Some may remember reading in this newspaper some months ago about a November 1929 news item on an unusual building in Rappahannock County.
“One of Sperryville’s landmarks,” the article read, “and perhaps the oldest building in Rappahannock, the Old Stage Coach Inn, commonly known as the ‘White House,’ is being torn down by the Highway Department. The stone is being used for the fill of the new bridge.”
A close-up photo survives of this building, published in a long, four-page article about Rappahannock County in the Washington Herald on Sunday, Feb. 7, 1926, some three years before the building was demolished. The article, by R. F. Morrison, appears to have made use of photos taken on-site in 1926. The building looks in pretty bad shape (See Figure 1).
Elizabeth Johnson’s book, “Rappahannock County, a History,” mentions a man named Sperry constructing a stage house at the intersection of the current Route 600 (Woodward Road) and Route 1001 (Main Street) in Sperryville. This building supposedly contained a tavern as well.
If this was the Old Stage Coach Inn, it was likely built in the early 1800s. After being demolished in 1929 after almost 100 years, Atkins Store was built on the lot in 1946. Later, the place was the site of the Appetite Repair Shop and then Rae’s Place.
Surprisingly, inns such as the Old Stage Coach Inn were one of the first instances of government regulations of a business. Laws on innkeeping date back to the 1300s and 1400s in England and served as the basis for Virginia’s laws on inns, taverns and ordinaries. Why the government intervention? It was due to the sheer vulnerability of someone traveling long distances in the old days.
Whether on foot, horse or coach, a wayfarer could carry only a small amount of baggage and a little food, and he or she might pass through long, unpopulated stretches of dense woods where they might encounter thieves or other unsavory characters.
In severe circumstances, at day’s end the individual could arrive in foul weather at a way station tired, hungry and possibly in bad physical shape from helping to lift a coach out of a mud hole or clearing fallen trees from a roadway.
There he might encounter an unscrupulous innkeeper charging exorbitant prices, serving bad food and providing vermin-ridden bedding under a leaky roof. Drunken or rowdy locals might be about. There might be gambling, prostitution and thievery within the inn. Or, in the worst case scenario, the innkeeper might turn the traveler away, leaving the individual to fend for him or herself.
Hence, early Virginia law stipulated that wayfarers had to be taken in, provided good food, tight shelter and given general protection. Only if they were disorderly or had a contagious disease could they be turned away. For example, in an Act of the Virginia General Assembly passed on Dec. 26, 1792, the following regulation was set in place for ordinaries (taverns).
To keep an ordinary, a person had to petition their county court to obtain a license, with the county court considering both the convenience of the place proposed and the petitioner’s ability to provide good and sufficient housing, lodging and entertainment for travelers, their servants and horses. If agreed, a license was granted for one year after paying a $150 bond.
The petitioner also signed a statement that the following would be provided: good, wholesome and clean lodging and diet for travelers, as well as a stable, fodder and water for the horses. There was to be no unlawful gaming and no excessive drinking on Sunday. Rates and prices were set by the county court for liquors, diet, lodging, stabling, fodder, etc., but they could be adjusted twice a year.
The license had to be shown not more than six feet above the floor of the ordinary. County courts needed to enforce the law and violations could result in fines of $150 and $75, payable within three days; otherwise there was jail time until the fine was paid.
On unlawful gaming, an Act passed on Jan. 19, 1798, noted gambling money at inns was liable to seizure and that billiard tables were liable to be seized and publicly burnt. Other gaming laws prevented horse racing or cock fighting at an inn, as well as card games like Faro, Hazard and more.
Despite all this, scholarly studies have shown that Virginia counties did not strictly enforce these laws. Inns, taverns and ordinaries were one of the few places where people could gather together, relax and enjoy themselves. It was there that news and rumors were exchanged, political deals and business transactions made, meals and drink taken, and entertainment obtained. A balance had to be struck.
