Way Back When … 1780
This weekend, the Fairfield Museum will be hosting its acclaimed Town Green Walking Tour on Saturday, June 15 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Attendees will be treated to a rich history of the sites along Old Post Road and Beach Road, including Samuel Penfield’s Sun Tavern. With a history dating back to Fairfield’s original Four Squares, the Sun Tavern is one of Fairfield’s oldest buildings. Today, the site houses the Fairfield Museum’s Seeking Justice exhibition and a period-correct recreation of Penfield’s interior, open to all ages every Saturday this summer.
The land on which the Sun Tavern sits had a multitude of owners before Penfield. The first was Rev. John Jones, pastor of the First Congregational Church across the road, who had the land parceled to him after his 1644 arrival. The property left the Joneses in 1681 when then widow Susanna sold it, eventually ending up with Penfield in 1761. During the interim, the original house burned in December 1758.
The second incarnation of the house, which Penfield converted into the Sun Tavern, suffered the same fate in the Burning of Fairfield in 1779. Reconstruction of the building we now know as Sun Tavern began almost immediately after the Burning and ended around 1780, although possibly as late as 1783. The tavern continued operating until Penfield’s 1811 death. Among Penfield’s guests were Vice President John Adams on October 14, 1789 and his wife, Abigail Adams, on June 2, 1800. President George Washington may have stayed at the Sun Tavern twice. A handwritten list of his expenses for April 1776 includes “Penfield’s at Fairfield” before he allegedly stayed overnight on October 16, 1789 while touring New England.
In 1818, the Penfields sold the tavern to the wife of Rev. Nathaniel Hewitt, seventh pastor of the First Congregational Church. From then on, future residents added extensions and reverted the tavern to a private home. Among these residents was Robert Smith Manuel, who began construction on the Victorian Cottage and its neighboring barn in 1889. The Town of Fairfield acquired the property in 1978, after which Town Historian William Lee began restorations.
A series of archeological digs followed in the years 1983, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2006. Under the direction of Ed Cuffy, the first excavation was carried out by students of both Roger Ludlowe High School and Andrew Warde High School. These students unearthed the first of many 18th century artifacts on site, many of which are displayed in the room next to Seeking Justice.
More recently, a sign outside of the Tavern, made and placed in 2017, recognizes its history with the Freemasons. Besides President Washington (a Master Mason of Virginia’s Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4), St. John’s Lodge No. 3 of Fairfield met twice at the Sun Tavern in 1809, before building its headquarters in Bridgeport. Fidelity-St. John’s Lodge No. 3 and its 2012 donations enabled the removal of the Tavern’s residual lead paint, reopening the Tavern to the public. Most recently Grand Lodge of the Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of Connecticut, and Mr. John Baron have supported the Sun Tavern and the Fairfield Museum.
Altogether, the Sun Tavern encompasses 375 years of Fairfield history. Its ties with surrounding sites are stronger than most, offering a great opportunity to explore the whole of the town’s roots. Come visit on a Saturday this summer or attend the Walking Tour this weekend. Tickets for the Walking Tour can be purchased at the door or online at https://www.fairfieldhistory.org/events/town-green-walking-tour-4/. Advance registration is recommended.
Written by Fairfield Ludlowe High School student and Fairfield Museum & History Center intern Thomas Holtz.
The Fairfield Museum & History Center and Museum Shop, located at 370 Beach Road, is open seven days a week, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Members of the Museum and children under 5 are admitted free. For more information, call 203-259-1598 or visit Fairfieldhistory.org.