Historic tavern celebrates a season of light
By Steven Hoffman
By Gene Pisasale
When Col. John Hannum, commander of the First Battalion of Chester County militia, and his friend, Thomas “Squire” Cheyney, left Martin’s Tavern in Marshallton on the morning of Sept. 11, 1777, they didn’t know they’d be witnesses to a pivotal episode in American history.
That morning as they rode toward Chads’ Ford to join the rest of the local militia, “they discovered coming down the hills opposite a very numerous body of soldiers, evidently British…” This account from the Hannum family records noted for posterity the momentous events which occurred leading up to the Battle of the Brandywine, where George Washington’s Army was defeated, but survived to fight another day.
Originally known as the Centre House due to its location near the geographic midpoint of Chester County, the property where Martin’s Tavern now stands has roots going back more than three centuries. Local historian Thomas McGuire wrote a detailed narrative of the tavern and states that it was constructed as a “Publick House” on a 2.5-acre lot which was part of a 1,250 acre land grant from William Penn to Mary Penington in 1681.
McGuire mentions that the original grant was subdivided and later passed to several owners, including Joseph Martin of West Bradford. Martin became the first business owner on the property.
As Colonial settlers were moving to the region and business was thriving, Martin’s application for a license in 1764 stated, “That there is a Necessity for a Publick house for the Entertainment of Travellers in said Township, there being many Large roads Much used by Travellers and no house of Entertainment upon any of them for Several Miles Distant.”
Colonial taverns were important places of social gathering, where people came to pick up messages, and discuss farming, business conditions and politics, as well as enjoy good food and drink. They were also incubators of the American Revolution, as the country became disenchanted with the overbearing policies of England’s King George III and people planned strategies to gain independence.
These gatherings fueled fervent debate -- even among peace-loving Quakers, some of whom supported the struggle against Great Britain. Although the tavern property changed hands in subsequent decades, the Pennsylvania Gazette mentions that it continued to serve as a critical place of political discourse regarding upcoming elections and the direction of our young republic.
The village of Marshallton holds many links to our past, including the Bradford Friends Meetinghouse, built around the same time as the tavern. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
The nearby cemetery has an interesting link to our 16th Chief Executive. Nathan Simms was a slave boy living in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. On the night of April 14, 1865, he was unwittingly persuaded to hold the horse's reins for John Wilkes Booth, who quietly walked into Ford’s Theatre and shocked the nation as he shot President Abraham Lincoln. Simms’ gravestone lies in the cemetery, the inscription noting that the boy later redeemed himself by helping to capture the notorious assassin.
Walking the streets, visitors sense the rich heritage of the area. The Friends of Martin’s Tavern (FOMT) formed in 2003 to preserve the remains of the historic structure, but the tavern isn’t the only focus of their work. The nearby Blacksmith Shop in Marshallton still stands as a beautiful, rustic reminder of our traditions and serves as a meeting place for the group, which maintains archives and relics from the period.
This year is the 250th anniversary of Martin’s Tavern. On Dec. 6 from 4 to 6 p.m., the FOMT will continue their tradition of celebrating a season of light, with a Christmas tree lighting and carolers from West Chester University. Santa Claus will be there, and light refreshments will be served. For more information, visit the FOMT website at www.martinstavern.org.