First, find a cheap Tavern...
As a "better do this while we're still young" married couple, in 1987 my husband, Chuck, and I took a leap of faith and purchased Birkett's Tavern in Hillsboro, Virginia. As you can see from the '87 photo above, we were very brave or very stupid - more likely both.
The original two-story structure of Flemish Bond brick (center) was built by John Hough in 1819. We knew the date by looking in Virginia State Archives to find the real estate taxes went from nil to significant on the property that year. And in 1824, John "Birkit," Sr. purchased the building from Hough and opened a tailor shop.
Sixteen years later - April of 1840 - Birkett took the half day's wagon-ride to Leesburg and acquired a license to operate an "ordinary" - a tavern - "from his home."
And it's been known as Birkett's Tavern ever since.
The Tavern stands on Charlestown Pike in the center of Hillsboro - one of only two brick homes built in the village. Back in its early days, the tavern had at least three outbuildings: a long stone kitchen (Indicated by an exposed stone wall inside the modern kitchen), a chinked-log smoke house (Good for a garden and tool shed!), and one large outbuilding (Likely a barn to hold the horses of the guests). All that’s left of the barn is a stone foundation - which sits a few inches under the sod at the back of the one-third acre property.
THE ca. 1819 BRICK SECTION
First job was to remove the decrepit porch that threatened everyone who tried to get to our front door. Chuck and his brother, Robbie, stationed themselves on either side of the porch, waited for traffic to clear, and in short order (really, really short order), the porch fell into Charlestown Pike. Quick work to clear the debris before the next car came over the hill.
Then we tapped a bit on the old plaster that barely hung on to the stone and brick sections and brought that down. Okay, okay - it was more than a little tapping. Anyway, we were getting somewhere! And it wasn’t pretty, but it was progress.
Now that people weren't going to die attempting to knock on our front door, we tackled the front "parlor."
When we removed some truly hideous red and white wallpaper, we found the ghost of a chair rail, some markings from the original tavern bar, and evidence of the various layers of milk paint - all the way down to the first coat: a bright salmon color. We liked it, so we recreated the color as closely as possible (Our test paints can be seen on the wall below). When we were done, we left an 8" square on the north wall - unpainted, so visitors could see the layers for themselves.
The brick section has three Rumford corner fireplaces: one in the front parlor, one in the dining room and a third in a second floor guest room. What the devil is a Rumford? A fireplace sytem designed created by Sir Benjamin Thompson - Count Rumford - to maximize heat and space efficiency.
Fireplaces are placed in the corners of rooms, are shallow and have a curved back wall that sends rising heat out into the room. They were placed in adjacent room corners and over one another on the next floor up so their chimney flues could intertwine. Nifty, eh? But since one of the chimneys had collapsed and we didn't have 10,000 bucks, all three fireplaces remained a decorative talking point while we lived there...
Birkett's tavern was very well-situated, as taverns go. It stood at the crossroads of Charlestown Pike and the old road to Purcellville. Back then, the road to Purcellville ran all down the tavern's west side (The current road to Purcellville - Rt. 690 - lies several doors down and east of the tavern and was built much later).
Now, the ca. 1900 west frame section was put on an early 19th century stone foundation (The type of stone work gave the date away), so we thought the stone foundation might have been built for an early, wide and deep covered porch.
Further proof: the brick section's west wall had two front doors - one from the parlor and one from the dining room. Why did we think they were doors to the outside? Dead giveaway was the transom windows. The west side dining room door that led to our living room had a completely intact transom window - still set with its wavy 19th c. glass. And the west side parlor door had been closed in by the time we got there (turned into a shallow entrance closet). but they left that transom space over the door. so we turned that into a little display shelf:
Birkett's property used to encompass an eastern patch of land - the east neighbor's name - where a red barn stands today. The tavern keeper owned other properties, as well (Like the little stone house to its west - the oldest structure in Hillsboro), and his total land amounted to around 12 or 13 acres. A typical early 19th century tavern required around 13 acres to support the business (Farmland for planting and pens to store animals brought through town by drovers). This was in the days before the trains, and there was only one way to get an animal all the way to the large markets of Alexandria: walk.
