessities, way-stations, or houses of entertainment.  No explanation is given of what is the difference among the titles.  As traffic increased and more accomodations were required, many homes added lofts or lean-tos to their existing house to serve the boarders.

As dedicated building were erected, a small space was often provided for public meetings.  Many major decisions were made in such places.  With no courthouse, the tavern often served.  If no church house had been built a congregation would gather at the public-house.  Innkeepers were entreprenuers who saw the value in offering space for such meetings as it brought people in, even locals who weren’t traveling.  A 1797 price list shows the cost of a room was six cents per night.  Keeping your horse would cost another four cents – and the horse was priceless to you when he was the only means of transportation in the frontier. 

When the stagecoach made its appearance in the early 1800’s, inns opened along the route.  Now we can trace those routes and see the waypoints at the historic stations.  Many are unfortunately long gone.  However, the Chester Inn in Jonesborough has been converted into a museum.  It was built in 1797 and is now owned by the state.  However, Jonesborough still hosts not less than four historic inns built from 1793 - 1840 that have rooms open today. 

One notable historic location has been lost to progress as Cherokee Lake flooded the Bean Station inn.  Built by slave labor at the direction of Mr. Thomas Whiteside in 1814, this was a three story brick house with a front passageway (or porte cochere) large enough to accommodate “the largest of stagecoaches, piled high with luggage to come through and unload passengers at the great front door”.  It served for many years because one description notes that the pine floors ‘show[ed] little wear after nearly a hundred thirty years of use”.  It burned in 1886 with only a single wing surviving.  That portion was removed before the land was flooded, however, the building where it was stored burned as well so only the tales of this inn survive.

Traveling along the Great Stage Road, this book details stories from dozens of inns and would make a great companion to an East Tennessee road trip. 

She also takes a look at the life of the innkeeper’s family.  Life on the frontier was hard, for everyone.  Just like on a farm where everyone works, the innkeeper had jobs for his whole family.  Older boys started their day in the barn caring for their guest’s horses.  Younger children were kept busy fetching wood for the numerous fireplaces required to warm the large buildings and cook for many mouths.  All the water used in the house had to be carried as well and all of the children would forage for the necessities supplied by the land.  From greens to berries, wild produce was carefully collected when it appeared.  Gardens were planted as well and would require much attention from the whole family.  Of course this assessment of the family assumes the inn is the primary business of the family.  As mentioned earlier however, the early stations were located on working farms so the family would have all of those duties after their guests left each day.