Above photo: Brian W. Horgan, vice president/operations of The Unionville Tavern Preservation Society, stands in a front room of the Old Tavern on Route 84, Unionville. Last year, the preservation group accomplished exterior stabilization, or Phase 1, of the mammoth preservation project.
The “We proudly brew Starbucks coffee” sign is an anachronism in this place. So are the electrical feeds, the pine 2-by-4 lumber and industrial light fixtures.
Stagecoaches, candles, lanterns, rope beds, round dances and corn fritters would be more at home, if it were not for the dust, peeling wallpaper, dingy windows, frayed carpets and ramshackle furniture.
Hard to believe, but it wasn’t all that many years ago that folks were drinking Starbucks and eating corn fritters in this room. Even back then, The Old Tavern was showing its age, 200 years plus, but the owners, like the ones that came before them, made temporary repairs to keep the place open for one more order of fritters, one more cup of coffee.
In 2006, the last cup of coffee was poured in the tavern. The owners closed the place and left the building to fend for itself against the brutal Northeast Ohio winters and summers. An icon of the community that straddles the Ashtabula/Lake county line, the tavern holds warm memories for just about every person who lives within 30 miles of it. Residents and patrons of The Old Tavern alike lamented its closing and deterioration.
In May 2011 Erin Cicero and Marc Petersen did something about it. They launched a “Save the Tavern!” effort as part of the annual “This Place Matters” campaign of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Sponsored by the Madison Historical Society, the campaign placed ninth in the national competition and “Save the Tavern!” became a rallying cry for the non-profit Unionville Tavern Preservation Society. Organized in 2011, the group’s goals include raising awareness of the tavern’s history/status, safeguarding its historical importance and eventually raising funds to preserve the landmark.
The Preservation Society in August 2014, through negotiations with the prior owner and Lake County officials, acquired the building, thus paving the way for restoration and preservation efforts to begin. The most pressing issue was to stabilize the building’s exterior and interior construction compromised by years of exposure to water and wear. Brian W. Horgan, vice president/operations of the society, says that work was completed in 2018, at a cost of $280,000.
Phase I focused on the roof, portico and four wood posts that were failing. In the process of restoring the posts, workers counted the rings in the old poplar. They numbered 200, which means that the tree from the columns were fashioned some 200 years ago were of the same age when harvested.
“So they are 400-years old,” observes Horgan as we stand under the portico on a drizzly morning in late March.
The exterior begs for a fresh coat of paint and the interior reeks of hard, dirty work.
“Believe it or not, it looks a lot better than it did,” Horgan says as we step into what was once the bar and commercial kitchen area. “We’ve come a long ways.”
We pause at the spot where a chimney pokes through the wall and meets the old hand-hewn beams from two centuries ago. The beam was chipped away to accommodate some remodeling, and no provision was made for reinforcement or dealing with the odd pitch of the roof that allowed water to collect and then run down the chimney into the structure.
“We are looking at 200 years of owners who took whatever measures were necessary to get them through the next 20 years of business here,” Horgan says. “We inherited all of that.”
Roads delivered growth
A sprawling, three-story, frame building in a town where historical, massive and ornate are standards for architecture, The Old Tavern is the personification of Unionville—a crossroads community built upon the union of counties, transportation arteries and hopeful settlers. Diagonally sited across from the Alexander Harper Memorial Cemetery, the tavern started in 1798 in a log cabin, the “Webster House.” Good fortune came to the owners of Webster House in 1803 when the tavern and a second log cabin built next to it were designated a stop on the first mail run between Warren and Cleveland.
In 1818, to take advantage of the stagecoach traffic on the Cleveland-Buffalo Road (Route 84), new owners built the two-story, salt-box style tavern around the log cabins. On the west side, a covered carriage entrance and ballroom on the second floor added amenities expected by travelers in that era. It also became a station on the Underground Railraod, and in August 1843 was the setting for the rescue of Milton Clarke, a fugitive slave who’d been captured and beaten after speaking at an anti-slavery rally. It has been suggested that the character George Harris in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was inspired by Milton Clarke’s story. The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, lodged at the tavern and allegedly heard the story of the rescue, “The County Line Road incident.”
Another Underground Railroad legend connected to The Old Tavern concerns tunnels that branch out from the building’s basement. The tunnels have been suggested as hiding places for fugitive slaves. Horgan says the new owners have not investigated that aspect of the building and won’t delve into that until an archeologist can be secured for the task. Nor will the building be “restored” to its antebellum appearance and décor. The visual documentation of its appearance back then is nonexistent. But there are photographs and postcards that provide excellent documentation for the pre-Interstate highway era, when Route 84 was a major artery highway between Cleveland and Buffalo.
Funding, funding, funding
Horgan says the Tavern won’t become a museum, either. Perhaps one room will be set aside to interpret its history, but the vision, indeed the economic necessity, is to transform it into a dynamic multi-purpose educational, cultural, arts and social event center. That function will drive its renovation.
“A lot of folks don’t understand that this is a historic preservation project, not a restoration project,” Horgan says.
The board envisions a property that will offer a “living classroom” window on history while providing space for meetings, weddings and receptions. Revenue from these uses will keep the building open and maintained.
Getting the tavern to that point will take money, at least $3.5 million according to estimates prepared several years ago. Phase II alone, which will focus on pressing interior issues, will require $280,000, or thereabouts. Horgan hopes that phase can get under way in 2018, but he says the group’s main focus will be finding resources to accomplish the big picture.
“2018 is going to be a funding year,” he says. “We are in the process of initiating work with a non-profit group in Columbus … most of this year is going to be fundraising and networking.”
The magnitude and complexity of the work requires hiring specialized contractors, but that does not preclude the need for volunteers. Their hands cleared the grounds of weeds and brush, restored the stone pathways and replanted the gardens. Volunteers also tackle clean-up projects inside the building and work on fundraising efforts that help pay the ongoing expenses: insurances, utilities, website costs and promotion.
The group’s next fundraising event is April 28 at the Geneva Community Center, a night at the races called the Unionville Derby. Horgan says the event links to the history of Unionville and its famous resident, George Hopper, who owned race horses. His wife purchased The Old Tavern when its existence was threatened and ran it for awhile. The couple’s Elmwood home still stands on County Line Road (Lake County side), a short distance north of The Old Tavern.
Horgan says proceeds from the event will be used to fund a feasibility study.
The society has been aided by organizations and donors on both sides of the county line, and Horgan says one of the things the group hopes to do in 2018 is raise awareness in Ashtabula County. He says the Morrison Foundation has been very supportive and generous toward the project.
“It’s really been a community effort,” he says.
Adena Muskin, “Unionville Tavern,” Cleveland Historical, accessed March 29, 2018, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/570