By the way, the house's original hand-carved mantels, the built-in corner cupboards, and all were "9 over 6" windows. (Nine panes over six). In the 1930s, the government established the Works Progress Administration to create jobs for a very depressed American economy. One thing they developed was the Historical Homes Study, and our home was lucky enough to be a part. This gave us clues on how we could restore them home. For instance, we knew the large brass locks had all been removed by the time we got there! Likely sold, as they were valuable. The WPA reports can be found at Leesburg's Thomas Balch Library.
We also learned that the front parlor mantel was gone. The original was described as "a Federal-style medallion with crossed arrows and side pillars," but the mantel that stands there now is a very simple affair. We did our best for it, though, and dressed it up nicely at Christmas time...
As we were hunting for historic clues to the home, we decided it must have been a fine tailor shop. We found evidence under the attic floorboards: they include scraps of fabric, a 19th century woman's apron re-made from an old dress (likely Civil War-era), a front piece from a pair of ca. 1810-1830 breeches, various pockets, a portion of bonnet lace, and a flattened beaver skin top hat. At first we thought it was a rat skin, but then... few rats are oval. When pumped up with a wide rim of cardboard, lo' and behold, a very worn ca. 1830 beaver hat appeared. John Birkett's? Whoever the owner, he was right-handed: the brim is worn on the upper right edge.
The framed receipts below the frabric scraps are a blue I.O.U., dated May of 1854 and signed by the then-Hillsboro resident Walter Friggins and written to Hillsboro Shoemaker William Fritz who lived across the stret. The I.O.U. is for the grand sum of 12 cents. Silly - until you realize a dozen eggs went for a penny, so the I.O.U.'s true value was around twenty or twenty-five dollars.
But the long piece of paper above it is the true treasure. It has no date, but as a Civil War historian I can say unequivocally it was written during the war. From the top the note reads, "Samuel Arnit Dr." and below his name, a list: "87 pounds butter, 6.37; 66 pounds rags, .37, 74 chickens, 1.54; 64 doz eggs, 64." Then another of the same sorts of items for different amounts.
Without question this is a list of items Union soldiers took from the tavern. The huge number of rags is the first tip-off (bandages were ever in short supply), but the sinker is the phrase "at 75 cents per hundred." Seventy-five cents on the dollar is what the federal government compensated civilians for goods taken by Union soldiers. We know the Union Army passed through Hillsboro on the way to Antietam in 1862, so it's highly likely this is when the goods were taken.
Now, the town was decidedly Confederate, and half way through the war Confederates gave up the idea of ever getting anything back from the government - that is, unless they swore an oath of allegiance to the United States. So the owner - one of Mary's sons-in-laws - "filed" the worthless receipt on the attic floor of the brick section of the house - allowing us to pick it up and solve the puzzle 130 years later.
We now resume our regularly scheduled program...
The stone kitchen that once stood about 12' back from the house was about 25 feet wide and 12' feet deep. Why was it separate from the home? Well the roof can tell you: there fireproof slate shingles on it, while the main house shingles were wooden. It appears there was a "Dog Trot" - a passageway from house to kitchen - that led from the dining room of the tavern (Where we had our dining room).
There is another door cut in this back wall which once led to an outside stairwell that went straight to the root cellar below the current dining room (this door is now set with removable shelves for an optional bookcase). While visitors can stand up in the basement rooms below the dining room and front parlor, the only current access to the root cellar is via a crawl space under the L-shaped back porch.
In the basement under the front parlor sits half of a ca. 1850 wardrobe. It was a great place to tell ghost stories, because there are hints of a dark tale:
During the Civil War, wood became scarce and coffins were always hard to come by, so tall wardrobes were often cut in half to use as replacements. There's a half a wardrobe lying in that cellar.
I used to love taking our son's friends down there and have them sit on that wardrobe while I told them a few ghost stories. I would end by telling them the other half of their "bench" probabaly sits in a Hillsboro cemetery. Highly effective.
Another interesting item which can be seen and gotten to from the crawl space is the lower half of the original kitchen's stone fireplace. The fireplace is five feet wide and four feet high, but, because the kitchen floor was raised three feet above the original dirt floor kitchen, the fireplace in no longer accessible. It rests behind the back wall of the large kitchen pantry. But the outside of the fireplace chimney stands in the north wall of the back workroom.
