First published in The Piedmont Virginian, 2008 as
“Out of the Ordinary: Life in Hillsboro, Virginia”
In late summer of 1862, a fellow named Tom Syphert made his way into Hillsboro, Virginia with two things in mind: round up some horses for the Union Army and visit with old friends. The son of a Lovettsville blacksmith, Tom knew the area and the people well – or so he thought...
Before the Civil War, Hillsborough (as it was spelled then) was the second largest city in Loudoun County behind Leesburg and contained some twenty businesses, around 100 voting white males, their families, and a large population of slaves and freedman who, for the most part, lived along the Short Hills Mountain. Before the Civil War, the town was bustling with two flour mills, a textile mill and a dozen other businesses that kept Loudoun wagons rolling with fashioned clothes and furniture, cobbled shoes for humans and horses, and provided three different spots for gentleman to “belly up to the bar.” And over and next to these shops were the homes of the shop owners and behind them, the outbuildings: barns, chicken coops, pigpens, smoke houses, springhouses, and icehouses. Imagine the soot and smell from these concerns and then add one more distinct odor: the tannery smack in the middle of town. The smells could not have been pleasant to the students of the Hillsboro Ladies Seminary a mere four doors down.
This bustling, noisy village would be the Hillsborough Tom Syphert knew as a child - but not the one he found in 1862. By then, both armies had passed through several times and most of the businesses were shut fast due to the inability to re-stock shelves. Yet most of the people remained, and Union uniform or no, they didn’t mind bending Tom’s ear with the latest on all the neighbors.
After being there, Tom updated his brother in a letter: “Amy Ann – formerly Spates – now Fritts, is living in Hillsborough and is rampant Union, while Eliza Hammerly lives right across the street from her and is as rabid secesh [secessionist]. Dick Tavenner still lives in Hillsborough and is Union, while his wife and two girls are violent secesh. Amy Ann has two sons in the rebel Army, while a third who went to Illinois… was in the 68th Illinois and was here in the Army of the Potomac… and was often in skirmishes with [Colonel Elijah] White’s Rebel Cavalry, to which his two older brothers belong. The two older ones, however, were forced into the ranks. But this will give you some idea of how the demon of rebellion has sundered old friends and severed families.”
The next day, Tom rose up early and walked on to Snickersville, “for there are no horses in the country – the war has swept them all.” Oddly enough, his overnight accommodations were provided by the “rabidly secesh” Eliza Hammerly, who thoughtfully packed him a lunch but failed to mention where Tom might find horses: Hillsborough’s remaining steeds were safely tucked in “Jockey’s Cave” west of town in the Short Hills Mountain.
I like to imagine that during Tom’s stay at the Hammerlys, he took a moment to step next door for a drink at Birkett’s Tavern. John Birkett passed away before the war began, but his sons-in-law were still managing the business. Tom might have walked through the front door into the taproom, the air thick with the smell of smoke and liquor and the faint smell of hay from the mix of straw and sawdust lying on the floor to catch whatever fell there, be it liquor, spit, blood. He might have glanced around the room to see if any there would acknowledge his presence without sneering. If he saw no friendly faces, he might have stepped through to the back dining area, remembering the beer and fresh oysters served there (Oysters and beer used to come to Hillsborough fresh from Washington, D.C. via C&O Canal deliveries to Harpers Ferry - hmm, probably ceased by then, come to think of it).
But if the day wasn’t too warm, he might have preferred to step on to the Tavern’s wide side porch – the one standing at the crossroads of Main Street and the old road to Purcellville. Sitting down, he might have viewed the stone house across the way with its chimney marking: “I.H. 1827” and admired the stonework, not knowing the house was serving as a Confederate Post Office. If his eyes then strayed to the backyard, he would have seen some empty animal pens. Before the war, men known as “Drovers” would make the two day walk from Loudoun to the markets at Alexandria, but during the Civil War, Drovers couldn’t cross the line of Union pickets – if they still had animals to take to market. So, at that point, Tom might have realized he was going to get a good night’s sleep – no sheep bleating in the night, no turkeys gobbling from the tavern’s roosting tree. When Tom was ready to order whatever the Tavern had on hand, he might have been served by one of Birkett’s slaves. According to the 1850 census, Birkett owned eight slaves, a 32-year old woman, an 18 year old man, and seven younger children. While their names are not provided, I do not doubt where they lived: three small rooms on the second floor were separated from the rest of the house, accessible only by an outdoor stairwell.