Other studies have shown that many inn problems were solved if prosperous businessmen and farmers held the licenses and their wives ran the businesses. Still, one might be shocked on arriving at an inn. Take Mrs. Anne Royall’s blunt description of a female innkeeper in Warrenton in her 1830 travel book:
“The cold chills ran over me at first sight, she looked as though she could dislimb an elephant. She was ignorant, proud, empty, cold and arrogant in her manners; and her countenance would freeze the blood of a highwayman. She put me in mind of the pictures of the Spanish Inquisition. How bold and impudent these professing women are; they hold the whole world in contempt.” Royall is regarded as the first female newspaper writer and editor in the U.S.
But, we digress. Getting back to the Old Stage Coach Inn, an Act establishing a turnpike over the Blue Ridge at Thornton’s Gap was passed on Jan. 7, 1806, by the Virginia General Assembly. The route was to come over the mountain from Page County and down “to Francis Yate’s tavern on the southeast side.” This Act also stipulated that the turnpike was to be a toll road.
Rates were even set and provide an example of the traffic expected back in 1806: “For every coach, chariot or wagon, the driver and horses, 25 cents; for every four wheeled chaise, or phaeton and horse, 17 cents; for every riding chair, or cart and horse, 12.5 cents, for every man and horse, 6.25 cents, for every head of black cattle, 3 cents, for every head of sheep or hogs, one cent.”
Nothing seems to have come of this proposed turnpike, but at least it showed a toll road was potentially a money-making proposition, and that taverns, inns or ordinaries along the road were money-making propositions as well.
Things moved very rapidly, though, after Rappahannock became a county on Feb. 8, 1833. On March 6, the Virginia General Assembly authorized a survey and the location of a route for a turnpike road from Thornton’s Gap to Warrenton in Fauquier County.
On March 29, the Virginia Board of Public Works assigned Peter Scales, a surveyor, to the job. He began his work in May of 1833 and communicated his results to the VGA on Feb. 4, 1834. Although the route was not accepted, the survey map contained some detail on the small village of Sperryville (see Figure 2).
The Turnpike Survey report by Scales is also interesting because it explains his reasoning behind the route he recommended. He tells of leaving Richmond in May 1833, traveling to Rappahannock County and identifying two routes between Thornton’s Gap and Warrenton.
The first came down from Thornton’s Gap to the vicinity of Sperryville and then followed higher ground to Little Washington, Amissville and on to Warrenton. The second came down to Sperryville, following the valley of the Thornton River and then skirted the southern side of Battle Mountain to Amissville and beyond to Warrenton. Of the two routes, he rejected the first route out of hand.
He provided a good reason for the second route. He wrote that the Thornton River valley route “would accommodate a larger portion of the citizens by permitting marketable products on both sides of the valley of Thornton’s River to descend upon the road with a less charge for transportation than if the products of the south side of the valley were subjected to the unnatural transit of being lifted upon a higher level to reach a market situated below that of their production.” His turnpike road also passed on the north side of the Thornton River in Sperryville, following the path of the current U.S. 211.
It should also be noted that in April and May of 1833, the newly created Rappahannock County was organizing its government, naming its court members, Sheriff, clerk and Attorney for the Commonwealth. It was also deciding that Washington was to be the county seat. This may have had something to do with the rejection of the Thornton’s Gap Turnpike route recommended by Scales. In the burgeoning turnpike era, Rappahannock County wanted a good road going through its county seat.
The news item mentioned at the start of this article told of the Old Stage Coach Inn being demolished by the Highway Department and the stone being used for fill for the then-new 1929 bridge.
Coincidentally, during the summer of 2012, in preparation of the embankments for the new Sperryville bridge across the south fork of the Thornton River, certain artifacts were turned up by the earthmoving and grading equipment. The contractor on the bridge job saved certain items that appeared to be from the old inn, but much expertise will be required to prove the connection.
The artifacts (see Figures 3 through 6) are now with the Rappahannock County Historical Society. Possibly someone with sufficient expertise could identify them.