A portion of the old kitchen wall an stood in for our mud room - just inside the back porch.
In the 1940s, the store was turned into three apartments, and in the 1970s, Mr. and Mrs. Hoff purchased the property and turned it into a home. The Hoffs created the modern kitchen by raising the kitchen floor to the same level as the rest of the house. Although the kitchen has nine-foot tall ceilings, there is one low beam - the evidence remaining from a once a much higher ceiling beam for the dog trot. The stone kitchen foundation was easily mapped by visiting the crawl space underneath the existing kitchen. We renovated the kitchen again in 2000.
PART II: OF STONE AND FRAME
The stone section was added to the house in 1840 (Evidence: taxes on the house made another significant leap in 1839). This was around the time Birkett opened his tavern doors. No doubt he needed an extra tavern room or extra storage.
Leesburg Court House records note the cost of the bond to run an Ordinary was $150.00 (If you ever look through Loudoun County, VA records, keep in mind that the town of Hillsboro is usually listed separately in the back of these record books (all entries are alphabetical - look under "Hillsboro"). An 1856 post-mortem inventory of Birkett's Tavern and home are found in Loudoun County Court House records. Several kegs are listed, along with half a dozen tavern tables and bedsteads. It also lists the debtors to the tavern-keeper - which began on the day - perhaps even the minute - the tavern opened.
Soon Birkett's Tavern became known as Birkett's Hotel. In that day, a "Hotel" like Birkett's slept several men to a bed, and a drover's animals - be they goats, cows or sheep - would be kept in pens on the property (or on one of Birkett's many other tracts of land). Easiest to manage were the flocks of turkeys: the drovers just encouraged them to flap up into the nearest tree to bed down for the night.
His tavern guests must have feasted on fresh oysters from the Canal boats at Harpers Ferry, because we found hundreds of oyster shells in the backyard. Then there were all those kegs of course. A few good beers might have helped a man sleep through a crowded, smelly, noisy night with strangers - not to mention the noise from flock of turkeys in the nearby tree.
Hillsboro's Charlestown Pike (Route 9) fed into the Leesburg Pike (Route 7) - the main road that led straight to the docks at Alexandria. After Hillboro, a drover would walk a day and stop at Dranesville Tavern. They could make it to Alexandria by late afternoon the next day.
But Birkett and his family were not the only people managing this busy place. The 1850 slave census of Loudoun County lists John Birkett as the owner of seven slaves - a woman in her thirties and six children ranging from 2 to 17. It is likely the slaves lived in the upper room of the west stone section of the house and that the first floor area was used for tavern storage (large hand-hewn nails are still there on the open beams). One indicator was marks of an outside stairwell to the west loft.
In the second story, there are marks on the decaying, original ceiling plaster (now removed) which indicate the space was divided into three rooms with a hole cut in one wall for a stove. That one wall is still standing and now separates the bedroom from the hall stairwell. The wall is made from pine boards - some of them 18" wide - that are simply no longer available anywhere. Prior to 1870 (when the stair well was built in the stone section), the only access to the upper rooms was by a stair on the east end of the house - typical of slave quarters. "Masters" separated themselves from "servants." The outdoor stairwell is long gone, but the doorway is now visible (and became a bookcase), and the pre-Civil War door (found by the current owners under plaster) was restored by John Ware, Jr., Stonehedge Restoration of Hillsboro, and serves as a closet door in the upper stone room.
The slave history of Hillsboro was not known or recognized when we first moved there. In fact, the Hillsboro History pamphlet that existed then made no mention of them at all. When I asked why, I was told there were no slaves in Hillsboro! As an historian, I knew that was incorrect and determined to do the research and find the truth.
I already knew there were Quaker towns in Loudoun County whose residents were known to help the Underground Railroad. In addition, the sons and fathers of Quakers and German farmers formed Virginia’s only known Union troop – the Loudoun Rangers. And Hillsboro was a town of commerce and almost entirely Confederate. These farms and businesses were run with the labor of Loudoun County slaves, and their history must be recognized. I found the slave census for Hillsboro by visiting Leesburg's Thomas Balch Library. It wasn't easy. The entire book was alphabetical by owner, but cities were listed by themselves at the very back.
