Man About Town / Toasting the tavern
Fairfield teems with historical buildings, and one of the most recognizable is the white-shingled Sun Tavern that stands adjacent to the Old Town Hall.
On I recent weekday, I headed over to the the southwest corner of Old Post Road and Beach Road and met there with Walt Matis, the volunteer coordinator at Fairfield Museum and History Center, which maintains the property.
The 1,500-square-foot, three-story building with shake roof and shutterless windows is believed to have been built from scratch by Samuel Penfield in 1780 -- just a year after British forces burned Fairfield. The land had originally been given to Reverend John Jones, the first minister of the nearby First Congregational Church, in 1644. Jones' wife sold it to Thomas and Hannah Gibbs in 1681, who in turn sold it to Penfield in 1761.
There are a few theories as to why Penfield established the tavern. "He may have been trying to draw area citizenry from adjacent Bulkley's Tavern, which some believed had Loyalist leanings," Matis said. "It also sits along what was once the King's Highway, a major thoroughfare between east coast cities. Old Town Hall was also the County Courthouse, which was a focal point for county legal proceedings, so would have been a busy center."
Sun Tavern became a stopping off place for food, drink and a puff on a clay pipe, and it offered beds for weary travelers. It was also a key place for the exchange of news -- "the CNN of its day" as Matis described it. The tavern was "pretty much a man's world as, generally, it was not appropriate for women or children to enter or stay in such a place," he explained.
Much debated is whether General George Washington stayed overnight there enroute to New Haven.
Several fireplaces heated the structure, warming hand-hewn, wide-plank floors that today slope as gravity has taken its tollthe ground has shifted over time. The actual bar room is thought to have been on the main level to the right of the front entry, and may have featured an opening in the wall that served as the bar counter. The word bar said Matis, was derived from the fact that iron bars could be pulled down to secure liquor supplies behind the counter in the event of a fight or attempted theft.
Overnight accommodations were on the second floor. The third floor, the ceiling of which is high and arched throughout, may have served as a ballroom, though more likely as a meeting space for local masons or sleeping quarters for travelers of lesser means who could not afford a bed.
Sam Penfield died in 1811, and it is not known how long the Tavern operated afterward, though it had definitely ceased business as of 1818, when the property was sold to Rebecca Hewitt. She was the wife of Reverend Nathaniel Hewitt, a man of temperance, who converted the tavern into a private residence. It changed hands and was modified a number of times over the years until the town purchased the property in 1978. Town historian Bill Lee and his wife moved in as caretakers in 1980, and spent 15 years renovating it.
In 1996, the Museum contracted with the town to manage it. While undergoing further renovation, it has mostly stood unused. However, Matis said, "There is discussion about recreating the tavern room with tables, chairs and card games, and using the adjacent front room to tell the story of Fairfield's Colonial history and the significance of taverns during the period."
Mike Lauterborn's "Man About Town" appears every other Friday.