Moving Forward, Looking Back / George Washington (might have) slept here
Published 6:42 am, Tuesday, February 14, 2012
On October 16, 1789, George Washington passed through Fairfield on a tour of the fledgling country that had been placed in his charge. It was his third visit, first as a young British Army officer, then as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and this time as the first president of the United States. Washington made this arduous trip not to take a victory lap (he was elected unanimously by the Electoral College), but to rally his war-weary citizens to their new country and its experimental government.
The ride through town must have been sobering. Fairfield still bore the wounds of the British attack on the town 10 years earlier; he likely rode past scorched trees and burned houses with solitary chimneys left standing forlornly in the ruins. But some rebuilding had taken place, and in the case of the Rising Sun Tavern (now called the Sun Tavern), it took place quickly. It had been burned to the ground, but for the owner, Samuel Penfield, there was a business imperative. Fairfield was right on the Post Road, the country's first interstate highway. Think of the Rising Sun Tavern as the precursor of the rest stop at the I-95 Round Hill Road exit, minus the gas pumps, but with a motel and a bar.
We can imagine standing in the small crowd of townspeople as Washington's carriage pulled up to the Rising Sun Tavern in a cloud of dust, and cheering as the revered figure and his small entourage climbed wearily out and waved. He made no public remarks, but met with townspeople, perhaps over a pint of ale and a pipe.
Contrast this visit to Ronald Reagan's on Oct. 26, 1984. After a helicopter landing on the Fairfield University campus (my wife reminds me that we took our kids to see this) and a motorcade, he delivered a stump speech in front of Town Hall to several thousand flag-waving supporters. The town, of course, had already been blanketed with news media and all the security precautions accorded a 20th-century president. The historic Sun Tavern stood unnoticed only a few steps away from the hoopla.
President Reagan was back in Washington later that day, but almost exactly 205 years earlier, his predecessor stayed and slept at the Sun Tavern.
Or did he?
The controversy rages.
In Washington's own journal, he wrote that he spent the night in Fairfield, but he didn't specify where. It would have been rather odd if he stayed at the Rising Sun. In those days, an overnight stay at a roadside tavern typically meant sharing a bed with a stranger. Mr. Penfield would have bent the rules for Washington, but there were several private homes available with accommodations more suitable for the Father of Our Country.
Whatever. I'm for letting the Sun Tavern keep the "George Washington Slept Here" honorific, in recognition of its long and interesting history.
A century before Washington's visit, newly-founded Fairfield gave the property to the Rev. James Jones, the first minister of its church, for his residence. His wife sold the property in 1681 (the Reverend's house does not survive), and it changed hands until Penfield bought it in 1761 and at some point built the original tavern. A few years after Penfield died in 1811, the building's status as a tavern ended forever.
Ownership changed hands many times through inheritance and purchase, a full-time or summer residence, or no residence at all. Apparently, the Town Green was still being grazed by livestock, making for disagreeable bovine aromas and ground-based hazards. In 1885, a New York City actor, Robert Manuel, bought it for a summer home and added a Victorian porch. He also put up a Victorian caretaker cottage and barn, both of which still stand.
His descendent, Elizabeth Rolfe, moved in in 1958, and opened the house from time to time for public tours. In 1978, the town purchased the property from her estate. Two years later, Town Historian Bill Lee and his wife rented it and stayed there until 1995, beginning the work of restoration.
I'm sure the Lees enjoyed their stay in their charming colonial, but it's an act of love to live in a house that's two centuries old. Walt Matis of the Fairfield Museum, who is on a first-name basis with every floorboard in the place, recently showed me around. In 2007, the town completed a careful restoration that aimed to bring the Sun Tavern back to the way it looked to George Washington as he stepped out of his carriage. That meant removing an early 19th century addition and Robert Manuel's Victorian porch, and reshingling the roof just like they did in the 1780's.
Inside, the windows, floors, and wainscoting in the mostly empty small rooms have been returned to near original appearance. Some rooms are used for storage and archeological site work. On the third floor, up an impossibly narrow stairway -- it definitely would not meet today's building code -- is the unusual so-called "ballroom" with three dormers and an arched plaster ceiling running the length of the room.
OK, the Sun Tavern is not Mount Vernon. It offers sincere but only minor testimony to American history. But it's ours, and it's as original as it gets. After all, George Washington slept there.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.