I've since learned the majority of Hillsboro’s slaves lived on the ridge of the south hill. Although I haven't walked up there, a local historian and townsperson said evidence of their log cabins are still there. One of the stories I found during my research was that of Zilpha Davis, a freedwoman of Hillsboro who lived down by Catoctin Creek. Read her story.
In 2019, Hillsboro United Methodist Church finally marked the slave cemetery. Now measures are being taken to protect their grounds. It should be noted that, although their slave cabins are disappearing, the stone and brick homes we enjoy today were built by their hands.
To find out more about black history in Loudoun County, visit the Thomas Balch Library or connect with The Black History Committee, Friends of Thomas Balch.
Part of the joy of renovating the home was to try to create looks that were appropriate to the time. For me, that meant painting the walls of the east stairwell (above) in the Limner style. Limners were 19th c. traveling artists who'd come into a town and take commissions to create quick portraits or decoratively paint a parlor or dining room wall. The techniques used counted on quick work (milk paint is fast drying), and to really save time portrait artists often painted the bodies of unknown future patrons and simply filled in the heads on the spot. Keeping the Limner tradition of working as quickly as possible, I finished the wall painting in a day and a half.
I also painted the faux marble on both downstairs fireplaces, and created a primitive pictorial of Hillsboro ca. 1850 on the dining room mantel at right. This mantel has been dated to 1850 but was not original the house. We bought the mantel (sans top shelf) from the former owners, installed it ourselves, added the mantel shelf and stained it to match the rest of the piece
My mother, Maxine Bean, had been an interior designer and came to live with us after my father passed. She helped us make a boatload of design decisions.
She had the second floor bedroom in the stone secion seen below, and chose to have the far east wall plaster removed to reveal the beautiful stone work. The stonework was then re-pointed, and a small stairwell was built to give access to a loft over the bedroom hall - an excellent writer or painter's garrett or playroom.
By the way, after Birkett added this 1840 stone addition, he apparently wanted the house to look "all of a piece," so he decided to plaster the entire house (brick and stone) and keyed it to look like blocks of marble (George Washington used exterior wood panels to simulate marble blocks at Mount Vernon). Each block was then "marbleized" with streaks of gray paint. You can see why I wanted to try the limner style...
When we purchased the house, the plaster was already irreparably damaged. So we made the hard decision to remove it from the stone and brick sections. Until then the brick section had never been painted, but we were told by more than one restorer that paint would be the safest way to protect the old brick.
Birkett died in 1854 and was buried in Hillsboro's Arnold Grove Cemetery. Court records note the 1876 court order that forced the sale of the house. Apparently Mary remarried within a year after John's death. Her new sons-in-law ran the tavern during the Civil War, but after the war, it began to "gather dust." "Birkitt's Hotel in Hillsboro" was put up for public auction in1876 and sold for $1,000 to one Lydia Hough (Likely Lydia was related to John Hough, the original builder).
Around the turn of the last century, the owners added a frame section to the west end of the home. At that time virtually all of the old windows were replaced to match the addition. Gone are the 9-over-six windows with bubbled glass (except for one remnant in the back work room). Now all the houses are set with tall Victorian window panes, 2-over-2. The frame addition became a general store in the early 20th century.
When we moved in, the floor of the long room had been painted, with the exception of a large rectangle of in its center - probably where the store's central cabinets sat. Previous Hillsboro residents remembered "The Weller Store", and folks could set their clock by Mr. Weller's 7 p.m. closing time. In summer months, he sold ice cream from the front bay windows (See below at the back of the room). Former Hillsboro resident Lucy Roederick once said, "You could get everything at that store - even bananas!"
We re-finished the floors, and suddenly the long wide room was perfectly suited for a Victorian dance....
PART III: TREASURES, DEEDS & 1930 ADDITIONS
During all the years we were there, we just kept finding treasures! WE found hand-blown marbles (Yep. They aren't round), Victorian paper dolls, and an 1870s children's school book. The book was probablyt issued by Hillsboro's first public school, the 1874 Arnold Grove Academy - now known as Hillsboro's Old Stone School.
And then there were china and pottery shards and all those oyster shells!. And up under the 1870 stairwell in the stone section (in a space we were trying to clear for wiring), we found a ca. 1917 flour bag from the flour mill that once stood at the west end of town, and in it were three items: a medicine bottle, an empty can of salmon, and a whiskey bottle. Perfect bag lunch!