It is likely the woman was the Tavern Cook, and she would have been working in the stone kitchen at the back of the tavern, separated from the house by a “dog trot” walkway. A five-foot high, four-foot wide fireplace with a swing arm was the heart of that kitchen, and the fire there generally never went out. The roof was covered with slate tile, so that if the kitchen burned, the tavern would still have a fighting chance.
Tavern fires were so legendarily frequent that at nearby Harpers Ferry the government bought a portion of White’s Tavern and forced the owner to re-locate the tavern to the back of the building - and as far away as possible from the Armory and its touchy contents. The danger wasn’t just tavern candles burning day and night, nor the straw and straw dust underfoot, nor the drunkards warming themselves by the fire: it was the barrels of alcohol. When the server went for a new barrel at Birkett’s Tavern, he walked out of the dining room, down the back stairs and right under that dining room. There he could stand up straight and choose a new barrel to send upstairs. So, think of a tavern (or “Ordinary” as they were known up north) as a collection of various forms of fire overtop a number of barrels of liquid fuel, separated only by straw, sawdust and a few creaky floorboards.
I'd think about that whenever I changed the fire alarm batteries in the home. I'd think about other things as I walked through the living room, built on the foundations of that old tavern porch. And I'd think a whole different set of thoughts when I grabbed the railing of the 1870 stairwell, built after slavery was abolished and the slave quarters were opened to the rest of the house. I'd think about all these things, because my family and I lived in Birkett’s Tavern... for 30 years.
My husband and I bought the ca. 1819 building back in 1987, determined to restore at least one old home in our lifetime. Turns out that one was quite enough. When we moved there, Hillsboro had transitioned from that long ago mill town to a quiet village of 33 homes and 122 residents, give or take a baby or two. The devastating economic effects of the Civil War and the Great Depression were hard on the residents of Loudoun County, but the homes were basically intact and ready for restoration.
By the time we bought Birkett’s Tavern, it had changed hands seven times. The previous owners were the first to turn the building into a true single family home, but there was plenty left for us to do: electric switches hanging from the living room ceiling, live electrical sockets jammed into cutouts along the baseboards, and our telephone wires coming in over the windowsill (we had a choice in the winter: close the window for warmth or enjoy telephone service). But they’d done some fabulous things, too: like establish baseboard heat and raise the kitchen up from dirt floor level to meet the rest of the house.
We set our own priorities and went right to work removing the rotting Victorian porch from the front of the home. And that’s when it began to happen: neighbor after neighbor came and introduced themselves. They told us all about our house, their own homes, the neighborhood, the history, and then invite us to supper or the next community association meeting. When the old porch finally came down, we received a bottle of champagne from the lady across the street: “With thanks for improving my view.” After another grueling day of clearing away debris, a couple invited us over for cocktails. We were too tired to even think of showering and dressing and began to decline their kind invitation. They smiled and laughed. “Come as you are! We insist!” My husband and I looked at each other and thought to ourselves, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more.
Two years later, our son was born, and then, when my father passed away, we invited my mother to come and live with us. For the next sixteen years we busied ourselves with family, work and restoration. And suddenly 30 years were gone. Our son moved away, my mother had passed, and it was time to move to a smaller home… one that required a lot less loving attention.
But I think Tom Syphert would like what we did to the place. The floors are polished, the building has electricity, no need to chop wood to heat the place, the kitchen is actually inside the house, water comes right in and goes right out, and there’s a different sort of horsepower in the driveway. Oh, and I'll be the drinks are free, if you're nice to the new owners.
Tom would like the look of the whole town, too. Hillsboro survived the Union Burning Raid of 1864 (although it cleared out several backyards). The hills around town are being farmed once more - most often with rows of grape vines, and the neighbors care about their old homes and respect their integrity while they improve the amenities. Right now (2020), the town is in for a huge adjustment: telephone lines and cables to be set under the road, sidewalks improved and road circles placed on either end (instead of hideous stoplights). Can't wait to see the finished product!
It was a pleasure to be a part of Hillsboro for a while and rebuild that beautiful old place. It's an experience we will never forget or regret. In fact, we think everyone should restore a tavern... at least once in their life.
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.