TRACKING THE DEED
The tavern deed is easily traced back from its modern owners, but there was a gap in the deed track - a chunk of empty space in the records between 1874 and 1928. I happened to be volunteering at the Thomas Balch Library, cataloging entries from local newspapers, when I ran across a small advertisement: a notice of the sale at auction of "Birkitt's Hotel in Hillsboro" in 1874. It was sold for $1,000 to one Lydia Underwood.
Having finally found this connection, I was able to easily trace the deed up to 1928 through the records of wills and deeds, and so the deed track is complete (Lydia Underwood gifted the tavern to Joseph Underwood in her will which went into effect in 1878, and Joseph willed the tavern to Harriet Underwood in 1893). An interesting piece of history is the forced sale of the Tavern in April of 1874:
Birkit [sic](Defendant), S.P. et al vs Reed, Harman et ux,â" of the Chancery Index 1875-1940 (No. M 3533). The chancery case lists "John and Mary Birket" at the top of the page, then says Mary died intestat, "leaving no personal estate and but a small lot of ground in Hillsboro Loudoun County Virginia some 50 x 22 feet on the main street of aforesaid town and leaving no debts or liens so that said lot descended to her heirs at-law to writ your oratrix and Susan Birkit who has married D.M. Divine. Margaret - the wife of Wm. Allder. Sallie - the wife of J.W. Price. Cornelia - the wife of Wm. A. Baker (said Cornelia is insane). S.P. Birkit and John Birkit and Wm. Birkit - who is dead leaving a widow - Margaret Birkit - and children.
It went on to say the lot couldn't be split, so he (Reed) demanded they sell. The case was settled and "Birkett's Hotel" was sold at public auction to Lydia Hough.
For more information on Birkett's Tavern, marriages, deaths, censuses, town history, or Loudoun history, please contact The Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA 20175 or visit the Loudoun County Clerk's Office.
THE 1930s SECTION
Yes, it looks smaller from the street, but the home is actually quite large. The back of the house was added some time in the 1930s or 40s, probably in order to support the store - much like the stone section for Birkett's Tavern. Chuck and I restored these rooms one by one, and they now contain a library, full bath, and office. We left one room in the house unrestored: the back storage/workroom.
And, off the library, one finds the most valuable item in the entire house: the original full-flushing toilet. Plumbers have offered to buy this gem of a fifteen-galloner from us, but we wisely refused. The bathroom once had layers of grimy linoleum, cracked and peeling false tiles linoleum wallpaper, and a claw foot tub... with no claw feet. After our renovation, it had a painted wooden floor, the same wallpaper in excellent shape (the addition of a chair rail above hid a multitude of cracks and tears), and four pedestal feet for the tub courtesy of my brother, Lorenzo Bean.
In 1999, we added a back porch off the kitchen and stone sections. One reason we put it there is because we'd found evidence of a porch along the south wall of the stone section: the original v-grouting stopped below the threshhold of a back door. We assumed if there were only stairs at the door, the v-grouting would have continued down to the ground on either side. Instead there was a clear line across the stonework.
Also, up around the second story were two metal flanges - leftover supports for a back porch roof. We hired carpenter Paul Pronske to create a Hillsboro-style porch, so he based the railings and columns on a home that sits across the street. And, while the original back porch apparently only attached to the stone section, we chose to create an L-shape porch in order to make it possible to walk on to the porch from the kitchen. A stone patio completes the sideyard.
Whe we left, Birkett's Tavern had a third of an acre, all fenced in and, beyond the back stone patiom we had a garden set with old-fashion roses - the ones with scent.. And there were peonies, lilacs, wisteria, and Butterfly bushes, alongside Hawthorn, Magnolia and Water Elms.
Then, at the front of the house, we placed Double Lace Cap Hydrangeas whose magnificent flowers and changing hues caused curious individuals to knock at the front door and ask about them.
And on that note, we end. our tale and say may Birkett's Tavern long stand and continue to delight all residents, visitors, and passersby alike.
Meredith Bean McMath is the Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc. She has written books and plays, an opera's libretto, and book adaptations for the stage. She has degrees and awards and is grateful for all... but sometimes wishes writers and directors were paid a little more.